A busy stretch of schedule, thus far, hasn’t gone how Columbus Crew SC would have liked. It has a chance to wrap up three games in eight days against a Montreal Impact side that hasn’t found its footing yet this season.
As the Black & Gold begin a stretch of heavy travel, can they grab important road points?
Here’s a look at Saturday’s matchup at Stade Saputo.
At a Glance
Record: 2-3-4, 9th Eastern Conference, 1.11 ppg
For all of Montreal’s struggles this season, it has take seven of the last 12 points available.
Goal leader: Ignacio Piatt (3), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (3)
Assist leader: Patrice Bernier (3)
Part of what has hurt the Impact this season is that they have rarely been at full strength. Injuries have left the team missing key pieces — midfielder Andres Romero missed last season with an ACL injury, only to have hamstring issues this season; starting center back Victor Cabrera is out; Ignacio Piatti has missed time; now striker Matteo Mancosu is sidelined.
All of those have hurt. Montreal looked soulless without Piatti on the field, but he is back and providing danger. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last two or three years, Nacho Piatti is one of the top few attacking players in MLS. Piatti’s numbers aren’t quite where they have been, but he’s still the main weapon for Montreal, with 12 key passes, three goals, one assist, 1.72 key passes per 96 minutes and .46 xG+Ap96 (that’s expected goals + expected assists per 96 minutes).
The other engine behind things? Ambroise Oyongo. Yes, he is the left back. Oyongo has matched Piatti’s key passes (12) and leads the team in touch percentage (13.0). He is actually fifth among MLS starters in touch percentage, right along players like Dax McCarty and Nicolas Lodeiro and a bunch of defensive midfielders, so that should give you an idea of how the Impact play — Oyongo is their hub for buildup.
The midfield features a group of veterans, including Marco Donadel, Hernan Bernardello and Patrice Bernier, as well as Calum Mallace, all of whom fit the mold of defensive or box-to-box. Newcomer Adrian Arregui fits in that same mold, but is younger.
On the back line, Laurent Ciman, former MLS Defender of the Year, remains the bedrock, even if he hasn’t quite replicated his DOY form. Cabrera normally slides in beside him, but in his absence that job as has fallen to veteran Hassoun Camara and, most recently, Kyle Fisher, who has started the last two games. Fisher is 22 years old and has four MLS appearances.
On the flank opposite Oyongo, Impact import Chris Duvall has been a fixture.
While the attack centers around Piatti, some young guys have made an impact, with homegrown striker Anthony Jackson-Hamel scoring three goals in just five appearances, all off the bench, and 18-year-old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla now a regular starter, it would appear.
Witness, Oyongo to Hamel...
Tabla has drawn the most attention, as a player who likes the ball at his feet and likes to take defenders on 1-v-1. Ballou, as it reads on his jersey, isn’t a player who will link up with his teammates a lot. Rather, he likes to be on the end of things, running at the back line. He draws more fouls than anyone on the Impact not named Piatti, and has scored two goals.
Everyone’s favorite journeyman Dominic Oduro continues to add elite pace, if not finishing, to the Montreal attack.
A wild card is the addition of Swiss midfielder Blerim Dzemaili, who arrived in Montreal this week on loan from Italian side Bologna (hmmm...where have we seen this before?). The new Designated Player is with the club after leading Bologna with eight goals this Serie A season. It’s unclear how ready he is to get on the field, though a start would seem unlikely, regardless.
How they play
Montreal has long plied its trade as a counterattacking side, but its form has been in decline for months now, dating back into last season, after it started 2016 so well.
In the past, the Impact’s calling card was that despite being a sit-and-counter side, the attack kept the ball on the ground and was very proactive. Now, though, the approach is more direct than in the past, and Montreal actually leads MLS in long balls per game.
One of the issues for the Impact this season has been defense — entering last week, the Impact led the Eastern Conference in goals conceded. The attack hasn’t been good enough to withstand that (excepting a crazy 3-3 draw with the Philadelphia Union), and it’s led to an MLS-worst -0.64 expected goal differential per game.
On top of that, GD-xGD (the difference between actual goal differential and expected goal differential) shows that Montreal is more likely to see a regression than an improvement.
When the Impact do defend successfully, Ciman’s ability on the ball is what gets things rolling, as he distributes out of the back. Midfielder Marco Donadel is also key in distributing the ball forward, but regardless of who is doing so, Montreal likes to get the ball wide and to its outside backs, Oyongo and Duvall.
