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Massive Notebook: Is the 3-4-2-1 right for Ola Kamara?

Mid-week thoughts and player ratings from Columbus’ win over D.C. United

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at D.C. United
Crew SC striker Ola Kamara runs at the D.C. United win during a 2-0 Columbus win on Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the day...

...mixed bag (OK, so that was two words)

Outside of finding a way to get in the win column, the talk of the weekend was the 3-4-2-1 that Gregg Berhalter rolled out. Our Kris Landis offered some of his thoughts about the game and the new setup. In some ways I agree and in some I disagree.

On Saturday, I thought it was generally a positive development. There were a couple of times I thought the spacing in the back wasn’t quite there yet, and D.C. had some opportunities and probably would have nabbed a goal or two if its decision-making inside the box was more clinical. It was clear, however, that the extra defensive cover in the back was a good thing.

I also think the narrow front three puts Justin Meram and Federico Higuain in roles that suit them well. Meram’s performance didn’t necessarily show it, but Pipa’s did.

And CCSC pressed a little more, which I think helps create the more dynamic, fast attacks that are sometimes lacking for Columbus.

Most interesting to me was the affect the change had on Ola Kamara.

First, the obvious good: Kamara got in spots to draw fouls in the box two, generating two penalty kicks and two goals (though Ola was probably a bit fortunate for his PK to find the back of the net).

The verdict is out on some other things though, specifically what the setup tweaks do to his positioning. Anecdotally, I thought Kamara was picking the ball up deeper more often than in the past. Why was this? My sense is that the attacking trio was tighter and therefore interchanged a little more. In addition, the out-of-the-ordinary possession numbers meant the team in general was playing deeper than usual.

Here are Ola’s heat maps from the DCU game and the Houston Dynamo game.

Ola vs. Houston
Ola vs. D.C. United

The difference is subtle, but there. In the first, the touches at midfield are likely holdup/buildup touches. His movement also appears a little narrower vs. Houston. Against D.C. the area that stands out is the right side, but also generally speaking right where you enter the attacking third. And his touches are fewer right around the 6-yard box.

I thought he was driving at the back line with the ball more often, and his three take-ones compared to one against the Dynamo supports that, though it’s a small sample size.

It’s unclear how this would/will affect Kamara long term, should the Black & Gold stick with this look. He’s not really great at connecting passes (55 percent on Saturday), the PK goal was his only actual shot on goal and I’m not sure 1-v-1 is really his game. Last season, Ola seemed at his best when floating on the shoulder of a defender and making off-ball runs.

That’s not necessarily a criticism of Kamara’s performance Saturday, nor a claim that the 3-4-2-1 as it played out against DCU can’t work. Just something to keep an eye on moving forward. Because, let’s face it: he still drew two penalties and scored a goal, and just like last year, he’s leading MLS in expected goals per 90 minutes.

Player Ratings

How did the Black & Gold perform vs. D.C. United?
(Ratings on a 1-10 scale, with 6 being average)

THE GOOD

Alex Crognale (8) — It wasn’t perfect, but did anyone see that coming from the rookie, fourth-choice center back? Crognale was mobile, physical and sound in his positioning. The moments he scrambled were few, and he put out a couple of fires. He was 4 for 4 in successful tackles. A promising first look at a developing young player.

Ola Kamara (7.5) — I already talked above about Kamara’s day. The results were there, and for that he deserves credit, even if his whole body of work Saturday is less cut and dry.

Zack Steffen (7) — There was one iffy moment late where he came out of goal and didn’t command space or the ball well and it led to a D.C. corner, but he also came up with two huge saves to bail out Columbus.

Nicolai Naess (7) — Another quietly good performance from Naess, who seems to adapt to however he’s asked to play.

Wil Trapp (7) — I think Trapp was sneaky good against United. He broke up a handful of attacks, drew a foul that stopped another and made a critical pass that sparked the attack that saw Kamara draw the first penalty kick. He never once lost possession (only Naess matched that), yet was third on the team with 69 touches.

Federico Higuain (7) — There is so much talk about Pipa being past it. No, he’s not the Higuain of 2014 or 2015, but that’s an expected natural progression. He showed Saturday he’s still very valuable and still the guy on the team most likely to make the play. Of the team’s seven shots, he had four. He completed 76 percent of his passes and had more touches and accurate passes than any other Columbus player.

Artur (7) — A promising performance from the Brazilian newcomer. He matched the team-high in tackles (4) and interceptions (2) and provided the midfield with a lot of energy when he drove forward with the ball at his feet. He also made an effort play at midfield that kept the ball with Crew SC and seconds later resulted in a second penalty kick.

THE MEH

Harrison Afful (6) — Columbus didn’t have as much possession as usual, which affected what we saw from Afful (even though he was second on the team in touches). I thought his defensive positioning was mostly solid and he put in one or two dangerous crosses, but it was just less flash than we normally see from the right back.

Ethan Finlay (6) — The 3-4-2-1 setup does not suit Finlay. That said, I’ll be less harsh on him than some folks. I thought he was invisible for a while when he first came on, but do think that he brought good energy and pressed the back line well with his speed a couple times late in the game. He also made a key pass (a pass that leads to a shot) on a day when Crew SC made only three in 90 minutes.

Mohammed Abu (6) — Put in just over 20 minutes of work, and that about sums it up.

Justin Meram (5.5) — Didn’t get a ton of touches and didn’t seem to link up well with Raitala on the left. There were flashes of his ability on the ball, but nothing sustained. I do think his positioning in the new setup could suit him, though.

Josh Williams (5.5) — Generally I thought Williams was OK, but there were also some moments I thought he would have been exposed had there not been three center backs, and Crognale cleaned up well next to him.

Juuka Raitala (5.5) — The left back wasn’t bad, but he was mostly anonymous. Lloyd Sam got behind him once or twice, and there was little chemistry between Raitala and Meram on the left side of the field.

THE UGLY

I’m going to spare everyone of this category this week. Even when things weren’t clicking, it was mostly just mediocre.

N/A

Adam Jahn — Just a 9-minute cameo for the striker


Look Ahead

Portland Timbers at Columbus — 7:30 p.m.

It was probably a good thing the Black & Gold found a way to get three points on the road in Week 3, because a return home only sees them take on one of the buzz-iest teams in the season’s early going.

There are some questions about Portland’s defense. It’s very thin at center back, and Lawrence Olum, a journeyman who has played most of his career minutes in the midfield, is starting at CB for the Timbers.

But the attack is scary good. (Even when it misses)

Striker Fanendo Adi is a complete forward (and the early favorite for the Golden Boot) and Diego Valeri is arguably the best No. 10 in the league (even if he doesn’t wear the number); the duo is third and second, respectively, in the league in expected goals through three weeks. And that’s before mentioning Darlington Nagbe and newcomer Sebastian Blanco on the wings, plus one of the best No. 8’s in MLS, Diego Chara.

The good news is Nagbe will be gone with the U.S. Men’s National Team, so that’s one less piece. He’s important in possession and great in tight spaces with the ball at his feet.

The rest is still there, and fully capable of embarrassing Crew SC, which will again have to fill in a spot on the back line. Jonathan Mensah will return, but Raitala will be gone with Finland’s national team.

A key for Columbus will be taking care of the ball. Portland is deadly in transition, and turnovers will be punished.

But, hey, it should be fun to watch, right?


My notes

Hey, it’s called a notebook, right?

Here are my stream-of-conciousness notes from during game viewing. These aren’t thought-out concepts, just things that pop into my head that I put down to generate ideas when I look back at them.

Notes - Crew SC vs. DCU