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Massive Notebook: The thing that changed everything in Crew SC’s latest loss

A tactical shift by New England had a major impact against Columbus

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the day ...

... adjustment

It was, by most accounts, a strong start for Columbus Crew SC against the New England Revolution on Sunday afternoon. My note after the first 20 minutes was, “Not many blemishes.” The Black & Gold were creating opportunities, stretching the field wide and switching the point of attack well.

But then a minute later Ola Kamara missed a glowing opportunity at the far post, and two minutes after that New England had tied the game. Ten minutes later, the hosts took the lead for good.

What happened? Well, certainly there were mistakes by Columbus, including a turnover by Wil Trapp that led to the first goal and a generally poor defensive response to the 34th-minute attack that saw the Revs go up 2-1.

But some time before that, New England coach Jay Heaps made a tactical adjustment that began to tilt the bulk of the game.

Here is what NER looked like to start the game:

NER start - Football tactics and formations

At just about the 20-minute mark, Heaps shifted his team into this:

NER post switch - Football tactics and formations

The switch took the team’s shape from a 4-4-2 diamond (which is what the Revolution have used all season) into a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 flat setup.

And after halftime, he pulled Femi off and brought Gershon Koffie on, giving the Revolution even more grit and defensive chops in the center of the field.

What did this change?

Well, for one it provided more defensive support in the wide areas from Fagundez and Femi/Kelyn Rowe. Columbus was perfectly punishing the gaps in the 4-4-2 diamond early in the game, and by flattening out, New England filled some of those spaces.

And while common thought would say that NER gave up numbers in the midfield by making the switch, that was irrelevant — Crew SC was always going to control possession (and the midfield) anyway.

The flatter setup provided a little more help for Xavier Kouassi, mucked up the flanks more and gave two of the Revs’ most dangerous players more freedom to attack.

The flat midfield meant that when Fagundez ranged forward, it wasn’t at the expense of bodies in the center of the park.

The change had a similar effect on Nguyen, who would rather not have to defend anyway. By making him more of a deep-lying striker with four behind him, when Nguyen floated around in the attacking third, it wasn’t at the expense of the midfield’s defensive shape.

If you dissect when Columbus was able to create its chances, the lines become clear. CCSC finished the game with 14 shots (five on target). Seven came in the first 20 minutes. Five came in the final 15 minutes.

That means that half of Crew SC’s shots came prior to New England settling in to its shifted shape, and nearly a third came when the Black & Gold needed to throw caution to the win and attempt to score, which leaves at least a good chunk of the credit to the effect of game state.

For the rest of the contest — the 55 minutes that were the meat of the sandwich — Columbus managed just two shots.

In that same period, the Revolution had seven of their nine shots, including their two goals.

CLB vs. NER, middle 55 minutes in shots

Blue is Columbus, red is New England.

So forget possession. Crew SC maintained a possession advantage nearly the entire game. And yet even during 55 minutes of generally controlling the ball, CCSC was out-shot 7-2.

While Columbus started on the front foot, New England’s response changed the game.

(FWIW: It’s the second consecutive loss in which Crew SC’s opponent made a tactical shift in the first half.)


Track how players’ performances are trending. Who stood out for the good or the bad?


Waylon Francis — It’s clear that Gregg Berhalter has been pleased with how Francis filled in during a busy stretch, because he’s continued to roll with him and even has made comments about left back being an open battle between Francis and Jukka Raitala. This is the best we’ve seen of Francis in a long time, and he contributed on both halves of the field Sunday.


Hector Jimenez — Two weeks ago I actively praised Jimenez for his play. This game, however, he was exposed. Fagundez victimized him multiple times, and he appeared to be ball watching to some extent on both goals. I don’t think it was coincidence he was subbed off early in the second half.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New England Revolution
Diego Fagundez came at hector Jimenez all day.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Mensah — After some “oof” moments against Montreal, Jonathan continued to leave fans questioning whether he is worth a DP tag. His distribution out of the back was much better than a week ago, but too many times he looked a little lost in his positioning, and he was caught in the middle on New England’s go-ahead goal. I’m still willing to give him time to figure things out, but this performance won’t have changed any minds.

Kekutah Manneh — Everyone has been champing at the bit to get Manneh in the lineup, and now he’s gotten two consecutive starts. This one, I thought, didn’t do him many favors. He did have one bright moment — his excellent turn and low cross to Ola Kamara that should have been a goal — but otherwise was nonexistent. There were some times I thought he was a little stagnant off the ball. Was his 61st-minute substitution just a factor of fitness (he didn’t go a full 90 minutes against Montreal either) or a look into what Berhalter thought of his impact on the field?

Look ahead

Columbus at Toronto FC, Friday, 7 p.m. EST, at BMO Field

Again? These teams will meet for the second time in 16 days and the third time in six weeks, though it will be the last time the two rivals face off this season.

After splitting the previous two meetings, who will win this year’s Trillium Cup (if you care about those sorts of things)?

Toronto’s unprecedented six straight wins in 22 days came to an end when the Reds settled for a 1-1 draw on the road at New York Red Bulls on Friday. But TFC remains unbeaten in seven games and sits atop the Eastern Conference.

Columbus won the first meeting, 2-1, but then dropped the last one by the same score, conceding a pair of second-half goals to Tosaint Ricketts.

That game stood out for CCSC, as it played with a three-man back line, featured some player rotation for both teams and saw the Black & Gold without Gregg Berhalter on the sideline due to suspension.

So what does that mean for the third and final matchup? Stay tuned to Massive Report for a full game preview later this week.