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Montreal’s new defensive tactics pose familiar problems for Columbus

The Impact’s recent adoption of a five-man back line forces Crew SC to again focus on improving its attack

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Columbus Crew SC
As the creative engines, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram will shoulder the responsiblity of figuring out Montreal’s bunker.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Impact remain a counter-attacking team, but as the side travels from Quebec down to MAPFRE Stadium for an MLS battle with Columbus Crew SC on Saturday, it is in the early stages of a recent shift from head coach Mauro Biello.

On June 10, on the road at Sporting Kansas City, Biello sent his team out on the field with three center backs for the first time all season, and the Impact have not changed that since.

The expectation is it will be more of the same on Saturday against Columbus, making it four games in a row.

“They’re changing formation, so that’s gonna change things,” Columbus left winger Justin Meram said. “It’s gonna be a new game, so it’s gonna be different challenges and it’s gonna be a little bit more compact, so it’s just finding ways to be dangerous.”

Montreal has shifted the setup subtly — in Wednesday’s home game against Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship, the setup was more of a 3-5-2 (Blerim Dzemaili was listed by a forward/winger in a 3-4-3 and was very attacking minded, but played more centrally than a winger and in a more box-to-box role, leaving Matteo Mancosu and Ignacio Piatti as two pure attacking players.)

In the previous two games, both on the road, things looked more like five in the back. Even then, what was in front was different each time.

Against SKC, it was a 5-2-3 or 5-4-1, a setup that helped Montreal bolster it’s defensive width through the midfield against a Kansas City side that plays touch line to touch line.

Against Orlando City, the Impact again went five in the back, but with more of a 5-3-2 look that for a sturdier, smoother midfield transition against OCSC’s 4-4-2 that offers no true wingers.

The result in each instance was a draw — 1-1 and 3-3 respectively — which were strong results against really good home sides.

Here is what things looked like for Montreal in those two road contests:

Montreal dashboard vs. SKC
Montreal dashboard vs. ORL

You can see there are some difference in where the bulk of central ball movement is happening — part of this is the midfield tweaks, and part is the return of Laurent Ciman in the Orlando game, which gave Montreal a deeper, key ball winner and ball distributor in the middle of the back line — but the overall shape and intent is similar.

What does this mean for Crew SC? It means that the Black & Gold again face the challenge of trying to break down a lot of players behind the ball, which is something they have struggled to do, even as recently as a disappointing U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Cincinnati last week.

“The hardest thing to do in soccer is to break down a compact defense,” Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter said, reflecting on the Open Cup game.

“It’s the same conversation we have every year. ‘Why do you struggle breaking down a compact defense?’ The answer is everyone struggles breaking down a compact defense... But we still ask the questions, right? So, again, I think if the movements aren’t quick enough and there’s not enough commitment to get behind their backline and penetrate — Right? You have to get behind their backline and be aggressive.”

It’s easier said than done. Crew SC has received criticism for not often enough being aggressive in attack and too often settling in for patient possession, which has its uses but can cause the team to stagnate once it gets into the attacking third.

When asked for specific examples of times Columbus has done things right against a compact defense this year, Berhalter offered up two moments in particular.

One was the team’s first goal of the 2017 season, against the Chicago Fire:

This goal is about assertive runs off the ball, where Ethan Finlay gets in behind the back line to find space to head the ball in.

“So we talk about, ‘How do you do it (break down the defense)?’” Berhalter said. “We talk about quick movements around the edge, we talk about runs behind the backline, we talk about in-swinging crosses.

“Try to penetrate, can’t penetrate on that side, bring it back, in-swinging cross, goal.”

Berhalter also specifically pointed to his side’s penalty-kick goal at home against Toronto FC. The attack didn’t directly lead to a goal, but it did get Ola Kamara pulled down in the box to set up a PK.

“It was an interchange of a one-two (pass) playing between the lines instead of in front of the lines,” Berhalter said. “Breaking the line, now a center back has to make a decision and we’re able to score... It’s very difficult to defend like that.”

The key is the pace at which it happened. Quick movement not only pulled the defense apart, but also forced TFC center back Eriq Zavaleta to defend facing his own goal, and that’s very difficult to do. The chances of scoring sky-rocket if an attacker can turn his defender and force him to run back toward his own end line; the chances of making that happen soar when ball movement is quick.

“I think we maybe overload on the sides, balls over the top. I think we just have to be dynamic,” Meram said. “Against Cincinnati we got to the final third easy because they don’t have much numbers forward and then we were a little stagnant. I think we’ve just got to move and be more decisive and know what we want when we get closer to goal. If we do that, we’ll be all right. We’re gonna get our chances, no doubt. It’s just us capitalizing and minimizing their counter attacks.”

Orlando was certainly able to score against Montreal, even if OCSC was fortunate to get a last-gasp goal and a point in the game. But the Lions dominated the first half entirely, out-shooting the Impact 14-2 and taking a 2-1 lead at halftime.

The first thing the hosts do is counter Montreal’s counter. This gets the defense facing its own goal. Then Orlando aggressively penetrates the line, which destroys any hope for the Impact gaining it’s defensive shape.

Quick. Decisive.

That sort of end-line dive should be Ethan Finlay’s bread and butter.

Orlando’s second goal came much the same way.

And in watching the game, it was clear that Montreal’s backline could be stretched by prodding one side and quickly switching the field, then working it back.

“I think there will be moments,” Berhalter said. “They like to counter attack. There will be some times, from what I’ve seen with this five in the back, that they do open up. So, there’ll be opportunities.”

It’s unclear exactly what personnel Montreal will put on the field Saturday. We know right back Ambroise Oyongo won’t be involved — he injured his knee while on international duty with Cameroon and will miss the rest of the season — but beyond that, the Impact played a lot of key starters 90 minutes in their midweek Canadian Championship game, so there will likely be some player rotation.

Regardless, it seems likely that Columbus will see five defenders and a compact Montreal squad willing to wait for its chance to strike.

It’s clear the Black & Gold know how to generate chances this week, the question is will they?

“It’s gonna be challenging. We know that,” Berhalter said. “It’s going to take some good movement — take quick movement; it’s gonna take quick ball circulation, but it can be done. Orlando did it three times, so we’ll see.”