Ron Atkinson, John Harkes’s former coach on two occasions, was a very successful coach before the turn of the century. Coaching teams like Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, West Brom, and others, Atkinson created quite the coaching legacy. Harkes enjoyed a good spell with him at Sheffield Wednesday in the early 90’s, reaching the league cup final by upsetting Manchester United, winning english goal of the year, and helping his side win promotion to the first division. One of Atkinson’s (Fun fact: he’s otherwise known as Mr. Bojangles. As a person from the south, this feels like a name to strive for) most famous quotes is this: “Well, Clive, [Football] is all about the two M’s: Movement and Positioning.” While this is slightly infuriating to read, it’s sort of true. Football tends to rise and fall on these two things both in and out of possession. These are what might be considered paramount principles of the game. As I was thinking about what some “paramount” principles were for Greenville, I realized there were two V’s that made Greenville what they were: The Gregg Berhalter Passion Project (Verticality), and Pressure. Now as we start, I want to make my regular disclaimer: I am not John Harkes, Rick Wright, or Alex Blackburn. So, I reserve the right to be totally wrong or even just kinda wrong. This is me trying to understand what I see in GVL’s game and putting it on paper.
Obviously, when thinking about a team’s tactical set-up across a season, it’s unlikley that you can be specific. This is because every team/game presents different tactical issues, different personnel within your own team have different strengths, and your team will inevitably have to find new ways to affect the game as other teams figure them out. Due to injuries and a man fresh off completing that PRO LICENSE (Congrats John! Also, it’s probably mostly the injuries part.), we saw a lot of adjustments across the season. Greenville played in 7 (SEVEN) different nominal formations with a ton of player rotation. So today, I obviously won’t be giving specifics about how Greenville play, but rather some basic principles and things I find interesting about their play style. I’ll break it up into two parts: In Possession and Out of Possession. We’ll look at the positions players tend to take up, how the play is built, how we get the ball into the final third/create chances, and how we recover when losing the ball. One thing to note about Greenville is that “positions” in a greenville set-up are not an “I” thing, but a “we” thing. In and out of possession, players rotate and take up different positions to force different looks on opponents. It can be quite the task to deal with the chaos of a Greenville side on any given day, but especially on good ones. That being said, in the midst of the chaos, there are all kinds of tactical instructions that actually make Greenville feel remarkably simple. I want to look at and highlight THOSE things, because they are what give Greenville some of their identity. Things like verticality (i’ve heard that if you say verticality in a mirror three times, Gregg Berhalter shows up for a press conference. I want to be clear: I don’t hate or dislike Gregg, I just can’t hear or see the word verticality without thinking about the behind the back pass extraordinaire), numerical superiorities, and the denial of central spaces to the opposition.
From goal kicks, Greenville is pretty unassuming. You look at their formation and think “great! looks like a pretty standard back four. I can deal with that.” It doesn’t last, my friend. In the first phase of possession, Greenville generally will do one of two things: A short pass to the cb’s just on either side of the GK to start building from the back or a long ball out to wide to move the ball down the field more quickly. These aren’t the exact shapes that Greenville take up in this first phase, but you can generally bet that Greenville will look to get the ball wide as quickly as possible to move down the field. This is true even in other nominal formations. I’ll use the Toronto game from July as an example a good bit as it shows the simple intentions of Greenville despite the fact that the nominal formation was a 3-5-2 with Gavilanes as one of the three CMs. This game had Polak and Murillo playing as the wide CBs with Fricke in the center of a back three. Even with the nominal back three, Greenville played with Polak and Fricke as the two CBs while Murillo and Goodall took up the usual fullback positions in the first phase of build-up. While this was usually true, there were times when midfielders or fullbacks would drop into the back line to create numerical superiorities with three players, especially against formations with 2 strikers. This is meant to be a way of preventing the press by always having a free man available to receive and progress the ball into the next part of the field. Next is when things start to get weird whether we’re in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or the 1-1-8 of the good old days.
Now we come to what Greenville is known for — Long balls and verticality. Greenville LOVED to stretch the pitch with their forwards and wingers pushing defenses back, forcing them into uncomfortable situations. Whether through long balls or line breaking passes, Greenville was consistenly able to move down the field quickly as a unit to put pressure on opponents. This stretching of the pitch allowed for some very interesting things: 1.) CBs were able to drive and carry the ball into space, typically into the halfspaces of the field in order to put pressure on the opponents defensive shape, which was already pinned by overloading/creating even numbers on the ball side of the field.
