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Here’s Why Crew SC’s Offense Isn’t Working

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Columbus is currently in crisis mode, sitting second bottom of the table. The team needs victories to climb back up. To achieve that they need goals, but goals have been scarce. Why has the attack been so poor? Today we analyze Crew SC’s offense to answer just that. 

Crew SC attack at 33:51 against Orlando City, July 23 2016
Columbus Crew SC attack at 33:51

In response to the team’s poor offensive performances this year, Columbus Crew SC head coach, Gregg Berhalter has made a few small tweaks in recent fixtures. The most notable of these changes is utilizing Justin Meram and Cedrick Mabwati as interior wingers.

This has been done to allow more space for the wing backs to overlap and attack down the flanks. In itself, this is a brightening change as it has lead to more chances created. Despite the improved chance creation, goal conversion has not improved.

Columbus Crew SC expected goals versus actual
Columbus Crew SC expected goals versus actual

"Surely creating more chances should lead to more goals?"

Not necessarily.

In this instance, it comes down to the quality of chances that are created. Think of it like code-breaking — brute force is a viable option, as it puts shear numbers in your favor, but it is not a method of attack that can be relied on.

Similarly, the Crew SC offense has created a multitude of scoring chances each match but have struggled to create quality chances, resulting in poor offensive production and an unreliable attack.

"So, what has attributed to this stagnant attack?"

In short — a lot of things. But largely...

Despite small positional changes, the overarching offensive strategy has remained unchanged. The most negative factors of being tempo during build-up and attacking developments in the final third.

While build up play is highly methodical and slow, the attack is haphazard which often results in hope-for-the-best crosses into the box. The best way to illustrate this is through example, so let’s get right to it. In the example we will use the most recent match against Orlando City SC.

33rd Minute Against Orlando City SC

Part 1: Crew SC Build-Up

Wil Trapp gathers the ball in the center of own half with Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl on either side. Ahead of him, the first receiving line of four consists of (from left to right): Waylon Francis; Tony Tchani; Mohammed Saeid; Harrison Afful.

A low tempo pass to Afful is slow enough that Orlando is able to slide to cover. With numbers now in Orlando’s advantage on Crew SC’s right flank, Afful takes a touch, looks up field, and then plays directly back to Parkhurst. At a slow tempo, Columbus switches to Wahl through Trapp.

Wahl then centers a pass to Tchani. With nothing on, he slides the ball right to Parkhurst. After over 20 seconds, Crew SC has progressed a mere 10 yards forward as a unit with Wahl and Parkhurst on the halfway line. Slow tempo, but nonetheless making progress forward.

From here, things go south.

Parkhurst and Trapp exchange four passes, working backwards, until Parkhurst finds Saeid on the right touchline around the halfway line. There are a few problems with this — Columbus has pulled back it’s own first receiving line to the halfway line while only managing to draw out Orlando’s two forwards. Afful moves to the second receiving line as Trapp takes his place in the first, but it still leaves 5 players behind the ball.

A la Last Week Tonight style, let’s take a quick break from the serious with this week’s quote of the week
About Ola Kamara "He covers so much ground in MAPFRE stadium you'd think he's hunting for Pokemon." GOsh I love out commentators. /u/icebats from /r/mls
Part 2: Crew SC Attacking Phase

With build-up "complete" we now transition into the attacking phase. Let's take a look at the attack that develops, first, with a tactical diagram showing the current positions of players on the field and their movements afterward.

Crew SC attack at 33:51 against Orlando City, July 23 2016
Columbus Crew SC attack at 33:51

The Swedish midfielder then passes vertically to Afful on the right wing, who is on the second receiving line with Meram. Once receiving, he only has two Crew SC players ahead of him: Ola Kamara and Cedrick Mabwati. After a quality first touch, he crosses into Ola Kamara near the penalty spot, generating a scoring opportunity.

What should have been a quality scoring chance instead will only be one in the books as the cross is cleared by the three defenders marking Kamara. Despite retaining possession for 45 seconds, Ola is the only Columbus player in the penalty box to have any impact on the cross.

After Orlando’s defender deflects the cross wide, Corey Ashe collects the ball left of the box. As a defender closes in for the block, Ashe sends in another cross. Inside the 18-yard box, Columbus only has Ola Kamara, Justin Meram, and Cedrick (who is by no means a threat in the air) to Orlando’s six defenders. Bar a catastrophic error by Orlando, this would never equate in a quality scoring chance.

Other Examples of Poor Crew SC Attacks

A similar example can be seen at 34:49, just a minute after the previous attack. Here, Afful sends in a cross with a man marking him and a 5 v 3 disadvantage in the box. The ball barely gets by the defender and is cleared out of the box by the Orlando defense.

Crew SC cross at 34:49 against Orlando City
Crew SC cross at 34:49 against Orlando City

A recurring theme in nearly every Crew SC attack, the slow and deep build up play allows the opponent far too much time to set in defensively for the ensuing attack to be effective. A lot of teams will compress defensively against Crew SC, leading to a heavy numerical disadvantage for Columbus. Rather than continuing to push numbers forward, the team opts to attack from disadvantageous positions.

How the Tactic Should be Executed

Normally, possession oriented teams such as Pep Guardiola’s look to find a way to walk the ball in the net. While slowly working the ball up the pitch, they advance together as a unit. Once on the outside of the box, they force the opponent to either compress in defense or leave holes for them to exploit.

If the defense stays forward, they punish them. If the defense stays compact (i.e. Diego Simeone’s Atletico), then Pep’s team will work the ball around the eighteen and look to create high-quality scoring chances.

In Summary: Why Crew SC’s Offense Isn’t Working

Gregg Berhalter’s side forces the final ball when the team is in the attacking third. While going directly for goal is a perfectly viable approach, it does not mix well with Crew SC’s slow build up play, often leaving players in inferior positions on the pitch.

Positional superiority is a fundamental principle of Juego de Posición (Positional Play), and one that Berhalter’s tactics and players have failed to achieve. The team's tactics are, at the root, based heavily on the philosophy popularized by Pep Guardiola.

While the team often has adequate numbers behind the ball for support, it is not often used, and instead the ball is forced into the box. The persistent failure achieve positional superiority, in my eyes, is a catastrophic failure of Crew SC’s tactical plan which has rendered the team’s offense unproductive and unreliable.

TL;DR Build up play too slow; Final third passing too direct, with positional superiority not achieved.

There are a few changes that could be made to fix this problem, but changing the shape or personnel is not enough — I believe it comes down to strategy. While I have a few ideas on how to fix this, and I can do an article sharing my ideas if you all would like, but I’m really interested to see what your thoughts are.

Question of the day:

What changes do you think Berhalter could make to fix this stagnant attack?

Go ahead and leave your ideas in the comments below, tweet me @GloryToColumbus, or open a discussion on the/r/TheMassive subreddit.

As for the defensive side of the game… That’s another beast in itself. Look forward to a defensive analysis soon. For now, let me know your thoughts on the offense, what the team can do to fix it, and even though the season is bleak, remember: Stay Massive, friends.