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Talking Tactics: Philosophical Misconceptions

There’s one glaring error to fans thoughts when angry about soccer.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Since I took over the weekly Six-Thought Box column at the start of this season, I’ve become more aware of the fan reactions that follow every match on social media. The thing I’ve noticed the most, across fans of just about every temperament, is that there is a real misunderstanding about soccer tactics.

With the Gold Cup break upon us, I thought now would be a good time to try to clear a bit of that up.

A note before we start: I am not advocating for any tactical system here. This article isn’t about arguing for or against any one way of doing things. It’s also not about Gregg Berhalter’s tactics in particular, it just uses him as the example. This article is just an attempt to clear up some misconceptions I’ve seen among fans of Columbus Crew SC and beyond.

Formation isn’t everything

The biggest and most widespread issue I see with people talking soccer tactics is that they’re not really talking about tactics so much as talking about formations. There is a lot more to tactics than the shape of the team.

People tend to focus on the formation, along with what players are picked for the match, because these are the two most obvious tactical choices a coach has to make. But there’s a lot more that goes in to a tactical game plan than formation. Things like pressing, when and where to employ it, and for how long, whether to go on the offensive or try to counter, man marking, where players move off the ball and set pieces are all vital parts to the puzzle.

In short, not all 4-4-2s are created equal. Take Berhalter’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation. A lot of fans are under the impression that the side is set up the exact same way each game because Berhalter so rarely changes his formation. This is not the case.

This year in particular, we’ve seen Berhalter employ several different tactics within his chosen formations. We’ve seen him utilize his wingers in a number of ways, sometimes keeping them out wide like traditional wide midfielders, other times cutting more inside. We’ve also seen him utilize Harrison Afful as essentially a third center midfielder. We’ve seen the true center midfielders, Wil Trapp and usually Artur, be utilized in different ways, sometimes with more of an attacking impetus, other times focused more on defense or recycling the ball and maintaining possession.

Basically, even if the formation is the same, it doesn’t mean the players are playing the exact same way.

These changes are not always readily apparent to the untrained eye, especially watching the match live. Sometimes it takes a second viewing, watching more dispassionately, analytically, to pick up on them. But they’re often just as important as the formation, and any discussion of “tactics” that doesn’t include them is incomplete.

Tactics and Philosophy

The other major misunderstanding I see floating through the Crewniverse is a confusion between a coach’s soccer philosophy and his tactics. Lots of people consider these one and the same, but this isn’t entirely true.

A coach’s philosophy is the building blocks, the foundation of how he approaches the game, and therefore the foundation of his tactics. This confusion seems to be causing a lot of people to say things like “Gregg Berhalter never changes his tactics,” which is simply not true. His tactics change match to match, based on the opposition. What doesn’t change is his philosophy.

Berhalter’s teams are built on the philosophy of keeping possession. He wants his sides to keep the ball, using that possession to frustrate and disorganize the opposition. This is not a tactic in and of itself, as there are myriad ways to do this, but it is the philosophy that informs every tactical decision Gregg makes.

Another coach may have a defense-first philosophy that would dictate completely different decisions in identical circumstances. This is part of the coach’s DNA and, while it can evolve over time, it’s a slow, gradual process.

What fans are frustrated by when it comes to Berhalter isn’t a refusal to change tactics, but by his philosophy. That’s not to say that his tactical decisions have all been correct, but the argument that Berhalter does not change his tactics is simply not true.

So what does that mean for the Crew SC fans frustrated with Berhalter’s philosophy and its failure to find consistent results? There isn’t a simple answer.

The odds of the Columbus boss abandoning the possession-based game are almost nil. It’s simply not in his coaching DNA, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make short-term, match-to-match adjustments to his tactics. Some may emphasize other aspects of the game, but it’s a fair bet that most will be based on keeping possession and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses.

If Crew SC are to be successful in the second half of the season, these tactical changes will have to work. If they don’t, the team will continue to struggle, giving fans plenty to talk about on social media.

Now that you’ve read this, you know the difference between tactics and philosophy.