2.)In transition, this allowed for alot of space to open up in the midfield, allowing the ball to move from central areas to wide areas or vice versa very quickly. There were a lot of in to out/out to in patterns in Greenville’s ground passing game that stretched defenses horizontally after they were already stretched vertically, not unlike a taffee machine.
And 3.) Greenville’s long ball game required them to be good at winning the second ball after an aerial duel, even if they didn’t win the first. Dynamic movement and positioning (ATKINSON FROM DEEP) enabled them to close down and win those second balls to keep possession alive. This is also how Greenville scored the only goal in their October away game to Omaha.
Let’s be honest, sometimes the tactic was just “punt that sucker long” — and it worked. If you can’t tell, I love to over-exaggerate my generalizations when i’m writing. It’s my passion.
Despite the fact that Greenville can be very quick in transition, they’re not your average lob it up field and hope kind of team, even though it can sometimes feel that way. Greenville actually used their long balls really effectively to put pressure on opponents in possession, creating overloads and making the pitch small for oppositing teams. This allowed them to have dominant periods of possession that forced teams into low blocks and tough defensive scenarios. I’ve charted out some basic ideas of what a Greenville formation looks like in possession. It changed from time to time, when home or away and based on changing personnel, but the basic shapes of 3-3-4/2-4-4 and 3-2-5/2-3-5 were very common. As I said earlier, you saw 3 at the back when it seemed like they would be under a lot of pressure from the opposing forwards, especially when the opposing team pressed with a front two.
These three pictures sort of denote some formational set-ups seen when Greenville have possession of the ball (I do think the LCB is a little too far over in the middle picture, but when a member of the back 3 pushed forward, this was possible so I left it).There were little triangles and squares of players all over the field to help aid progression forward. On the ball side of the field, A couple of things tended to happen. There was always had someone holding width or running on the overlap while the other drove or held possession inside. This was very common between Ibarra and Mohamed later in the season. They rotated well and caused all sorts of problems for opposing defenses with their runs/carries. Not only did you have those rotations out on the ball side of the field, but the middle three players tended to gravitate towards the ball side to help with switches of play or facilitating incisive passes into the final third. Sometimes, the CMs would make runs in the space between the width being held and the strikers to help create overloads.
As you see above, it’s kind of rinse and repeat on switches of play. Lee does a great job skipping passing options to move the ball across the field more quickly while Ibarra and Polak combine quite nicely (Side note: This video is still so funny to me. Our Left Back is literally out here rouletting like Zidane in the final third before putting in a nice ball for the chance to be created. Kind of elite to be honest.) The defense is still trying to shift over to take care of them, which they aren’t able to do quickly enough. That quick pass from Lee is what opens up the defense to this weak side attack from Ibarra and Polak. You see again the principle of winning 2nd balls with good positioning. You might say, everyone wants to win the second ball after a duel, but not everyone has the highest number of completed Long Balls per game in the league while having the 4th highest percentage. Winning those second balls is essential for a team that so often makes use of the verticality available to them even if they’re good at winning them the first time. I’ve talked a lot about other facets of possession, especially how our fbs positioned themselves this season, which you can see here.
One bonus clip of possession with the goal against NC, which will forever be one of my favorite goals. Abdi crossing from the “Alexander Arnold” part of the field (as it should forever be known) into Gavilanes with the chip. Footy Scran would do anything to have that chip shared on their account (this is a joke about English people loving potatoes *insert laugh track since no one will laugh*). Everyone does such a good job here of ripping apart NC’s defense.
What makes the goal so great to me is that not only is the overload done so well to make the RB second guess before losing Gavilanes, but Lomis is wide open as well, which splits the mind of the defenders. Since Ibarra has pushed up and the LM has no idea where he is, the LB is forced to keep an eye on both Ibarra and Lomis. He’s too wide on the ball side to really do anything meaningful if Lomis gets the ball. You can’t let the second highest goal contributor in 2021 have this much space in the seam to just — hang out in. With McLean showing deep and pulling the RCB out of the line, there is effectively 1 defender that has any meaningful way of recovering this ball. Anywho, I love this goal. Moving on.
