We are past the halfway point for the season and it has a been a painful start as any for Columbus Crew SC fans. After last years tremendous run to the MLS Cup finals, it has left many wondering what happened since. From near glory to painful matches, let’s put the first half of the season behind us and see what the Crew needs to do to make a massive turnaround and reach the playoffs. First off in this statistical analysis, we will start with a quick review the midweek draw against Toronto.
Match Against Toronto FC
This game marked the first of the second half of the season, with 17 matches played. Toronto fielded a wounded and primarily "B Team", with 7 of Toronto’s best players all either out injured or rested and not named in the starting XI. Tactically, Toronto lined up with a 5-3-2 that was certainly defensive in nature. While their attack lacked presence and midfield disjoint, the defense plugged every hole. Crew SC came out this match with a faster tempo and more direct play than is accustomed but could not edge Toronto in the end. Columbus failed to execute when given opportunities, which is the perfect segue into analyzing what Crew SC needs in order to improve their play.
Be it the absence of Kei Kamara or the injury to Federico Higuain, one thing is certain - this team is not scoring enough goals. Currently sitting at the bottom of the league table, after the Chicago Fire’s win over Sporting Kansas City Wednesday, Crew SC needs to make drastic changes to bring themselves into playoff contention. To do so would require goals - many more than the team has seen this season. The team hasn’t had the worst offense at 23 goals scored, nor, surprisingly, have had the worst defense at 29 goals against. The tell-tale stats however are "goal differential" and "expected goals". You are probably familiar with goal differential (goals for - goals against), but maybe less so with the latter but I’ll explain it simply for you.
What is Expected Goals (xG)?
Put simply, it is a metric that calculates how many goals a team should score given the chances and shots that it creates. You can learn more about expected goals here.
Above: Two matches ago this is where Crew sat in terms of xG. (Note: This is the last batch of data available, but GD-xGD has only declined since)
Columbus' expected goals against is not far off the actual, however there is a large disparity between expected goals against and goals scored. This leads to one glaring conclusion: The team is actually created quality chances but simply not converting. Missed chances have been the bane of the season so far. At that, the team sits with the lowest GD-xGD rate of any team in the league. The team is in the lead in one statistic, however - possession, though it is largely unproductive possession.
Despite creating a fair share of quality chances, the Crew have not had quality passing amidst the front four. Statistically, this is seen as poor execution by the front four. Tactically, it is known as a Broken Formation, or a disconnect from the back six to the front four. It is not to say that teams cannot perform well with this style - Argentina and the Colorado Rapids both do it with great effect, but with Crew SC it is not an intended strategy as it is with the aforementioned teams. There, the front four and back six kind of do their own thing, with not much interlinking play and no real transitional midfielders. In Columbus it is a side-effect of a combination of slow, premeditated build up play, and an ill willingness to commit players forward. To put it into frame, it is quite similar to France’s fate in the Euro Cup Final - many chances created but a broken formation and lack of true, quality opportunities.
If similar visuals were available for Crew SC, they would be quite similar.
What does the Crew Need to do?
First and foremost - sign players. This team in its current state is clearly not cutting it and changes must be made if the team has any hope of making the playoffs. So what positions/types of players does Columbus need most? In order:
Transitional, box-to-box midfielder
Forward / Winger capable of running at defenses and creating chances
Ball-playing Center Back
This being the most important need may be a surprise to many, but I believe it to be the case. Currently, the team relies on Harrison Afful to link midfield and attack - a viable option but the team is severely limited with all of the attacks developing on the right flank. In the holding midfield roles there is Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. Both are excellent MLS players however neither bring that crucial link up play between the defense and the forwards. Tchani is a ball-winner. He dominates the midfield in the air and physically, but offensively is a ghost. Lately, he has found some success with through balls through the middle, but realistically he lacks the vision, passing ability and dynamicism to truly make a difference with the ball at his feet. Trapp on the other hand is a traditional holding midfielder, often playing the half-back role. He has good vision and is a solid passer but once again doesn’t fulfill the transitional role. With Higuain in the lineup, link-up play marginally improves when he plays a deeper role, but he is too often playing too close to the No. 9 to be a transitional player. Even with a deeper role, he lacks the quickness and energy required of the role.
For this role, I would like player with a high work that is capable of contributing greatly in attack and defense, creating a dynamic transitional game. To compare to a well known player that fits the archetype, I would like to see a player that plays similar to Claudio Marchisio or Arturo Vidal.
Currently, Ola Kamara has shown he has a knack for scoring goals and I think will only continue to improve. For the other midfield/forwards, we have Cedrick Mabwati, who provided speed and dribbling ability but lacks in the scoring and passing department, as well as Justin Meram who provides a cover for defense and quality dribbling ability but is not a creator nor a heavy goal scorer. Ethan Finlay is probably the most talented for the wingers but has not had a season to write home about nor is he necessarily a game-changing player. Christian Martinez is unproven and not yet at the level to be a difference maker.
Dilly Duka and Hector Jimenez do not even make the cut.
For this role, Crew SC needs a player that can take command of a match by running at defenses and creating chances as well as scoring goals. The team has a slew of specialty wingers but lacks the all-encompassing player that is a constant threat. In comparison, a player similar in style to Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Arda Turan.
Ball-Playing Center Back
The center backs for Crew SC routinely have among the highest passing stats of any players on the team. The problem is most of these passes are short and horizontal at a slow tempo, often not gaining much for the attack. With such a focus in Gregg Berhalter’s system on building out of the back it is a wonder why the team does not have a true ball-playing center back. I think a player of such ability would benefit the team greatly. All too often the center backs simply look for Trapp or Afful and do not aim to thread passes up field. Specifically in Europe there are a lot of these types of players available.
Specifically, I think Fabian Frei from Mainz would fit the bill perfectly as a Designated Player signing. He has been second choice for much of last season since joining Mainz and is estimated at very reasonable $3 million according to transfermarkt.
Now, he may technically be listed as a midfielder but has played many games at center back in Champions League matches when he played for FC Basel. That is the type of player I would like to see in the center back role, someone with pace and skill to pair with Gaston Sauro. Berhalter likes versatile players and he could fit the bill as a transitional midfielder as well. Not to mention, he played with Sauro at FC Basel.
For a big name comparison, a player like Jan Vertonghen or Giorgio Chiellini is the archetype that would suit the Crew.
As outlined above, Crew SC desperately needs offense and a better link between the disjoint defense and attack. The current player pool has all been tried and tested but no change has made any significant difference. A change in tactics? Unlikely for the stuck-in-his-ways Berhalter, but hopefully some changes will come.
I will leave you with a reality check. As it stands, with 16 games to play, the goal for the team is to reach the 50 point mark. This is the average point threshold for playoff teams in the last five years. To reach that mark, the team needs a minimum 9 wins. Sure, the team could get through with a lower amount of points but it is unlikely. If the team does have a massive turnaround it would be historic, as no team has made the playoffs in the past five years when below 1.00 points per game 18 games into the season. In the meantime let’s hope some big-time signings come in soon and make a difference - there is two DP slots left available, after all.