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Crew needs fundamental shifts defensively to re-find success in 2019

The Black & Gold would benefit from central defensive leadership and a change in tactics.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC has conceded a total of 30 goals with a -13-goal differential that has contributed to the Black & Gold being in second to last place in Major League Soccer with 17 points, second only to league-newcomer and “Hell Is Real” rival, FC Cincinnati. And the margin between the Ohio teams is only three points.

While injuries and national team call-ups have played a part in the Crew’s massive struggles this season, it does not fully answer big, concerning tactical decisions that have not utilized players to succeed based on individual skills sets offensively. However, fundamental defensive breakdowns are, first and foremost, costing the Crew from earning even a single point in too many games this season.

Black & Gold head coach Caleb Porter spoke about how his team has been close in games recently, but then costly errors happened at costly times.

“The disappointment is the mistakes,” Porter said. “They’re avoidable, individual mistakes. And it seems like we get punished on every mistake we make. That’s the way it’s going for us right now. But we also shoot ourselves in the foot. We put ourselves in those situations. The case in point is the last goal we gave up off a long throw (against the Seattle Sounders). It wasn’t was a long throw they flicked; it’s a long throw we flicked. And then we left the best player on the field go unmarked at the back post. And when I counted, there were six players that we had versus their three.”

The Crew’s defensive players – whether starters or substitutes – have not been fundamentally sound when it has mattered. If there are a couple of unlucky bounces or plays, then that’s just how things go sometimes. But this keeps happening because there are foundational cracks in the Columbus defense this MLS season that are not being resolved.

Referencing instances from just the past few matches, these mistakes have included:

  • Waylon Francis and Gaston Sauro ball-watched while Felipe Gutierrez was left unmarked against Sporting Kansas City just two yards from the Crew’s goal who proceeded to score on an uncontested header.
  • Poor positioning and failure to clear an aerial ball by Alex Crognale and Aboubacar Keita against Real Salt Lake that went over the top for a 1 v. 1 between the sprinting Sam Johnson and goalkeeper Joe Bendik that resulted in a goal for the home side.
  • Artur did not follow or communicate with Crognale for switching on Christopher Mueller against Orlando City. The forward then made a run inside the 18-yard-box to score against. For Orlando’s second goal, Sauro did not step up to defend Tesho Akindele, who had plenty of space to shoot and score from outside the 18-yard box.
  • Artur did not follow Miles Robinson on a corner kick against Atlanta United and the defender was wide open to score on a header.

Keeping this in mind, the Crew needs a designated vocal leader centrally on the defensive line who is a veteran of the team to ensure communication and organization for 90 minutes. Jonathan Mensah – who has returned from his time away with the Ghana National Team -- or Gaston Sauro should be tasked with this necessary leadership role.

Another adjustment that could help Columbus defensively is a positional switch.

With 19-year-old central defender Aboubacar Keita returning to Columbus from his time with the United States Under-20 squad, which included a start against Real Salt Lake on July 3, Columbus should find a way to play this young, burgeoning talent instead of having him sit on the bench alongside Williams and Crognale, waiting to back up Jonathan or Sauro. The Crew should look back to Javi Martinez on Bayern Munich circa 2017, when head coach Jupp Heynckes moved the central defender up to the defensive midfielder position for his defensive prowess, size (6-foot-4, 190 pounds), ability to distribute and being a threat on set pieces offensively that proved a winning move for the German club giants.

Both Keita and Martinez are central defenders (though obviously at vastly different talent levels individually) who have the broad skill sets that are well-suited for a central defensive midfielder role. For the Crew, Keita should be put into the central defensive midfielder position during practice for the next two to three weeks, with necessary film study and guidance from coaches, and ultimately given the chance to replace Artur (5-foot-11, 154 pounds) for at least a couple of games. Keita would bring an enforcer presence in the midfield while having the opportunity to be dangerous on free kicks as well as the chance to replicate his passing vision into the final third as seen in his beautiful through ball to JJ Williams against Salt Lake.

Lining up Keita (6-foot-2, 181 pounds) next to Wil Trapp in Porter’s preferred 4-2-3-1, with Jonathan (6-foot-2, 183 pounds) and Gaston Sauro (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) centrally in defense, would help shore up a struggling defense while positively contributing to possession and transition play.

Ultimately, Porter believes that players returning from national team call-ups will remedy defensive errors seen during the Crew’s last six games in particular.

“A lot of issues we had defensively, it will be solved with personnel,” Porter said.

We’ll see in the coming weeks.