Here’s what Montreal looked like in Week 10 at D.C. United:
That image shows a team that sits relatively deep and then moves inside out.
Those two fullbacks are the ones most responsible for transitioning the team forward, and both willingly advance high up the field, especially Oyongo, who dominates the ball more than any outside back in the league.
Here’s the left back’s dashboard from two weeks ago vs. Vancouver Whitecaps:
To reiterate, that’s a left back, not a left wing.
Putting Oyongo on the ball frees up Piatti to move off the ball. He often starts out on the left wing side of the 4-2-3-1, but has a free role. His positioning helps him find space and link up with Oyongo.
Tabla has played both on the wing and in the central spot of the attacking three midfielders, but his game remains to dribble and attack — against DCU, when he played centrally, he attempted only 10 passes.
The reason he may be able to work in a central role is that Piatti — similar to Portland Timber’s Diego Valeri — is the playmaker, even when he’s not central. So Tabla can help carve out some space for Piatti to roll into, even if Tabla himself is not linking up.
The other winger has typically been either Oduro, offering pace and stretching the field, or, last week, Daniel Lovitz, who is your basic MLS replacement player. He’s more of a worker, but has struggled with some of his link-up play.
Jackson-Hamel seems like the most like-for-like fit for Mancuso’s role, but has yet to see a start.
Notes from last week
Montreal managed a 1-0 victory on the road at D.C. United last week, spurning D.C. coach Ben Olsen to now-famously call his team “phony” at halftime, and worse after the game.
The difference was a Tabla goal in the 13th minutes, when he had acres of space to run in Zone 14 (centrally, above the 18-yard box) and finished.
Here’s Tabla’s goal:
The Impact had the better of the chances in the first half, but with an early lead was able to defend in a 4-4-1-1 later in the second half and keep nine or 10 players behind the ball.
Montreal’s 0.62 xG was half of D.C.’s 1.15 xg, and United had 17 shots. But with the Impact bunkering, DCU managed just two of those shots on target as Montreal kept it shooting from, typically, low-percentage areas.
- Know where Piatti is — I’m not even going to bother explaining this one.
- Work the midfield — As mentioned earlier, a number of Montreal’s pieces in the midfield are, well, old. The unit has also been broken down on the dribble at times this season. Just in watching the last two games, I saw it happen multiple times. Columbus needs to force Donadel and Bernardello to use their legs and hope that leads to breakdowns as the game goes on. Justin Meram is more than capable of causing issues there.
Play from touchline to touchline — I said on the Massive Matchday podcast this week that I didn’t think Crew SC played with enough width against Toronto FC. This will be important yet again on Saturday. For one, width will help stretch the midfield and force them to work more (see bullet-point No. 2).
Secondly, this will help Columbus get in behind the Impact fullbacks, who will push up the field, especially at home. This can be a point of vulnerability for the Impact. Two weeks ago, Vancouver had a lot of success creating danger off crosses. The Black & Gold have diversified from the cross-heavy attack of the last couple of years, but still has the ability to get wide service in.
Defend the wide areas — It’s clear that Montreal wants to attack on the wings, where it’s talent is best utilized. So Columbus has to shut down those spaces. This will be interesting, because player rotation and Harrison Afful’s absence (it’s unclear whether he’ll be available Saturday) don’t provide a lot of great, fresh legs at outside back right now.
Here’s what Montreal tried to do two weeks ago against Montreal:
Look at how obviously the Impact were attacking the left corner, whether they were targeting Oyongo, Piatti, Oduro or Hamel. Columbus has to be able to handle that.
Defending wide doesn’t just mean in the defensive third, either. By disrupting the wings higher up the field, it completely alters what Montreal wants to do in its buildup or counter. And if Crew SC’s wingers can keep those outside backs pinned deeper, that’s a step in the right direction as well.
Food for thought
The wild card in everything for Columbus is player rotation. The Black & Gold will be playing their third game in eight days, and many of the starters saw heavy minutes in both of the first two games, especially the attacking starters.
The biggest impact from that, I believe, will be the status of Federico Higuain. In the latter stages of his career, with some injury woes over the last year, it would seem wise to give him a rest in the interest of season-long planning. But the team also sorely misses him when Pipa is not on the field.
Who else will rotate? Waylon Francis, Wil Trapp and Jonathan Mensah have all played 180 minutes this week. Afful’s status is still TBA, with a new baby at home.
Here’s a potential starting 11 for Saturday. Tell us what you’d do with the lineup, and what you think of the matchup with Montreal, in the comments below.