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Massive Notebook: Going direct with Naess, Higuain and the Geiger Show

Crew SC got vertical against the Revs, and other observations

MLS: New England Revolution at Columbus Crew SC
Nico Naess had a profound influence on Saturday’s win over New England.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Word of the Day ...

... direct and/or vertical

This was as direct as we’ve ever seen Columbus Crew SC under Gregg Berhalter. It’s not unprecedented, as there were a couple of times late last season where we saw the Black & Gold get a little more direct, but it was the first time in 2017 and it was highly effective against the New England Revolution.

Here’s what that looked like:

Columbus dashboard vs. NER

If you compare that to any other game this season, the difference is stark.

This makes sense, given the scenario.

For one, the Revs’ midfield diamond is intended to clog up the central channel. When you also consider the way they attack — with Lee Nguyen as a shadow striker and Diego Fagundez at the top of the diamond and the attacking trio sliding around and interchanging — New England can create some pressure in the areas high up the field where slower building out of the back might take place.

New England’s setup also leaves space down the wings, and it’s possible to exploit that space by quickly getting the ball up the field and getting in behind the fullbacks.

So Crew SC got vertical quickly.

Also consider the tweak in personnel for Columbus. Nicolai Naess stepped forward into Wil Trapp’s normal role, and Trapp stepped forward (a little) into Artur’s normal role, playing higher up and buzzing around the midfield more horizontally. Both players did well with their respective responsibilities.

Here’s what Wil’s day looked like in Opta tracking terms;

Trapp dash vs. NER

Obviously different from what he normally does, but still with some shades of his particular ability to split a midfield with a long pass. Being asked less to begin transition by directing the ball to the wings, he more often looked to connect directly with the attackers. His natural skillset combined with a different role led to a more direct approach than what Artur would bring.

And notice his two key passes from his own half.

Now here’s Naess’ day:

Naess dash vs. NER

His ability to hit a long ball and find a teammate already transitioning up the field is great enough that it is, perhaps, the biggest factor in the team’s shift in approach. In fact, last season’s slightly direct play often coincided with Naess’ forays in defensive midfield.

And he’s not just booting the ball. He’s picking out teammates and more often than not putting the ball at their feet.

Look at this pass — which set up a shot — in the 10th minute of the game. In my notes I just wrote, “HOLY NAESS BALL.”


Rather than the typical player ratings I’ve been doing, I’m going to try something different — picking out a few players who stood out, good or bad.


Federico Higuain — Simply put, Pipa was so good. At the risk of using too many dashboards in one piece:

Higuain dash v. NER

This is very good. Connecting all over the field, three key passes and a distinctive eye to connect in dangerous areas. Even when his passes didn’t come off, they were taken in good areas and were looking to create danger, generally looking for someone in the 18-yard box.

With an assist and a goal and generally dangerous play, Pipa is making it clear that any reports of his demise were premature. I’ve always been an advocate for the Argentine, and believed that the team still needed him. Now he’s erasing all doubts.

The hope is he can do it even through the rigors of a full season.

Nicolai Naess — I’m not ready to totally endorse him for a full-time move to D-mid. There were moments I think he went too much last-ditch-effort and should have stayed a little more conservative. I also want to see a bigger sample size. And I still think the back line needs him. But this was pretty good. He worked hard, was basically a third center back when it came to shielding the back line and added a different dimension for transition. (See everything I wrote in the first section).

Hector Jimenez — Jimenez has long been a Swiss army knife and a GB favorite, but this year he’s really had to watch from the wings (no pun intended) for the most part. I thought he made the most of this start and was really quite good. He was solid going two ways and did a lot of little things, and his pass is what sparked the second goal when he found Higuain in a dangerous spot down field.

Zack Steffen — The young goalkeeper is a work in progress. We’ve seen ups and downs early in the season, but it’s probably safe to call Saturday’s performance Steffen’s best with Crew SC. He made some critical saves to maintain a clean sheet. Remember he’s 22 years old, and keepers generally don’t hit their prime until about 28-30.


Mohammed Abu — How does one’s stock fall without being on the field? Well, not to pile on the guy, but with Berhalter’s decision to sit him on Saturday — whether as a decision based on play or simply rotation — we saw a defensive midfield pairing of Trapp and Naess that worked, and a back line that held up despite Naess’ shift forward (though, to be fair, New England had plenty of opportunities and should have nicked at least one goal). There’s a long season ahead, but it would seem Abu is No. 4 on the D-mid depth chart.

Look Ahead

Wednesday — Columbus Crew SC vs. Toronto FC, 6:30 p.m., at MAPFRE Stadium

Saturday — Montreal Impact vs. Columbus Crew SC, 4 p.m., at Stade Saputo

Two games this week fill out a period of three games in a week, which is always a challenge. TFC is playing as well as anyone in the league, and Montreal did not start the season well but has collected seven points in its last four matches, including six points on the road.

Since we’re on a quick turnaround with a midweek game, I’ll leave the opposition previews to our full-blown preview pieces, which you should look for here on Massive Report.

Victim of the Geiger Show

We’ll send you out this week with some thoughts from Berhalter (WARNING: If you have small children who are good at lip reading, have them turn away from the screen)...