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Variation is a new element of Columbus Crew SC’s offense

Pedro Santos and Cristian Martínez are bringing a lot of versatility to the Black & Gold.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC’s offensive system has always been regarded as one of the most complex and efficient in Major League Soccer in recent years and the team’s wingers have played a pivotal role on its success.

In 2018, it’s no different, but a few tweaks have been noticed by those who follow the Black & Gold closely.

In past years, fans got used to seeing Ethan Finlay on the right side with Justin Meram on the left for the entirety of matches. This season, though, all you can tell is that Pedro Santos and Cristian Martinez are the wingers, but on which side each of them actually plays is up for debate.

That’s because in the new strategy adopted by head coach Gregg Berhalter this season, Santos and Martinez are not only allowed, but actually encouraged to switch sides during matches as many times as they see fit.

“Gregg gives the freedom for Cristian and me to switch sides during matches,” Santos told Massive Report. “And I like it, because it creates some extra difficulty to the defenders, as they have to adjust to different players during the match. It’s much harder than if they were defending the same guy for the entire match.”

The adjustment seems to be working as the wingers are enjoying some success on both sides of the field. In the 3-1 victory over D.C. United two weeks ago, for example, Martinez provided two assists to teammates with one of them coming from each side of the field.

The second of them landed on Santos’ feet on the right side of the penalty box and the Portuguese scored his first-ever goal for Crew SC.

But the Designated Player has also had good moments on the left side, as when he assisted Gyasi Zardes in the team’s 2-0 victory over Toronto FC in the season opener or when he fired a long-distance shot that resulted in the forward’s goal in the 2-1 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps last Saturday.

More than switching sides, Santos and Martínez can also be seem drifting inside frequently in games, something Meram did oftentimes but a tactic Finlay did not use much. The goal of all these subtle changes is to provide the team some offensive variation in order to take advantage of every inch of space opponents allow.

“I think we look for where the space is, and where we can exploit it,” Berhalter said. “When Pedro is on the right, he can come in and shoot with his left, and vice versa with Cristian on the left side. So there’s times where we want that. We want them driving inside to open up space for our full back, and then there’s times where we’re happy to say, ‘We’re going to stretch, we’re going to open the opponent a little more,’ and have them positioned a little bit further apart.”

So many variations are only possible because of the versatility and the commitment of both wingers. Santos, who played most of his career as a right-winger, is willing to spend significant time on the left side.

The Portuguese admits he’s more comfortable on the right, but is happy to find ways to contribute in the opposite side as well.

“I believe I have more moves on the right because that’s where I’ve been playing for my entire career, but I feel good on the left as well,” he commented. “To me, when I’m on the left, I’m in a better position to shoot and to assist my teammates. On the right, I can variate my game a little better and I try to cut inside more often.”

Martinez, who is enjoying his first matches as a starter for Crew SC, has a similar way to see the situation. For him, regardless of which side they wingers are on, the most important thing is to help the team.

“I prefer playing on the right because I’m in a better position to cut inside and shoot, but I like the left side as well,” he added. “Whichever side I’m on, I’ll always try to score goals and assist my teammates.”