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Crew SC Breakdown: A new wrinkle for the wingers

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How the Black & Gold’s system has changed to fit two new wide players this season.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome one of our newest writers, Eliot McKinley. He’s analytically minded and has already focused his insights on Crew SC. He’ll be covering the same area for Massive Report going forward. You can find Eliot and his Black & Gold thoughts on Twitter at @etmckinley.

If there’s one thing we know about Columbus Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter is he’s very interested in tactics. In fact, Berhalter is one of the most tactically-astute managers in Major League Soccer, which has helped the Black & Gold reach the playoffs in three of his four years in charge.

This season, Berhalter has introduced a new tactical wrinkle to his Crew SC side, winger switching. Noted at Massive Report as well as internationally, the wide attackers, Pedro Santos and Cristian Martinez, have been frequently switching sides of the field over the course of a game. Thanks to the raw data provided by the good folks at American Soccer Analysis, this field switching by Santos and Martinez can be quantified.

In modern soccer, almost every aspect of the game is recorded including passes, dribbles, shots, aerial duels and defensive actions, such as tackles and interceptions for each player. For each action, the position is reported, with the x-axis representing the long axis of the soccer field, goal to goal, and the y-axis representing the short axis, touchline to touchline. With this data in hand, the positional tendencies for each player can be evaluated. Since 2015, Berhalter’s Crew SC has played almost exclusively in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a short sojourn in 2017 to a 3-5-2 formation. For most of Berhalter’s time in

Columbus, the wide attackers were Ethan Finlay on the right and Justin Meram on the left. From 2015 through the middle of 2017, when Finlay was traded to Minnesota, each player, with a few exceptions, played on their respective sides of the field, rarely switching positions. Cutting in from the left allowed Meram to unleash his patented “meathook” shot, and Finlay’s speed and crossing ability from the right meant there was little reason for the wingers to switch sides. Plotting the pass location on the y-axis from games where the Crew employed a 4-2-3-1 formation (dots represent mean passing position, lines are 95 percent bootstrap confidence intervals for each game) shows there was very little overlap between Meram and Finlay’s positions. Finlay tended to play slightly wider on the right than Meram did on the left.

This general trend remained when Santos joined the team late in the 2017 season as a record signing and Designated Player. Being a left-footed player, Santos tended to play slightly more narrow than Finlay did on the right, allowing him to cut inside to use his preferred foot, much like Meram did on the opposite flank.

With the trade of Meram to Orlando City SC prior to the 2018 season, both primary wingers for the Crew over the last few seasons were gone. A big question for the team was whether and Santos and whichever wide player won the starting position opposite from him could replace the production of Meram and Finlay.

In stepped Cristian Martinez, the young Panamanian who had shown flashes of brilliance during limited appearances in 2016 and 2017, including a goal on his MLS debut (which was also Finlay’s only assist from open play from the left half of the field). The first signs of a different winger strategy came in the first three games of the 2018 season, Santos and Martinez began switching sides of the field, albeit at a somewhat low frequency.

Against the Philadelphia Union, Santos’ passing position started out on the left, switched to the right midway through the first half and then switched back at halftime. During the game against D.C. United on March 24, the switching between Santos and Martinez reached a new level. This high-frequency switching had a profound effect, with Martinez notching two assists, one from the right and one from the left side, setting up the the first MLS goals for Milton Valenzuela and Santos, respectively.

Santos and Martinez continued this strategy the following weeks against the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Chicago Fire, both losses, but with the Crew generating more expected goals than their opponents in both games. The second game against United on April 14 saw less switching by Columbus. Santos played almost exclusively on the right half of the field, making only made three of his 45 passes from the left.

Meram and Finlay produced a majority of their expected goals and assists from the left and right sides of the field respectively (red line: 50 percent xGp+xA, i.e. balanced from each side). They were also prolific goal creators during their time in Columbus, producing over 62 goals and assists (on 51.54 xG+xA) from open play (i.e., not a corner, free kick or penalty kick) while starting the game in Berhalter’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

As of the date of publication, the chances that Santos and Martinez have created are well balanced between the left and right side during open play, but have only created six goals (on 4.96 xG+xA) combined from open play since they joined the team. Martinez has performed well so far in a starting role, but Mike Grella, Niko Hansen and a possible new attacking signing could potentially challenge him for playing time. It remains to be seen if Santos and Martinez can match the productivity of Columbus’ prior wingers and if Berhalter’s new wing switching tactic can help do so.