Columbus Crew SC was back in action for the first time in weeks on Saturday. Well, sort of.
The result — a scoreless draw with the Montreal Impact that was mostly devoid of legitimate scoring chances for either side — left many wondering whether the team ever returned from its short break. But was it more or less than was to be expected under the circumstances?
Here are just a handful of thoughts — and a handful of statistical dashboards — on the Black & Gold’s performance versus Montreal.
I’ve always thought Crew SC could do with some increased high press, but we haven’t seen it very much. We did see it on Saturday. That’s not to say this was a high-press system or that Columbus even employed a high press for the majority of the game, but there was more of it.
Some of that likely had to do with personnel. Without Federico Higuain to set the tempo for the offense, the press offers another way to create some chances without needing the skillset Pipa offers. When you look at the speed of Ethan Finlay playing up top and a more box-to-box type midfielder in the central attacking role in Mohammed Saeid, it’s a group that’s maybe a bit friendlier for the press than the regular setup.
It also made a lot of sense against Montreal, which likes to build with short passes and who was missing the guy who sparks the transition — center back Laurent Ciman. Ciman touches the ball a huge amount for the Impact, and his void provided an opportunity to maybe pressure Montreal into some mistakes in its own end.
It’s hard to call it a qualified success, considering there were no goals and few legitimate chances, but the approach seemed to work. Columbus won the ball back higher up the field on a number of occasions and did a good job of preventing the Impact from creating any sort of rhythm.
Much of the Black & Gold’s defensive shutout started with an approach that was just a bit more aggressive further up the field.
No goals? No surprise
We didn’t know what to expect from the Crew SC attack. It turned out to be Finlay up top, Meram in his normal spot on the left, Saeid in the middle and Hector Jimenez on the right.
In some ways, that made a lot of sense. It set up some more high press (see above) and kept Meram in the midfield, where his ability to work on the ball is necessary.
(This is why I think you want Meram with more field in front of him, even if his final decision making isn’t perfect...)
It was, however, a setup we have not seen before, with two guys who aren’t necessarily known for their attacking prowess. Saeid has been a box-to-box type of guy for Columbus and Jimenez has spent a lot of time at right back.
The resulting attack looked like this:
And that’s not all that surprising. It looks, generally, like the typical Black & Gold approach, but the way things fizzled out in the attacking third is obvious. There was little success from the wings (whether with crosses or dribbling) and not a ton of connection centrally into the box.
Often the idea seemed right, but the execution was just off — a read that came too late or a ball that was played just a couple of strides too long.
What else would anyone expect, given the circumstances?
The Saeid for Higuain swap
Obviously Gregg Berhalter did not expect this to be a like-for-like switch. The attitude the team took and some of the tactical things I’ve already mentioned make that clear. But the way things played out solidify that there is no easy solution to Pipa’s absence.
Here is Saeid’s attacking dashboard against Montreal:
He actually created three chances (the light blue arrows), but the bigger trends are more telling. He didn’t make probing passes, and the passes he was completing were typically pretty deep on the field, even in his own half.
For comparison, I pulled Higuain’s attacking dashboards from his last two performances for Crew SC.
First, a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Union:
Then, a 4-3 win over Real Salt Lake:
Pipa’s passes not only come almost entirely in the opponent’s half, but are much more forward thinking. His free role means he pops up all over the field, but his ball movement is about pushing and pulling the defense and getting the ball to the wings to attack. (He’s also missed on set pieces.)
That’s something that Saeid couldn’t (and wasn’t really asked to) recreate.
What does it mean for Larsen?
All of this leaves us wondering what it means for Emil Larsen. Inside the last week it came out that he allegedly wants a move away from Columbus, but a midweek start in the U.S. Open Cup and Higuain’s injury seemed to indicate an opportunity in front of the Danish attacking midfielder.
And then he didn’t play on Saturday.
It’s possible that Berhalter chose not to start him after playing just three days earlier, but he was available and on a night when the Black & Gold could have used an attacking spark, GB didn’t even use all his subs, let alone Larsen.
Other midweek starters played 90 minutes and Larsen doesn’t have many miles on his legs this season. It leaves you thinking that he just didn’t do enough to force himself into minutes, even in the very scenario one would think his team could use him.
This story isn’t over yet, but it sure feels like Larsen won’t be panning out in Columbus.
Michael Parkhurst was very, very good against the Impact. There were concerns about who his partner would be, but Tyson Wahl returned from a concussion to at least give the captain a real center back to pair with.
But it was Parkhurst who really shined.
He had a huge tackle in the 24th minute to stop Montreal on a 3-v-2 break after a Crew SC turnover. He made a key interception in the 61st minute. Late in the game he marked Dominic Oduro on a run through the box to snuff out what had been a solid attacking build for the Impact. Moments later, in the 82nd minute, Parkhurst got beat by Didier Drobga on the left side but recovered well enough to get a foot in and disrupt the play.
It was a trademark performance for the positionally-aware Parkhurst, and it went a long way in preserving the shutout.
Where’s the winning push?
The generally-accepted maxim is that you play for a point on the road and a win at home. Berhalter didn’t seem to care much about that against Montreal.
Columbus controlled possession all night, but couldn’t string together any truly sustained pressure. Meanwhile, it was defensively strong all night. Yet the team never appeared to feel it necessary to tip the balance just a little and chase two extra points.
Berhalter’s initial starting XI could be called defensive (I talked about the attacking personnel choices above), but given the thin roster and the attempt to press more, it made a lot sense. But when things appeared to be a stalemate, the Black & Gold didn’t push for more. At least, not enough for the taste of most fans.
Other than bringing in Ola Kamara for Hector Jimenez, the hosts played things conservatively down the stretch. Saeid was replaced by Rodrigo Saravia, who did play higher up the field than usual, but is still a defensive midfielder, and he ranged more like a box-to-box player than a guy looking to push the envelope in the attack.
Meanwhile, the fullbacks that are often so aggressive didn’t seem to have much influence up the field late. As a team, there was no increase in intensity to try to break things open. Things just kind of ... settled.
And, in the end, Columbus left a substitute on the board rather than get fresh legs on the field somewhere for a few minutes (and that includes the aforementioned Larsen).
It left a lot of fans wanting more, and was a curious approach. Was this some sort of signal that Crew SC is just going to try to tread water until it gets healthier and/or brings in some expected reinforcements in the transfer window?
MLS and especially this Eastern Conference is wide open enough that such a tactic could work. If the club can just get some sort of points until it can strengthen and make a stretch run, it can not only make the playoffs but try to make some noise there.
On Saturday, that felt like the reality of things.
Without Ignacio Piatti, a lot of the attacking presence was left for the dangerous Drogba. Two different players in different roles, but Drogba has already shown he can wreck the league. But on Saturday his influence was almost nil.
Of eight Impact shots, just four came from inside the box. Of those eight shots, just one came from Drogba, and that was on a free kick from outside the penalty area. Montreal moved him around — centrally and coming in from either wing — but he really only created a moment or two of danger, and even then only half chances.
Here’s the striker’s attacking dashboard:
Part of that was Parkhurt’s excellent performance. Part of it was Montreal’s rhythm disrupted before the ball ever came near Drogba. Part of it was missing playmakers. Either way, it was good for Crew SC.