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Tactical changes: Porter giving Crew central midfielders more flexibility

The Black & Gold are operating out of a double pivot, rather than the more defined roles of previous years

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Since Caleb Porter took over Columbus Crew SC, fans and media pundits alike have been looking for how the new head coach will do things differently than his predecessor, Gregg Berhalter. Throughout the preseason, there was the talk of pressing, and how that would change this team, or what other wrinkles Porter would throw into the game to help his side.

This got to the point where Porter even joked this week that maybe everyone is looking for tactical changes too much and seeing things that aren’t there, as he and Berhalter ultimately play a similar style.

But there is one change that was noticeable as preseason progressed and into last Saturday’s regular season opener. That has to do with how the two central midfielders are setting up.

“In my midfield, I like guys that are well-rounded,” Porter explained.

“(The central midfielders are) the guys that are going to make us go on both side of the ball. (Federico Higuain)’s the one that should unlock the opponent with those final passes but Artur and Wil are the two guys that are going to cover the most ground, they’re the two guys that are going to help disrupt the opponent, they’re the two guys that help give us rhythm and possession from back to front.”

For the last five years, Wil Trapp played a very specific role in Berhalter’s system. He was the deepest of the midfielders, tasked with dropping between the center backs when the fullback pushed forward and connecting the backline to the attack during the build up.

Playing alongside Trapp was always a more offensive-minded player. Be it Tony Tchani, Mohammed Saeid or Artur, that player’s role was to be more involved in the attacking third when the ball went forward and help provide offense from the center of the pitch.

While Berhalter’s way of playing was successful in Columbus, Porter likes to be less defined with his central midfielders when he can. In Trapp — a player he converted from an attacking midfielder into his current role during his days coaching at Akron — and Artur, Porter sees two players who are similar and can both help offensively and defensively.

“I think when you have two players like Artur and Wil that can both play as a 6 and both plays as an 8, then it only makes sense to have them read each other and play in a way where it’s not predictable,” Porter said. “Because I would hate to take away from something that Wil can do and I would hate to take away from something that Artur can do... When I looked at those two, in my vision, I’m not sure who’s the 6 and who’s the 8. I think they’re both two-way guys. And when you have two-way guys, you’ve got to let them be two way.”

Once Trapp joined the Crew this preseason after taking part in the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp, it became obvious in games that he was being used in a different way. While the Black & Gold were in Charleston for the Carolina Challenge Cup, Trapp played in two games. Against the Chicago Fire, he received a red card 30 minutes into the match, but even before his dismissal, it was clear he was getting higher up the field with more regularity than he did while playing under Berhalter.

Playing a full match against FC Cincinnati, Trapp’s higher play was integral part of dominating the Major League Soccer expansion side to the tune of 3-0.

“When I look at the game against Cincinnati and I look at the first goal, it was 10 passes, 10 different players touched the ball and it was all in the front half,” Porter said. “So that’s, I think, a really good example of the soccer that we want to play.”

While Trapp is playing higher, there still must be the element of a defensive midfielder who will drop toward the defenders to help build out of the back. But in Porter’s system, this will more often be Trapp but sometimes be Artur. The idea is by not pinning one player in a specific role, both can operate in either. If it makes more sense for Trapp to push forward with the ball, Artur can provide cover if needed and vice versa. This is what the soccer world refers to as the double pivot.

While these roles are different than the two players got used to under Berhalter, Trapp for five seasons and Artur for the last two, both are familiar with the double pivot’s roles.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” Artur told Massive Report last week. “I think the first game when we played with one man down, I had to hold a little bit more. And the second, the game against Cincinnati, we shared the roles and I think that’s good. That’s important to have these changes. It’s not always one who has to come support the attacking side. And I feel comfortable also making these changes and playing as a 6 or as an 8 and I think (Wil) feels the same.”

While the system was successful in the preseason, where the Crew went unbeaten and won the Carolina Challenge Cup for the third consecutive year, Saturday’s season opener against the New York Red Bulls was the first real test. Although the Black & Gold still have not lost in 2019, Columbus was disappointed to only get a 1-1 draw at home against essentially the Red Bulls’ second team.

Trapp was also not pleased with how he and Artur performed in these new central midfield roles against a team that put pressure on them with their press.

“I think our spacing could have been much better,” the captain admitted. “We’re working in tandem but sometimes it wasn’t occupying the right spots or being off the shoulder enough to where we can bounce out of tight situations. Part of that is the opponent and how they pressed but another part of it is just reading the spaces and having a closer connection.”

Having played a certain way for so long, there’s naturally going to be some growing pains to a change that will see Trapp further up the field more often and Artur dropping deeper at times. The two will need to build on the chemistry they’ve established over the last two years and know who is going where and then the other responding accordingly.

Saturday against the New England Revolution will provide another interesting test of this new wrinkle. Although the Revs don’t pressure as much or as disciplined as New York, they will still look to disrupt the Crew, especially in the midfield. Trapp and Artur must be better than a week ago on the road to help their team not only control in possession but also prevent counter-attacks the other way.

The central midfield is a key component to any team but it was especially important in how Gregg Berhalter played. Caleb Porter elects to do things differently in the middle of the park but is looking for similar results. Although Saturday’s game against the Red Bulls may not have shown it, Porter believes Trapp and Artur have what it takes to make this double pivot system successful.

“I think they’re capable of doing that. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t want that flexibility,” the head coach said. “If we want to push Artur on and we release him on to press the two center mids along with (Higuain), now all of a sudden the play switches, why wouldn’t we let Wil now push on and then Artur drop in? That’s just the way I see it. To me, the balance of those two means that they’re both capable.”