Columbus Crew SC is on top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference with 13 points after six games, only conceding four goals (0.67 goals per game). That’s the good news. The bad news is that Columbus has only scored seven goals (1.2 goals per game), which is the number of goals the Montreal Impact has tallied — a team currently in the middle of the aforementioned conference standings.
The Crew’s current margin of error is slim. And with a roster filled with capable offensive producers, the Black & Gold could benefit from a formation change. What formation, you ask? How about a 4-1-3-1-1
Changes: Nothing major.
In this new 4-1-3-1-1 formation, Columbus captain Wil Trapp would continue as the general of the defense, positioned directly in front of the back line as the central defensive midfielder. When a wingback moves forward, Trapp manages where he and his fellow defenders shift, thereby maintaining that the back line is organized in a way to prevent counterattacks in the run of play. This is critically important because it was just a couple of weeks ago without Trapp against the Philadelphia Union that Harrison Afful was bested by venturing too far forward and that led to the Union scoring its first goal.
Changes: Move Pedro Santos inside and insert Niko Hansen as the right outside midfielder.
Pedro Santos would be best utilized as the central midfield general in this new formation, primarily responsible for establishing possession and serving as a playmaking conduit between Trapp and the final third. The Crew’s No. 7 would need to contribute more defensively if only to hold up play by opponents as he would replace the defensive-minded Artur. Positioned in the middle, Santos would distribute the ball and spread the field with more authority and freedom than along the sideline. And Santos and Federico Higuain working together as the Crew’s offensive nucleus in the center is an exciting and dynamic prospect.
Niko Hansen would then replace Santos as the right outside midfielder. Hansen, who got his first minutes of the year against the New England Revolution last weekend after recovering from an injury, showed last season that he has a great instinct and sense of positioning when receiving through balls and being in the right spot for crosses. Plus, Robinho will continue to improve and deliver results in the form of assists and goals with every game played from the left side.
Changes: Federico Higuain would play in the space underneath Zardes, keeping the Crew forward involved during the possession and in the attack. It’s also important to limit Higuain’s superfluous running.
Fit as he is, the Crew’s 34-year-old Argentinian maestro should not be running box-to-box for 90 minutes. His strengths are his deftly-skilled footwork, vision in passing and ingenuity in finishing.
In this regard, Higuain would be the general of the Crew’s final third.
And when playing with one forward — in this case, Gyasi Zardes — the Crew’s No. 11 needs a reliable partner to ensure he gets touches, remains involved in the offense and doesn’t disappear from play for long stretches of time. Zardes is a rare forward because he’s a threat to score or deliver an assist (recall his most recent appearance for the U.S. Men’s National Team against Chile).
Opponents aren’t afraid of Higuain when he’s back by his own 18-yard box, but they are really concerned when he’s got the ball by their 18. The skill set of the Crew’s No. 10 should be exercised in the space between Santos and Zardes in the new formation by combining with Zardes, Santos, Robinho and Hansen.
Much like how the spine of the new USMNT is Zack Steffen, Trapp and Zardes, the spine of the Crew should be Steffen, Trapp, Santos, Higuain and Zardes.
In this 4-1-3-1-1 formation, spacing and positioning would improve with known expectations, ball movement would have more purposeful direction and Columbus would control the game and attack the opponent in a variety of dynamic ways.
Positioning Columbus playmakers according to their individual strengths would open up an assembly line of offensive production for the Black & Gold while maintaining its defensive success so far in 2019.