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Massive Notebook: Argentine No. 10s and why Afful mattered so much

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Federico Higuain out-played Diego Valeri in a battle of Argentine playmakers, but what allowed that to happen?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew SC
Gregg Berhalter’s tactical tweak put Harrison Afful in a position to make a quietly large impact for Columbus in a win over Portland.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the Day ...

... Ten.

Or, No. 10, to be exact.

Federico Higuain shined for Columbus Crew SC, looking energized in creating numerous chances for both himself and his Black & Gold teammates.

Meanwhile, Diego Valeri was somewhat limited. That’s not to say he wasn’t dangerous — players of his ilk always make an impact, even on off nights — but Columbus found a way to limit the attacking midfielder.

Here is Pipa’s dashboard from the game:

Higuain dashboard vs. POR

That’s a nice look at a quality day in attack, with five key passes and that glorious assist (see the blue arrow). I’ll continue to preach that even on his off days, Higuain has the ability to pull things out of his hat that no one else on the team can, like this pass:

Of course, this was not an off day for Pipa.

On the other side of the field, here’s Valeri’s chalkboard:

Valeri chalkboard vs. CLB

The two are different types of No. 10s, but that’s not what you want to see from your playmaker.

Of course, even as bad as that graphic looks, Valeri still was dangerous. His three shots were all threatening, with a free kick on goal, a shot from distance that beat Zack Steffen and pinged off the left post, and a curling shot from inside the 18-yard box that sailed just outside the left post. He also helped create Fanendo Adi’s first-half stoppage-time goal with a dummy run that froze the Crew SC back line.

But most of those opportunities came off turnovers, and Valeri didn’t have a shot after the first 34 minutes.

Valeri entered the game floating at a touch percentage of about 10 (AKA, he accounted for 10 percent of his team’s touches), but that usage rate was significantly lower on Saturday in Columbus, at just 5.8 percent.

I re-watched the game to figure out exactly how Columbus had succeeded in mostly handling Valeri, and it quickly became clear.

It all came from a tactical tweak that had right back Harrison Afful tucking in centrally.

That positional shift often kept Afful in the channel in which Valeri likes to float, making it easier for the fullback to shadow the Argentine. With Afful passing the midfielder off to Artur and Wil Trapp — something the trio did mostly effectively — Valeri found less space than he might otherwise find. And if the ball was lost with Afful pulled in and the defensive midfielders helping centrally, the group did a good job of pressing and slowing the Timbers’ ability to get into the space Afful vacated, with Sebastian Blanco not necessarily full-speed-ahead type of winger.

Here’s Afful’s heat map from Saturay’s game:

Afful vs. POR

That shows his tendency to tuck in a little, but the change becomes even more stark when compared to the heat maps from the previous two games:

Afful vs. DCU
Afful vs. HOU

The difference is clear.

Afful’s positioning also had an impact on Crew SC’s own No. 10.

With the fullback often looking more like a de facto D-mid, Columbus was able to overload the midfield. This helped in possession, but when combined with Justin Meram’s tendancy to cut in from the left and Artur’s occasional forays forward it allowed the Black & Gold to fill up the central channel and occupy both Diego Chara and Amobi Okugo in Portland’s defensive midfield.

Ola Kamara’s movement is good enough to occupy both center backs oftentimes, or at least keep them honest, and all of that means that Higuain then has more freedom to float unimpeded and find spaces where he wants to be on the ball.

The result is what you saw on Saturday, and credit has to go to Gregg Berhalter for making the slight but impactful adjustment.


Player Ratings

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

THE GOOD

Federico Higuain (8) — It was Pipa’s best game of the year (and much longer than that). His level of play has been the subject of much consternation and discussion among Crew SC fans, and while I’m not one who has been down on him, this was a near-classic performance (see above).

Ola Kamara (7.5) — All he does is keep scoring. His on-the-run-chip on the counter will be one that Columbus fans replay for a long time. His movement helped him occupy defenders and open up space, and he played a role in all three goals. (If you missed it, check out this great breakdown of his goal.)

