Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Gregg Berhalter and the (Minor?) Penalties of Vanity

I will tie you to that goddamn thing, if I have to. Again!
"You're going to see us playing positive, attacking soccer."
- Something  every new coach said at least once, 1999-2010.
The quote's a paraphrase and the attribution made up, but it frames a concept nicely – e.g., a hell of a lot of coaches come into their jobs with a head full of ideas, most of them being based on ideals. This used to really annoy me – hence the range of years in the attribution – but, once you cotton to the idea that a coach is just another freelancer whose very reliant on self-promotion, it's easier to cut the guy some slack.

At the same time, some coaches believe it, or at least enough parts of it to get dangerous ideas. Or useless ones. Hitching their star to a formation – 4-4-2? With a diamond or without one? The Christmas Tree, you want the Christmas Tree? What about the 4-2-3-1, the kids, man, the kids! – or an approach – e.g. your high-pressure clubs or their counter-attacking opposites – they ride that magic carpet so far past its use that, when they finally land, it's wise to put down fairly close to the local unemployment line. Other times, though, a coach will cling to some tactical tendency...say, a firm insistence for playing the ball out of the back, on the ground, thank you. It doesn't do defining harm or anything. But it is silly.

That last little wrinkle has become the calling card for Gregg Berhalter's Columbus Crew SC. Though not a major topic of conversation, broadcast booth talking heads have noted Columbus' insistence on playing out of the back throughout 2015 and pundits have weighed its risks; more importantly, no small number of the other Major League Soccer clubs have attacked it. Under that light dusting of chatter, Columbus keeps right on doing it. Now, personally, I like the concept. And there's a pretty cogent argument in its favor: a player worth his contract will learn how do something better if he does it over and over again, so why not make working on it part of his day-to-day? Call it the piano-lesson theory of coaching.

Having tracked the chatter and watched a fair amount of Columbus this year (7 times, plus all the 20-minute mini-games), I'll put this opinion in the fairest possible terms for Mr. Gregg: if the Portland Timbers did all this half-pointless dicking at the back, I'd lose at least two-thirds (2/3) of my shit. After watching the Crew (hold on...goddammit! Can I please stop typing "Screw" when I try to type "Crew"??) struggle to tick this basically pointless box time and again against the widely-acknowledged mess that is (are?) the Colorado Rapids, it's time to call this practice by name: a tedious little exercise in vanity. So, yeah, knock it off, Gregg.

Columbus struggle enough with this all season long that calling bullshit on it adds up. Part of it comes with seeing how plainly uncomfortable Columbus looks shielding and scrambling really goddamn close to their own goal with attacking players pressing their defenders all over. The real pisser, though, comes with how often you see the last, flustered defender flailing an aimless long ball out of danger (often Michael Parkhurst, who's eyes get so wide during these sequences, I swear I can see his the whites of his eyes on my computer screen). How this improves over a long ball sent forward with some kind of intent, no matter how optimistic, I'll never know. And those stressed out defenders...would worry a mother sick, I tell you...

Moreover, the validity of the idea gets tested every single week in MLS: basically, every time another MLS club plays a game absent the burden of Berhalter's expectfixation (new word!). True, there are a dozen squads less elegant than Columbus, less aesthetically "hep" as the Crew (shit! again with "Screw"!), but only one or two of them appears more flustered and less effective than Columbus does every week. Going the other way, it was only a week or two ago that I noted how well the New York Red Bulls play out of the back. Take my word for it...shit was smooth.

To re-emphasize a point that's a little muted above, I'm a fan of this concept, a big one even. I want the Timbers to do adopt it as a guiding principle, certainly, and pitch fits minor (Adam Kwarasey era) to major (Donovan "O'er-the-Touchline-Kid" Ricketts) when they don't. And with good reason: teams that can, and do, play out of the back generally enjoy better, and more, control over their attack. It follows fairly logically, too, that a ball passed toward a space where there isn't typically a ton of pressure makes for a more high-percentage play than a long, booted pass that your forward will wind up wrestling over with a defender; the percentage of success there depends on your forward, for one, but it's the rare forward (right?) who succeeds above the 55-60% range.

What changes everything in the equation is pretty simple: when it's just plain not on. When their forwards are harassing your defenders like swarms of angry hornets with flailing legs, wisdom points toward pragmatism. Switch it up at the very least: see if booting the ball upfield for a while doesn't cause that press to ease up and, if/when it does, switch back to that good, higher-percentage shit. There's nothing wrong with flexibility when the situation recommends it.

And, while we're on that, it's pretty damn often once you step out of the ideal world – e.g. the one it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to build. I'd argue that flexibility trumps theory in just about everything about the game. There's nothing wrong with wanting to play a certain formation, at least not unless you don't have the squad to pull it off. Coaches all over MLS should note that, even as execution is pretty damn hard. To turn the conversation to Portland (as I will start trying to often as I can), somewhere between reality and a loss of nerve, Caleb Porter had to abandon "Porterball" (whatever that was, really). And it's not easy either, as demonstrated by the shifting emphasis back to defense in recent weeks. Then again, it's fair to question absolutely every part of that – e.g. did the club really emphasize the attack in that blowout win over Seattle, or do the Timbers owe the past two clean sheets (or any of them, really) to some sort of "back to basics" approach or does it really go back to the San Jose Earthquakes and the Chicago Fire being shitty attacking teams? (Uh, probably not, no, and yes, Mr. Eubanks.)

For all my evolving thoughts on Porter as a coach, I'm better with a coach who's open to adjustments. And that's why this thing that I perceive as a hang-up – for I do – makes me wonder about Berhalter as a coach. I wasn't sure about his overall record when I started all this, but I just checked. And...yeah, that's tricky. There's not a lot I can throw at 23-18-17 that would make any less respectable; the same goes for this year's 9-8-7 (I even checked the results map, for this year and last; nope, no meaningful pattern). Given that, it probably makes sense to turn this equation around – i.e. maybe it's more correct to drape the hang-up in this scenario on me.
[NOTE: And, for the record, I really did attempt to tart this thing up with a little science – e.g., a cunning research project that would prove my point…and that whole thing, reviewing all 39 goals that Columbus has conceded in 2015, well, it stopped making sense pretty quickly. Trying to prove a general phenomenon – e.g. Columbus inviting pressure on its defenders - by way of a fairly rare event – e.g. a goal getting scored – wouldn't fly. Or, rather, it would miss a huge chunk of the actual sample. At any rate, that left going back and watching all of every Columbus game in the hopes of tallying the number of times Columbus coped with more than the necessary pressure, and, no. No, not happenin'. (Thankfully, this inspired another, Timbers-related, and therefore more worthwhile project; check back Thursday! Or Friday!).]
So, absent any hard data, and against at least one known professional opinion (Berhalter’s), I’m standing by my point. Enough people talk about it to convince me that it's a thing. And, no, it's not really a massive deal, but....well, it's pointless. And that makes it kinda dumb. If Columbus visibly benefited from all that, I’d be the first to congratulate them on translating correct theory to practice. Because I don’t see any specific benefit, and because there’s no trophy for playing out of the back, yeah, I'm calling it a fetish. A meaningless, and therefore vain, paean to playing the game some kind of "correctly." So, yeah, I’d recommend a little flexibility on this. It's likely to help. More to the point, it's deeply unlikely to hurt. I mean, just look around MLS.

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