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Massive Notebook: A dull effort by the Crew SC midfield

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No work, poor play makes Columbus midfield a dull unit

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the day ...

... dull.

On so many levels.

The game itself left much to be desired from an entertainment standpoint, but also the Columbus Crew SC performance lacked any edge. It was a dull-knife effort.

It’s hard to separate that from a tactical change to a 4-3-3 that we haven’t seen before. Conceptually it wasn’t a bad idea, but with some personnel missing and new responsibilities and relationships, the Fire just rolled over Columbus like water over a smooth stone.

In the end, it’s impossible not to shine the light on the three-man midfield that just didn’t work. Whether it was individually or as a unit, Crew SC struggled to maintain possession, didn’t have a creative spark and didn’t hold up defensively.

Chicago’s most dangerous opportunities came from passes that cut through a midfield that wasn’t applying pressure.

Massive Report’s Collin Johnson expertly breaks down the lone goal, and there was much blame to go around, but it’s hard not to look at Dax McCarty’s long, cutting pass and not notice a lack of depth from a bunched-up midfield and absolutely no pressure on McCarty or the passing lane.

Here’s a look at Chicago’s key passes and the assist from Saturday. In other words, all the passes that led to a shot for the Fire:

Chicago’s setup vs. CLB

Those are a lot of long connections. While that does include Nemanja Nikolic’s pass that put Daniel Johnson in for a great 81st-minute chance that was only kept out by Nicolai Naess’ goal-line clearance, it doesn’t include another midfield-splitting pass that ultimately ended in Alex Crognale’s yellow card — a midfield turnover that then saw Chicago able to too easily get up on the Crew SC back line.

Meanwhile, without Federico Higuain there was no attacking spark. The 4-3-3 seemed to limit Justin Meram’s effectiveness, pushing him out further wide and having to deal with a dedicated center back and Chicago’s midfield help, while Artur was tasked with doing more all over the place and he generally seemed uncomfortable or without enough help, and with Artur roaming and forced higher up the field, it seemed some of his bite was missed deeper on the field.

And with two players who are among the top three on the team in terms of touches per game — Higuain and Harrison Afful — not available, the dominoes fell and left, it seemed, everyone unsure of how he fit in.

And the result was on display. Not a sharp, cutting machine that won three games in a row, but a soft, amorphous blob that showed up but did little else.


Player Ratings

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

THE GOOD

Justin Meram (7) — Like much of the team, Meram seemed to suffer in the 4-3-3 setup, but he remained one of the sharpest on the ball, and when he moved centrally for the final 30 minutes he provided Crew SC with a spark.

Zack Steffen (7) — The goalkeeper drew attention for the stop he didn’t make — Nikolic’s game-winning goal. His rating takes a dent from that, but there were so many other breakdowns on the play it’s hard to lay it all at his feet. And he made a number of other excellent saves. Without Steffen, Chicago easily would have had another two or three goals, and for that he deserves credit.

Niko Hansen (6.5) — The substitute’s entrance coincided with a tactical shift for the Black & Gold, and it was a definitely improvement. Hansen acquitted himself well again, popping up in some dangerous places and getting one of the team’s few decent chances of the day.

Nicolai Naess (6.5) — He managed to mostly escape blame and his goal-line clearance kept things from getting worse. Also had a couple of key tackles.

THE MEH

Artur (6) — I blame the tactical setup more than the player for most of his shortcomings on Saturday. He actually completed 91 percent of his passes and had a number of ball recoveries high in the midfield. He just felt a little out of sync at times.

Ethan Finlay (6) — There were times in the first half where I thought Finlay was the only one doing anything on the attacking end, but there were no numbers in the box and it wasn’t capitalized on. As the game went on, he seemed to fade out of it a little bit.

Juuka Raitala (6) — An average outing for the left back, who was subbed off in the 72nd minute. There were a couple of moments where his chemistry with Meram on the left seemed improved, but the day was mostly average.

Wil Trapp (6) — He shouldn’t escape blame for a subpar midfield effort, but there weren’t any glaring individual errors on his part.

Adam Jahn (6) — Limited minutes, put one shot on goal. At this point, are our expectations all that high?

LEFT WANTING

Hector Jimenez (5.5) — The utility player was asked to do a lot and he was on the ball a ton, filling Afful’s shoes in that sense. But he did get burnt a few times defensively.

Alex Crognale (5.5) — The first misstep of Crognale’s young career, as his positioning and decision-making on Nikolic’s goal was not good enough. That said, he was still an aerial presence throughout the game and popped up inside the box for a couple of half chances in the attack.

Waylon Francis (5.5) — Not much of a chance to make an impact, but the lasting memory of this one will be a wayward cross.

Ola Kamara (5) — Is it his fault? The service was just not there and Chicago’s three-man back line put a lot of bodies in the box. But just one shot all game is not enough from the star striker, and one can question if he should have pressured harder on the Fire’s goal.

Mohammed Abu (4.5) — Getting a start in the three-man central midfield, Abut was just a non-factor. He didn’t make any tackles, he didn’t make any interceptions and he offered little to nothing going forward. He seemed uncertain of what role he should be playing, and so he ultimately played none until being subbed off in the 60th minute (with the ensuing formation change helping Crew SC be more effective).


Look Ahead

Columbus Crew SC vs. Toronto FC — Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, at MAPFRE Stadium

The Black & Gold return home to host one of the Eastern Conference frontrunners in the Trillium Cup rivalry.

Toronto, coming off an appearance in MLS Cup last season, seems to have lacked a killer instinct early on, as it has drawn four of its five games, including last week at home vs. Atlanta United.

Still, there’s no reason to believe Toronto is not a dangerous team.

TFC will maintain the same identity it has over the last year, looking to play pretty direct soccer, trying to spray passes up top to get the ball at the feet of Jozy Altidore and, of course, Sebastian Giovinco. Michael Bradley pulls the strings from deep and Armando Cooper is in his second year in the system as a box-to-box midfielder.

It will be interesting to see how CCSC handles Toronto’s 3-5-2 after struggling against Chicago’s 3-4-3.

A repeat performance won’t be nearly enough against a side that can pull of things like this:

Look for a full breakdown of the matchup later this week on Massive Report.


Read this

A breakdown of Chicago’s decisive goal

Six thoughts on Saturday’s result in Bridgeview

How did the Columbus diaspora fare last week?

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