Editorial (May 26, 2018) — In his masterpiece on the history of soccer tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson goes into detail about famed Ukrainian manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Among his many successes was winning 12 domestic league titles and 2 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups with Dynamo Kyiv.
Wilson’s chapter on the late manager’s brilliance revealed one of the most poignant maxims regarding how he viewed the game. It laid out a simple yet elegant tactical philosophy which succinctly encapsulated how it’s played:
“Soccer, he explained, eventually became for him a system of 22 elements – two subsystems of 11 elements – moving within a defined area (the field) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two subsystems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one was stronger, it would win.”
American soccer is beginning to produce its own batch of sophisticated minds able to execute their own subsystem in a manner which consistently produces success. Recent qualifying failure aside, Bruce Arena did so 16 years ago when he led the USMNT to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
There are certainly others. Bob Bradley commanded a US side that won a group that included England in 2010 and currently has LAFC near the top of the MLS Western Conference in their inaugural season. Greg Vanney is coming off a year where he helped Toronto FC finally reach the MLS Cup promised land. And two managers set to do battle in a nationally televised match on Sunday have proven their worth during the time they’ve managed their respective teams.
Gregg Berhalter and Peter Vermes: Two of American Soccer’s Master Tacticians
Constructing a winning subsystem as Lobanovskyi called it involves inculcating a certain identity on the field. If the individual components of the subsystem are unsure of their role, success may prove elusive. So it requires the manager to develop an on-field construct whereby which all 11 players are able to leverage their skill set in the most efficient way possible.
Built Not Bought
When it comes to Berhalter and Vermes, the results speak for themselves. Berhalter has an Eastern Conference title, has led Crew SC to playoff appearances in three of his four full seasons in charge to this point, and currently has them off to the second-best start through 13 games in club history. Since taking over as SKC boss in 2009, Vermes has put an MLS Cup and three U.S. Open Cups in the team’s trophy case. Oh, and as of right now they stand atop the Western Conference.
Both men have done so despite limited resources. That’s especially true in today’s MLS with teams such as TFC, LAFC, Atlanta United and New York City FC among others not afraid to throw out large sums of money to acquire talent. Per Spotrac in tabulating MLS Players’ Union data, SKC and Columbus rank 11th and 20th respectively in total payroll. Yet the clubs head into Sunday’s clash tied for the second highest point total in the league.
Doing more with less on as consistent a basis as Berhalter and Vermes have done implies a tacit soundness and organization to how their teams operate on the field. It demonstrates the efficacy of both coaches’ tactics game in and game out. But it also requires a certain adaptability so as to avoid becoming predictable, thus negating any sort of tactical superiority. Early on in Berhalter’s tenure, this was a bit of a problem.
Berhalter’s Adaptations Have Crew SC Flying High
The hallmark of Berhalter’s staple 4-2-3-1 shape centers around high possession, building out of the back, and a propensity for sending numbers forward when moving the ball into the final third. He makes no bones about wanting his fullbacks to contribute to the attack. When firing on all cylinders, it’s free-flowing artistry that continually flusters the opposition. But if teams anticipate what to expect, it can become frustrating to watch.
This plagued Columbus during a rough 2016 campaign that saw them miss the playoffs for the only time under Berhalter. Teams were content to sit deep and absorb pressure, making it easy for them to close down the space Crew SC needed to operate in the attack. Pressing teams hounded their center backs and forced them into distributive errors. Others pounced on the counterattack, taking advantage of their outside backs venturing forward.
But Berhalter adjusted. He experimented with a three-man backline in 2017 which gave them added defensive cover centrally. The personnel at his disposal also realized improvement as evidenced by Crew SC giving up nine fewer goals than they did the year before. This year, Jonathan Mensah might be the most improved player in the league. Combined with Zack Steffen’s solidity in net, it’s a major reason the club’s 10 goals conceded is the lowest in the league. And needless to say, whoever Berhalter slots into the point striker role, be it Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara, or Gyasi Zardes, morphs into a goal-scoring machine.
Vermes the Kansas City Institution
Meanwhile, Vermes’ genius is a major reason he’s the longest-tenured manager in MLS right now. Much like Berhalter with Columbus, he’s undergone an evolution of his own over the course of his time in KC. They’ve always been known for their energetic pressing and stoutness at the back. But consistent scoring output’s been tough to come by, especially recently. Of the 12 teams who made the playoffs in the past two seasons, they had the second fewest goals scored. It led to two early playoff exits as they fell in the knockout round both seasons having not scored a single goal in either game.
Enter two prescient signings in Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez. The two attackers already have five goals apiece, one year after Gerso Fernandes finished as the team’s leading scorer with just eight. Though Gutierrez is out for the time being after hernia surgery, Russell’s presence along with that of others such as Daniel Salloi and Khiry Shelton gives this side plenty of weapons opposing defenses need to take account of. Behind it all is Vermes and his astute mind that makes SKC one of the more fascinating teams to watch in MLS.
In a recent article on the league website, Bobby Warshaw does a great job breaking down some of the tactical nuances Vermes has implemented this season. Not only are they much more connected from a passing standpoint than in years past, their on and off-ball movement is both fluid and efficient. One player Warshaw elaborates on, in particular, is Graham Zusi. The converted right-back is keen to venture more centrally than most players at the position in the league. It’s part and parcel of playing with the understanding of his teammates’ movement and overall spacing. In many respects, it’s right out of the playbook of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Ready for Action
Sunday’s looming battle will feature two brilliant soccer minds patrolling the sidelines. Both have put their own unique stamp on how the game is played in the U.S. It’s that sense of understanding the moving parts and how they work together within a complex subsystem that has them in the running to become the next USMNT manager. That said, Vermes just signed a lengthy extension with SKC which might preclude him from such a move. All in all, though, him and Berhalter have their teams in position to make a run once the postseason arrives. Their eye for talent and acumen as tacticians are big reasons why.