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New-look Columbus Crew SC enjoying early success and defensive stability

With a three-man backline, the Black & Gold managed to win three in a row without conceding any goals.

Sam Fahmi/Massive Report

Columbus Crew SC is known in Major League Soccer for its offensive-minded approach and heavy-possession playing style. When the Black & Gold were on the field, fans got used to see a big number of goals scored and conceded by the club.

However, over the last month, the team surprised several experts by changing its playing style to a more pragmatic and direct one. The 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union last Saturday, when the team had only 11 shots and held the rivals to just three — none of which were on target — is a good reflection of the kind of competitive soccer Crew SC is lately displaying on the field.

“In these games I think that it’s going to look a little bit different,” acknowledged head coach Gregg Berhalter after the match. “We have to get used to that. It’s still going to be our style, but the chances, they probably won’t be eight shots on goal. It’s probably going to be fewer chances, but high quality opportunities.”

One of the most noticeable changes in Columbus’ system was the adoption of a three-man backline that seemed to solve most of the defensive issues the team faced earlier in the season. Under it, the team managed to get three shutouts in the 1-0 victories over Minnesota United, in a friendly against German Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt and back in MLS action the Union.

Designated Player, center back Jonathan Mensah, who was struggling and being criticized for his performances, stepped up and had one of his best matches for the club last weekend.

“We’ve been working on this formation,” Jonathan added. “It showed us that if we really go together, it’s going to pay off.

I’ve never played on this formation before, but it has worked pretty well so far. Alex is in the middle and he’s kind of controlling us, saying when we should go and when we should stay. It’s always good to have someone behind you and now we have two guys doing that on him and Zack.”

The new system also directly impacts midfielders Wil Trapp and Artur.

In the team’s standard 4-2-3-1 formation, Trapp had to drop back as a third member of the defensive line when the fullbacks pushed forward. Now, with three natural center backs already on the field, the central midfielders have more offensive responsibilities to fill with one less player in the center of the field.

And without Federico Higuain, who normally pulls the strings in the Crew SC attack, those responsibilities became even larger.

To the Brazilian, it’s just a matter of adjusting to new role.

“The difference is that Wil and I have to be more active on creating chances since we don’t have a central attacking midfielder there,” Artur commented. “We have the ball on our feet for more time. I think we are doing well and we will try to do our best regardless of the formation.”

Even though we are obviously talking about a small sample of results, the new system has been efficient so far as the Black & Gold won three in a row and managed to keep a clean sheet for the last 296 minutes of play. Midfielder Justin Meram is not shy on taking the single-goal wins.

“It’s good,” remarked Meram. “I think sometimes we play so pretty and we don’t win games. We score a lot of goals and we still end up tying or losing. So it’s kind of refreshing to get these 1-0 wins.”

Berhalter first flirted with the new system on March 18 in a 2-0 win at D.C. United. In that game, the defense held strong, while the offense was able to earn and convert two penalty kicks to get the first victory of the season

The three-man backline returned on June 3, in a 2-1 road loss to the Colorado Rapids, when the team had more shots and possession than the rivals, but conceded two goals in the final 10 minutes. After a quick returned to the traditional 4-2-3-1, Crew SC adopted the three-man backline again in these recent matches.

According to the coach, both the 3-4-2-1 and the 4-2-3-1 can be used, depending on a handful of factors. The return of the injured Higuain, for example, could mean a new tactical shift for the upcoming games.

“I think we have our playing style, we have the way that we want to play, we want to dominate the ball, we want to move the ball around quickly and we can do it in both formations,” Berhalter said. “So now it’s about personnel and now it’s about the opponent. What’s the opponent doing and who do we have healthy that can be on the field?”