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Berhalter’s 3-4-3 another variation on the same theme

How Crew SC’s style is like classical music

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Berhalter has held tightly to his preferred system, often manifesting as a 4-2-3-1. Rarely does he deviate from this and even he does, it often is a tweak rather than a whole cloth change. When not using his preferred formation, he's turned to a 3-2-3-2 and more recently a 3-4-3. The numbers may change, but the effect remains very similar.

I've long considered the similarities to British composer Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. It may seem far fetched on the surface to compare soccer tactics to late-Victorian classical music, but the comparison is in how they approached their work. Elgar wrote 14 variations on the same core elements. That core can be heard throughout the piece, something that gives the Enigma Variations it's unique identity. So to is any formation that Crew SC has rolled out in Berhalter's tenure.

Last Saturday, without Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp and in another "season on the line" games, Gregg Berhalter resorted to changing up the formation. Michael Parkhurst, Nicolai Naess, and Gaston Sauro all started along with wingbacks Corey Ashe and Harrison Afful. While the pregame graphics listed the Crew SC formation as a 4-2-3-1, it was anything but the usual formation.

Berhalter would later call his formation a 3-4-3 and indeed Sauro, Naess, and Parkhurst formed a three man back line. Neither of the center backs would be shoehorned into midfield as a stand in as happened to Naess in Los Angeles. While it may have looked radical, it was very much a variation on the themes that Berhalter believes is Crew SC's style.

The resulting play was distinctly Berhalterian. The three man back line was similar to the two center backs with the holding midfielder dropping in. They were still expected to play out of the back, but were given the ability to step up with a little more freedom. Afful and Ashe still pushed forward with abandon, providing the width, much like they would do in the 4-2-3-1.

The midfield was more changed with the absences of Higuain and Trapp. It was more functional as Tony Tchani and Mohammed Saied played often as a functional tandem without the creative elan of the Argentine playmaker and the hoping that the center backs could launch attacks forward much how Trapp does when in the lineup.

Further up field, the three forwards functioned much the same as they usually did. Ola Kamara often could have been mistaken as a lone forward at times as Ethan Finlay's and Justin Meram's roles bore striking similarity to their duties in the 4-2-3-1 with Meram acting as a tucked in winger and Finlay given more room to stretch vertically on the right. It did have the added effect of pushing more players into the box when Crew SC had possession, again, the variation on the theme.

If the result of the 3-4-3 was similar previous games, the attack coming from wide with many of the players in similar same space as before. The more interesting revelation was Berhalter's postgame comments. His tactical shift was reactionary. Berhalter said that the shift did lessen the impact of the loss of Higuain by not requiring a "true 10" or a defensive midfielder. But it was also in reaction to Vancouver's penchant for striking through counterattack with two strikers. The three defenders would be well situated to handle those matchups.

This is in stark contrast as Berhalter often wishes Crew SC to impose their game on others. Here he chose to limit the opposition. Moreso than the variation on a theme that the 3-4-3 turned out to be, Berhalter established that he was ready to focus on matchups rather than rely on dominance. It's certainly true that Crew SC has played on the counterattack before, but those are rare and never at home. With this decision, Berhalter has now set limits to the system. No matter how pleasant, there's only so many times you can use the variations on the same theme.