Wil Trapp (7) —In the season’s very early going, Trapp seems to be recovering some of the consistency I thought was lacking last year. Against Portland he made some key interceptions and interchanged well in the defensive midfield to help track Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.

Niko Hansen (7) — Your professional debut can’t go any better, right? There’s no doubt there’s a long way for the young winger to go, but he brought energy off the bench, played hard both ways (making a couple of tackles after tracking back) and, of course, got in the right place at the right time to score the game winner.

Artur (6.5) — The central midfielder continued to buzz around the midfield and show a good work rate going both ways. He completed a high percentage of his passes and helped ball circulation, while also working with Trapp to track a dangerous Timbers attack. I thought there were times his decision-making was a step slow and he missed some opportunities to spring things with a pass, but generally a good day.

Justin Meram (6.5) — Getting a poacher’s goal isn’t normally his thing, but a goal is a goal. His movement helped flood things in the attacking third and he completed 88 percent of his passes.

Harrison Afful (6.5) — Being asked to adjust to a tactical tweak, Afful excellently shadowed Valeri. His contribution was very different than it has been, but just as important. He did, however, get frozen on Adi’s goal.

THE DECENT

Nicolai Naess (6) — Just keeps doing what he does (which is good).

Jonathan Mensah (6) — The center back got a bit locked up on Adi’s goal, letting the ball through and giving the striker room to shoot, but he also dealt with Adi’s physicality admirably for 90 minutes.

Ethan Finlay (6) — I think Finlay did some unheralded things in stretching the field and adjusting a bit to Afful’s tucking in behind him. There were some bright moments, but also some anonymous stretches. Still plenty of room for him to make a bigger impact.

Zack Steffen (6) — A bit of a feast-or-famine performance for the young goalkeeper. His positioning may have been a bit off on a couple of Portland chances, but he also came up with a couple of big stops and continued to show no fear in 1v1 situations.

Alex Crognale (6) — A much shorter appearance this week, but the rookie center back continued to look steady.

Adam Jahn (6) — A short cameo, but brought some energy around the box.

JUST A BIT OFF

Waylon Francis (5) — This might be a little harsh, but the left back looked a little rusty, and rightfully so after a long hiatus from game action. He had a couple of nice moments going forward, but also was caught out a little bit and should have done better on Portland’s first goal.


Look Ahead

Columbus Crew SC vs. Orlando City SC, 4 p.m. EST (Unimas, Facebook Live)

The Black & Gold are coming off two wins in a row — something they managed just twice last season — and will host what looks like a beatable Lions side, even if it is still unbeaten on the year at 2-0.

Orlando City has picked up a 1-0 win over New York City FC and a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. But now OCSC has to leave the friendly confines of it’s brand new stadium. How will it react to being on the road for the first time?

The men in purple will be without Kaka, but have been down that road before and have done most of their work this season without the playmaker.

Instead, OCSC will rely on striker Cyle Larin’s ability to be big in and around the box, get shots off his foot as quickly as anyone in the league (it’s what makes him so good) and avoid distractions from the mounting rumors of Premier league interest.

And while Orlando City fans have been waiting for Carlos Rivas to match the hype, it looks like the pacey second striker is beginning to do so.

Matias Perez Garcia takes on a heavy playmaking role with Kaka out of the lineup, and he’ll cut in from the right side of midfield and likely work with Rivas to carve out space while Giles Barnes likes to get up the left side and take defenders on.

A revamped back line has Orlando City hoping it has shored up its back line, with versatile Jonathan Spector, a former USMNT international, a big piece of that. He’s been playing center back.

It certainly looks like a matchup in which Columbus can control possession, but will have to handle Larin and the Barnes/Rivas duo.

We’ll have a more detailed preview of the game later in the week.


When all else fails ...

Ping Amobi Okugo in the face to keep possession.