Whatever you want to call it (a 3-5-2, a 3-4-2-1, a 5-2-2-1), Columbus Crew SC’s new formation is all the rage.
“Depending on what phase of defending you’re in, you can define it different ways,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “If it’s a medium-block press, you can say it’s three in the back or four in the back. If it’s a low block, it looks more like five. But the important thing is you’re shifting. It’s fluid.”
This new look was discussed throughout the preseason, seen briefly in the second half of the Black & Gold’s friendly with the Charleston Battery and finally debuted in competitive action in last Saturday’s 2-0 win over D.C. United.
While the formation resulted in the first victory of the season, and three points on the road, the change is not permanent.
“We identified against D.C. that they have a lot of numbers in and around the penalty box,” Berhalter explained. “They get a lot of crosses into the penalty box and we felt it was better to defend with three guys. One of the guys moving out and then still having numbers in the penalty box.”
In the eyes of the Crew SC players and staff, the formation is a change in approach against certain teams and will be used when they find it best. It’s also still a work in progress.
Although Columbus spent time in the preseason working on the three/five-man backline, it wasn’t the sole focus. For some players, this was the first time playing in this formation in any game action.
“We need practice, we need days, we need to watch video, we need work on this system,” attacking midfielder Federico Higuain said. “I think for our first experience, playing away against a good team like D.C. United is, I think we did well.”
With starting center-back Jonathan Mensah suspended for the D.C. game, plus United’s reliance on crosses and runs, it made sense to insert veteran Josh Williams and 6-foot-5 rookie Alex Crognale into the lineup and play with three bigger central defenders.
According to Williams, the new formation worked defensively.
“I thought we performed well,” he said. “We put a zero on the board; that was the objective.”
Before patting the Crew SC defense on the back too much, it’s worth noting that the Black and Red entered the game scoreless on the season. D.C. did manage 13 shots in the game, but most did not come from the danger areas and there was constantly cover for the three efforts on target.
“It really limits opportunities,” Williams said. “You’ve got five guys along the back line when we get set. It also takes away a lot of counter opportunities because you’ve got three guys back there and then Wil or Abu or Artur, those guys are always sniffing around in the middle, breaking stuff up.”
The defense played well, but its the attacking side of the ball where Columbus lacked the usual firepower.
Crew SC finished the game with only seven shots, although six on target, and had just 46.8 percent of the possession, which is a rarity under Berhalter. While the team created chances, it still struggled to finish from open play, as both goals came from well-earned penalty kicks.
Some of this had to do with the field conditions at RFK Stadium, which were less than ideal, but also due to a lack of cohesion that comes from trying something new.
“I think that’s difficult,” Berhalter said when asked to evaluate the first game in the new formation. “I think we didn’t create as much as we normally do, but we still had some very good chances.
“We could have made more out of the situations that were there. We had five on fours, we had some really clear situations that I don’t think we played out to the best of our abilities.”
In the new formation, winger Justin Meram moves inside to play alongside Higuain. Central midfielder Wil Trapp can play further up the field than he traditionally has under Berhalter. The wingbacks are true wingbacks, pushing even further forward than they might when part of the backline.
Adding this all to the offense takes time for the chemistry to develop, despite few personnel changes.
“It’s hard to do a good (analyzation) because it was just one game,” Higuain said.
“For everybody it’s a different game because, the last game especially, we didn’t play too many from our goalkeeper. We don’t risk the ball too many times. We were not too attractive playing soccer, but we were effective.”
While the Columbus players and coaches like the result in the change in formation, they understand the Black & Gold didn’t play the cleanest game. Ultimately, the three points was what was important and the new look yielded just that.
With a need for another victory at home this weekend, could this formation work against a tough, high-scoring and undefeated Portland Timbers who come to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday night?
“I think it can work against any team,” Berhalter said. “I think it can be effective against any team. It’s just about when we use it and why we use it.”
With big center forward Fanendo Adi leading the line and the Timbers propensity to hit teams on the counter attack, Crew SC fans might get an in-person look at Columbus’ new approach.
We will wait and see.