Out Of Possession
Even though possession and goals are all kinds of fun to talk about, all good things must come to an end. And for Greenville, not having the ball was more likely than having the ball. Possession was a means to an end for Greenville, not the end itself. Always content to move quickly up the field to create chances, there wasn’t always a guarantee that it would be held onto for long periods of time. So what did Greenville do when they lost the ball? Obviously it would depend slightly on the opponent, but often they simply sought to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Their counterpressing was generally good, seeking to have as many people as possible ready to jump on the ball after a loss of possession. With the 2nd highest amount of possession regained in the final 3rd, you could see that their goal with these long balls and pressing was to create chances by constantly keeping the back line on their toes.
Typically, Greenville players are only tasked with pressing upon loss of possession and not so much in the first phase of the opposition build up, but not always. This ball oriented press forces quick movement of the ball with players available to help get the ball out of danger. You’ll see this press all across the field, but it’s most potent in the opposition half. The thing about defense or being out of possession is that it’s just as much part of your attack as your passing combinations to move the ball down the field. Positioning players in good positions to win the ball back and transition quickly or pounce upon loose balls was key to a pretty annoying Greenville defense. Here, the press forces a dangerous turnover that McLean easily puts away.
What if they can’t win the ball quickly though? Greenville was not afraid to “abandon” the ball oriented press if it wasn’t working, quickly dropping into their mid/low block 4-4-2. There were a couple of notable exceptions like the beginning of the above Madison game in which Greenville started out defending in what I believe was a 4-2-3-1 shape and the final against Omaha that was more of a 4-1-4-1. The one area where Greenville tended to struggle was in recovery transitions. Because of the intensity of the ball oriented press, it could sometimes leave players out of position. This allowed opposition teams the freedom to launch forward into space if Greenville doesn’t execute properly. I think the most notable example of this was the Charlie Dennis goal at Legacy Early College. Our new fullback, Noah Franke gets on the ball for the “bad team” (it’s okay, he’s on “good team” now), drives into the space left by the pressing left side and puts a cut back into the box for Charlie Dennis who aptly lost his marker and puts it in the net. That being said, if Greenville execute well and deny quick progression you would TYPICALLY see something like below:
If they weren’t going to win the ball back, they were going to go ahead and tend to their defensive responsiblities. Greenville often set up in this man to man oriented 4-4-2 with one striker staying high along the shoulder of the last defender while the other, who was sometimes the AM or a winger or CM, would drop a little deeper. They compressed the field, marking all players on the ball side aggressively, content to leave the weak side players open. They were confident in their ability to shuttle their defense over quickly enough before the weak side wide player had time to do anything significant.
Below, I’m going to refer back to the bizarre 3-5-2 base formation game against Toronto FC II. Greenville moved back into the 4-4-2 out of possession with the WB/midfielder (Goodall) becoming the LB and the RCB (Murillo) becoming the RB. Gavilanes moves wide into the LM spot while Ibarra and Lomis stay up top — unless they rotate (they do it a lot so I mention it a lot). They man mark aggressively, attempting to force bad passes and keep the ball wide. If the ball gets inside, it’s closed down aggressively by the CMs or CBs. Greenville were comfortable to keep their shape and prevent the ball from progressing into the penalty area. They didn’t do this as well as they have in previous years, but that is largely due to the fact that we had to play people out of position for an entire stretch of the season.
Obviously the 4-4-2 has it’s weaknesses. Despite the fact that the whole point of a 4-4-2 is to deny central progression in the first phase of build up and move people into wide areas, it’s pretty easy to overload the wide areas if you pin the right people. This is why Greenville had to be more aggressive in closing down balls and keeping numerical superiority. In moments that they weren’t able to do this, they tended to be punished. Above, Toronto does a great job of rotating with passes out-to-in that were much easier because the man marking wasn’t successful/tight. It gets them a free kick in a dangerous area.
All throughout Greenville’s play you see the desire to move forward quickly, stretch defenses, and put pressure on opponents in and out of possession. This the two V’s of Triumph Soccer: Verticality and Pressure. If Greenville are able to win the ball back, you can refer back to the beginning of the “in possession” section. This is the cycle of soccer. possession, transition, attack, we lose it, transition again, get attacked, recover the ball, so on and so forth until the final whistle. When it comes to Greenville, i’m always going to be biased, but what the coaching staff and players are building in Greenville is so fun and i’m so excited for the future. If you’ve got any feedback, i’d love to hear it. I’m not the Head Performance Analyst at Man City or anything like that, so I’m not opposed to feedback from anyone and everyone. I’d love thoughts, questions, corrections, etc.
One last note: Does this play make Fricke the *Second* outfield player to play goalie and make a save or are we not going to allow it since Christensen was still on the field? I guess we’ll let Hemmings and Christensen answer that one.