In terms of tactical identities, Gregg Berhalter has enjoyed regularity as coach of the US men’s national team. Defining traits since taking over in December 2018: 4-3-3 formation with two forward midfielders and one defensive midfielder; high pressure paired with a high defensive line; and an attacking philosophy focused on building from the back, winning the physical battle in midfield and playing through their wingers in transition.
So he could have been forgiven for questioning Berhalter’s wisdom when he made a tactical adjustment for his side’s second game at the World Cup, a Black Friday clash with England that ended in a 0-0 draw. The game came four days after the Americans opened group play with a 1-1 draw against Wales in which they played their usual style, controlling 59 percent of possession and largely stifling Wales’ attack. But Berhalter recognized that a tougher opponent demanded a tougher approach and turned to a 4-4-2 formation that his teams rarely used.
Instead of playing a front three of left-wing Christian Pulisic, centre-forward Hajio Wright and right-wing Tim Weah, Berhalter deployed Wright and Weah as two forwards, dropped Pulisic into a left-midfield role and asked central midfielder Weston McKennie to move down the right channel. The combination of Wright and Weah gave the American team an extra body to plug the lanes between England’s back line and its central midfielders, Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, who ran rampant in the Three Lions’ 6-2 rout of Iran. By denying those midfield orchestrators a favor, the United States dared England to push the ball wide and attack the flanks.
The gambit worked: After combining to connect on 182 passes against Iran, Rice and Bellingham completed just 87 against the United States. The Americans conceded possession struggles, but piled up scoring opportunities in transition, outscoring England 10-8 and boasting a 7-3 advantage in corner kicks. Asked by the new formation to cover extra ground in midfield, Adams and Yunus Musah rose to the occasion. All things considered, the American team was unlucky not to take all three points against the title contenders.
But don’t expect such an approach to do when the United States meet Iran in a must-win group stage final on Tuesday. After Iran’s dramatic 2-0 win over Wales saw them through to the knockout round, Carlos Queiroz’s side need just a draw to go through and send the US team home. So the Iranians are likely to play more like Wales than England, content to sit back and absorb the pressure while the United States throw numbers forward.
That could prove to be a tall order for an American team that often struggles to break down compact opposition. Pulisic and Weah are at their best in transition but will have to beat Iran with combination play and one-on-one skill. (20-year-old playmaker Gio Reyna, who has been limited to seven minutes in the first two games, may be called upon here.) Asked to stay at home against England, outside backs Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest should push forward more often. The speed of centre-backs Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream will be put to the test as Iran look to strike on the counter.
For an American team that has played commendably but lacked a killer instinct, Tuesday’s do-or-die scenario is the ultimate test. And it is no exaggeration to say that Berhalter’s tenure can be defined by this performance against Iran. Get out of the group and could lead the United States toward the 2026 World Cup on home soil. Lack, and Berhalter’s legacy may be one of untapped potential.
Graphics and illustrations by Artur Galocha.