If Columbus Crew SC was to be described by someone who followed Major League Soccer closely over the last few years, it is likely that this person would mention the team’s unwavering commitment to its favored 4-2-3-1 formation and possession style.
Indeed, from the moment Gregg Berhalter took over as head coach, prior to the start of the 2014 season, until the end of 2016, the Black & Gold started only two of its 109 MLS matches in a different formation according to WhoScored.com.
In 2017, though, the team showed more of a multifaceted shape, lining up in five different formations over the course of the season. The 4-2-3-1 was still the most used system, being selected by Berhalter 27 times, but Crew SC also played in the 3-4-2-1 (eight times), the 3-4-3 (two), the 4-1-4-1 (one) and the 3-4-1-2 (one).
But Berhalter is not done experimenting yet.
The head coach disclosed last Friday that he is heading into the offseason with plans of adding to the team’s repertoire in 2018.
“I want to add to it and maybe add another formation,” he said at the final media availability of 2017. “Keep going, keep progressing. The guys are open to it. It gives us flexibility and I think we are going to look to do that. Continue on what we have already and then potentially add another playing system.”
The different formations led to mixed results this year.
While Crew SC had some success and found defensive stability with the three-man backline, highlighted by three straight wins, all with clean sheets, the 4-1-4-1 was only used in the 5-0 road loss to Toronto FC, which Berhalter repeatedly said afterwards that he would not try again.
Regardless of the formation, though, the essence of Crew SC’s game was not affected, as the team never separated itself from its possession-based, offensive-minded style and that remains the plan going forward.
“Our style of play doesn’t change even though the playing system changes.” Berhalter added. “We still have the same intentions. We may be set up a little bit differently, but we still want to go out and accomplish the same things.”
All of this experimentation was only possible because of the strong confidence the players have in Berhalter and his coaching staff. Changing systems frequently during the season means that players will come and go from the starting lineup and that some may be required to play in different positions.
Fullback Hector Jimenez, who performed in at least three different roles on the field in 2017, mentioned that the numerous alternatives created competition for the starting spots, which ultimately benefited the team.
“It shows that everyone believes in Gregg,” Jimenez said. “In the first 15 games we might have had 15 different lineups on the backline. It’s just part of everyone coming here and battling for spots. When you have that in your team, everyone comes out winning.”
Putting players out of their comfort zones is arguably one way of improving the team’s ceiling. Oftentimes, players experiment in new positions and thrive, giving their clubs interesting possibilities to deal with when facing different opponents.
“I still don’t think we’ve reached out limit,” remarked center back Josh Williams, who used to play as right back earlier on his career. “We are still kind of feeling out how players and positions can work. Obviously, we threw Pedro (Santos) at left back (in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals) and that was a wild move, but as you can tell he was pretty good there, so that could be an option.”
Having tactical flexibility has proven to be a valuable asset in MLS. 2017’s Toronto FC, the most successful regular season team in the league’s history, used as many as seven different formations during the year.
Having options is never too much and it looks like Crew SC has taken notice.