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A more direct approach for Crew SC led to road success in New England

The Black & Gold like to play pretty, but sometimes on the road, you have to win ugly.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Berhalter is considered to be one of the best tactical minds among Major League Soccer coaches. Since 2015, Berhalter’s main tactics with Columbus Crew SC involve a 4-2-3-1 formation, with inverted wingers, overlapping attacking fullbacks and lots of possession, but he is not afraid to change things up as each game dictates. In 2017 Columbus went through a run of games using a 3-5-2 formation, at times Harrison Afful has been deployed as a false fullback, à la Pep Guardiola and Berhalter has experimented with allowing wingers to switch flanks early this season.

Columbus’ tactical flexibility in the defensive third of the field was on display in the match against the New England Revolution this past weekend.

Typically, the Black & Gold attempt to play out of the back, opting to retain possession in the transition to attack rather than playing long balls up to the striker. In fact, on average, Crew SC plays 13.9 long balls from the defensive third per game, which constitute 8.7 percent of all passes in that zone, both the least in MLS play this season.

Since Zack Steffen became the starting goalkeeper, there have been three games where Columbus attempted only four long-ball pass from the defensive third, including the March 31 home game against the Vancouver Whitecaps and April 8 game against D.C. United in Annapolis. However, learning from the teams’ previous encounter and New England’s highly successful use of a high press against Toronto, Berhalter had other ideas how to move from defense to offense this past weekend.

“They’re very man to man,” the head coach explained of the Revs this week. “We knew if we brought guys down towards the ball, they were going to follow them, which would mean a lot of open space in their half of the field and we just wanted to take advantage of that space.

“It’s not every game that we want to emphasize playing directly to (forward Gyasi Zardes), but in this particular match we thought it would be helpful.”

Instead of trying to play through New England’s press, Steffen just bypassed it, playing long balls over the midfield to Zardes. At half time, New England head coach Brad Friedel commented that Crew SC “have done some homework, obviously, on the press and Zack Steffen is hitting a lot of longer passes.” Friedel was right, Steffen played 26 long balls, 17 more than his season average during the game.

Black lines: long passes from defensive third; gray lines: all other passes in defensive thrid; yellow dots: Gyasi Zardes aerial duels

The difference in playing style for the Revolution game is apparent when looking at Crew SC’s passes in the defensive third this season. In the chart above, black lines are long passes, while all others are gray, and Zardes’ aerials duels are denoted by yellow dots.

The Black & Gold started the 2018 MLS season playing a moderate number of long balls out of the back. However, starting March 31 through the month of April, Crew SC played almost entirely short passes from the back, almost never targeting Zardes with long balls. The away match to the Seattle Sounders saw a change in style, most likely necessitated by an unfavorable game state caused by Pedro Santos’ 15th minute red card. Crew SC played as many long balls, 31, against Seattle than the previous five games combined.

Columbus reverted back to the team’s preferred style of playing short out of the back for the next two games. Against New England, however, Crew SC played 35 long balls from the defensive third, the most since August 2015. As Bobby Warshaw and Matt Doyle pointed out in an excellent video analysis of this game, New England did not pressure Steffen, opting to cover Columbus’ defenders. This allowed Steffen plenty of time to pick out Zardes with long balls. With New England pushing high, this left a gap in the midfield for Columbus to win the second balls. This style didn’t lead to any goals in the run of play, although Crew SC created a number of chances, but prevented New England from creating much through the press.

High presses can cause problems for teams that like to play out of the back like Crew SC and New York City FC. Columbus has dropped points due to a pressure induced error in Chicago and NYCFC has struggled against high-pressing teams such as New England and New York Red Bulls. In fact, Berhalter has actually used a similar tactic before against the Red Bulls.

“We did this in 2015 against the Red Bulls,” he explained. “Ethan Finlay’s goal against Red Bull was an exact almost copy of the game plan we had against New England. Red Bull we knew was going to let us play out and then they were going to press us really hard, and then we had Kei Kamara, one of the best headerers in the league, and we had fast guys looking for the second ball. The starting point is how do you beat man-to-man defense, and then you have a number of different solutions, and that was one of them.”

Having the ability to change tactics based upon opponents gives Crew SC an edge, especially on the road. This will be important for Crew SC as upcoming fixtures include games against Sporting Kansas City and the Red Bulls, both teams that like to press. This route-one playing style is most likely not going to be a regular feature for Columbus, as it is not Berhalter’s style as it may not be aesthetically pleasing, but, when used judiciously, it can be very effective.