For the first three years of Gregg Berhatler’s tenure as Columbus Crew SC head coach, the message was the same. The Black & Gold focused on their play and taking the game to the opponent.
“We worry more about how we play and focus less on the opponent,” was typically the approach.
It worked more often than not as Columbus made the playoffs in two of his first three seasons and appeared in an MLS Cup Final in 2015. But after a disappointing 2016, there has been a change.
“I just think we’re introducing more variety,” club captain Wil Trapp said last week. “It’s being multifaceted in how we can hurt teams. It’s easy for a team to prepare in terms of how we always play. They’ve read that book before. So we have to adapt.”
Through five matches, the variation was working. Crew SC sat at 3-1-1 and, despite using a three-man backline and making clear tactical tweaks based on the opponent, were atop the Eastern Conference.
Saturday’s contest with the Chicago Fire was a different story. Again, Berhatler changed formation and tactics based on the opponent, but this time the result was not positive.
“We had a different structure. We weren’t trying to play the way we always play,” Berhalter explained following Columbus’ 1-0 loss at the Fire. “We were trying to play a different way, so optically it looked different. We isolated our wingers, we put them wide. We wanted to create one v. one match ups, we wanted to keep their backline of five at home and then we wanted to create a numerical advantage in the midfield. That was the idea.
With playmaker Federico Higuain out of the lineup with a sore ankle — “We thought this was a game that we didn’t take a chance,” Berhalter said of Pipa. “He means a lot to this team and it was something where we didn’t want him to travel this week.” — the Black & Gold shifted to a 4-3-3 formation with defensive-minded midfielders Artur, Wil Trapp and Mohammed Abu playing together in the center of the park and wingers Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram staying wide.
"We had a clear plan how we were going to come into the game,” Finlay said. “We thought they would be coming with a five-back system and we thought we found a way to expose them. Possess the ball in the midfield... The idea was to get us isolated and high enough on the field and take a guy on and get numbers in the box."
Crew SC were willing to be patient in this match, as opposed to the normal heavy-attacking approach, and looked to move the Fire around in the hopes that it would tire the opposition out.
Maybe this plan achieved its desired effect, but a 22nd minute goal from Chicago forward Nemanja Nikolic allowed the Fire to sit on the lead and put men behind the ball. What started as a three-man backline for the Men in Red quickly became five and at times seven as the game progressed.
"It was tough,” Meram said. “They dropped (Dax) McCarty and (Bastian) Schweinsteiger so it was almost 7 v. 4. We adapted well in the second half and you saw the pressure we put on them. I think we controlled most of the second half."
The time to be patient was gone now down a goal.
The Black & Gold were better in the second 45 minutes, registering nine shots as opposed to three in the first half, but were not able to convert.
Chicago had no issue looking for the counter and very nearly increased the lead twice, but were denied by a diving save from Zack Steffen and a Nicolai Naess goal-line clearance.
With Meram isolated wide and no Higuain in the middle of the field, any creative spark was nonexistent.
In the 60th minutes, Berhalter made a change, bringing on rookie Niko Hansen for Abu and switching back to the more familiar 4-4-1-1. The Columbus players quickly looked more comfortable, finding their usual spaces and causing the Fire problems.
“I went to the 10, Niko came out wide and we went back to our normal formation,” Meram said.
“I think later in the game, they had tired legs and pockets were open and we were moving well. We had the hunger to keep going.”
In a young season of tactical adjustments, Crew SC deviated for the norm once again Saturday afternoon.
“You can argue if it was successful or not,” Berhalter said. “Obviously we lost the game, but I think the structure was there to move the ball around like we wanted to.”
It wasn’t successful. The Black & Gold reverted to what was familiar in order to try and to get something out of the match. By then, it was probably too little too late in a winnable match.
But just because it didn’t work Saturday, the first time rolling the new approach out, doesn’t mean it can’t again.
Higuain will likely miss more matches this season and Columbus have no like-for-like replacement for the Designated Player. If Berhalter is going to continue to tinker with tactics when it’s successful, he’s not going to step when it’s not.
“I think the guys, I praised them for their effort. I thought they put a lot into this game,” he said.
“We’ve been pushing these guys all year and we’re going to continue to push them. And they adapt and their open to it and that’s the most important thing because if we have these tools at our disposal, we’re going to be a better team in the long run.”