USMNT coach outwitted England counterpart at World Cup

AL KHOR, Qatar — While they’ve cooled things off for a while as they compete head-to-head at the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter and Gareth Southgate have developed a friendship in recent years, sharing ideas and fellowship as they implement youth-driven overhauls of their respective national teams.

‘I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Gregg,’ Southgate told reporters the day before his England side faced off against Berhalter’s United States in their Group B clash at Al-Bayt Stadium. ‘Over the last few years I’ve learned a lot from him.’

At the time that sounded mostly like politeness. Southgate led the Three Lions to the semifinal of World Cup 2018 and the final of Euro 2020, and they currently sit fifth in the FIFA World Rankings. Berhalter’s Gold Cup and Concacaf Nations League titles just don’t hold quite the same cachet for most observers.

Berhalter doesn’t seem like the sort to rub it in his face. But next time they link up out of range of the cameras and microphones, Southgate might just have to admit he got a lesson from his North American mate in the Qatari desert on Friday.

Haji Wright gets surprise start

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Berhalter made several tactical tweaks that blunted the threat posed by England’s talent-laden XI, starting with targeted pressing and an unexpected move to a 4-4-2 formation while defending. Tim Weah paired up top with surprise starter Haji Wright ahead of a mostly flat midfield shape with Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah central, and Weston McKennie flared out to one flank while Christian Pulisic manned the other.

‘Obviously it worked,’ said McKennie, one of his side’s top performers in a scoreless draw. ‘You guys saw, we had the ball often, they weren’t able to really break through so many times, I don’t think we gave them a lot of chances to get in behind and to get goal scoring opportunities. And it worked for us as well, we were able to break them down, have space out wide.’

It continued with a number of subtle shape shifts as the game played out, keeping the English side guessing.

‘We wanted to highlight our defensive shape that would change from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. If we did that effectively, we wanted to hit them in transition, offensive transition, and we think we gave them some problems in that,’ explained Berhalter in his postgame press conference.

‘We wanted to make it compact. We want to work from a compact block in the beginning of the game. And throughout the game, we switched it up a little bit just to keep giving them different looks. And give them credit, they kept adapting as well. They moved from, four-on-one to four-on-two to three-on-one and it was a handful for us, for sure.’

USMNT shape shifts frustrate England

The tweaks unsettled England, as the flowing moves forward that tore Iran apart occurred only in fits and starts. A managerial game of cat and mouse unfolded over the course of the match, and by the final whistle both the statistical data and the general run of play favored the USMNT.

‘It was a really tough opponent. They defended incredibly well,’ said Southgate after his side were largely outplayed and out-thought in a game that boosts U.S. confidence ahead of a must-win against Iran. ‘To come off the high of the performance the other day [a 6-2 win over Iran] and find that same energy, level of quality, was always going to be a challenge. Their front six make it so difficult to play through and get at their defense.’

Adams claimed that he and his teammates weren’t informed of the shape shift until the day before the match. The organization and fluidity with which they executed the plan – and the details shared by their coach – stretched the credibility of that statement, however.

‘That was something that we saw with their defending in the last game and we wanted to key in on it. Basically triple-stacking the right side of the field, Serge [Sergiño Dest] getting the ball, being able to bypass his defender to find Weston free and then [English left back] Luke Shaw would have a decision to make,’ Berhalter said.

‘He’s either going to leave Timmy [Weah] and release to Weston or he’s going get held by Timmy, and that was a focus of ours. So glad to see that. England did that a little bit in the second half with Mason Mount also popping wide, and it’s difficult to deal with. You’ve got to be smart about it. You got to understand when to pressure, when not to pressure, but it definitely put us in some good positions to continue advancing the attack.’

Southgate shared a glimpse of his side of the chess match, which leaves both squads in need of a positive result on Group B’s final matchday in order to move on to the round of 16.

‘We didn’t quite get our pressure right. [Yunus] Musah was dropping low and we got a little bit stretched without the ball, and McKennie pulling a little bit wider caused us a bit of a problem, which we needed to resolve at halftime,’ he said. ‘So we needed to be more aggressive on our pressure, bit more compact as a team. Obviously Pulisic comes into clever areas with [Antonee] Robinson going outside him as well. So there’s lots of questions for the players to answer within the game.’

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