As Columbus Crew SC’s offense has sputtered recently, scoring just one goal in the last three games, it opens up the door for a lot of questions about the Black & Gold’s attack. Can this still score? Are the best attackers fit to play? Have players like Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan and Pedro Santos lost their touch?
While certainly fair questions, a large part of the Crew’s inability to score should be credited to the strategies of the team’s opponents. Much to the angst of Columbus supporters everywhere, New York City FC and most recently FC Cincinnati have most recently been successful in shutting down the Crew’s potent attack. How have they been able to do this?
As pointed out by head coach Caleb Porter in his postmatch comments after the Cincinnati match, “that was as low a block, players defending 35 yards out from goal, as I’ve seen in coaching.”
While the Black & Gold certainly had chances in the past two matches, the team’s collective Expected Goals (xG) — a measurement on the number of goals that can be expected to be scored based on where and how a shot was taken — was respectively 0.28 against NYCFC and 0.46 against FC Cincinnati. Previous to these two matches, the Crew’s average xG per MLS match was 1.3 per game.
As evidenced by these stats, Columbus’ ability to create chances has been significantly impacted by its opponents “parking the bus,” or defending in a very low line, close to its own goal. While the Crew has limited its opponents’ chances, only allowing one goal in the previous two matches and two goals all season, if the Black & Gold want to compete at the top end of the MLS, they will need to figure out more effective ways to break down the oppositions’ lower defensive block. Let’s take a look at what Porter and his staff may try to do as they prepare for a rematch with Cincinnati on Sunday.
Attack in Transition
The biggest reason a coach would choose to employ a low defensive block with his team would be to limit two things: the attacking space behind the opponent’s backline (often considered the most dangerous space to attack) and the cover space of players. The logic is pretty simple, if you have more players in less space on the field, they will be required to cover less distance and space defensively. Thus, space in behind the opposition is of high value to teams facing a low defensive block.
The easiest way to bypass a low block is to move it away from goal and defensive half and then exploit the space vacated. This is much easier said than done, however, as this space is closely guarded. The easiest way for the Black & Gold to exploit this space is on the counter attack, or in other words, right after the team wins the ball back from the opposition, especially if the ball is in the Crew’s defensive half. In most cases when the Black & Gold wins the ball in its defensive half, the opposition will have moved up the field in an effort to attack.
Columbus’ attack is well suited to attack on the counter with the pace of players like Gyasi Zardes, Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Emmanuel Boateng who are able to quickly make attacking runs in behind opposition defenses. Combine this speed with the craftiness and passing precision of players like Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe, and the Crew has a recipe for a lethal transition attack. In fact, half of the goals the Black & Gold have scored this year have come from transition moments and two of the team’s best chances to score in the last matchup with FC Cincy were both in transition moments (Mokhtar’s missed chip and Santos’ missed square ball.)
Despite this, the Crew oftentimes looked slow and perhaps, unwilling to counter attack when presented the opportunity. Columbus will have to continue to improve this facet of its game against low defensive blocks.
Attack Central Areas
I know this seems a bit obvious but it is relevant as the Crew has not been able to attack centrally at all against low blocks. Below is a passing map for Columbus against FC Cincinnati.
As you can see from the circled hole, the Black & Gold have been unable to penetrate defenses centrally when they defend as Cincinnati chooses too.
How can the Crew change this trend and be able to connect more passes in central dangerous areas? The first change that could help Columbus is to improve the fluidity of its attack. Against a low block, especially like FC Cincinnati’s, the Crew’s attack has been very predictable. The team looks to circulate the ball side to side, using the backline and central midfielders, typically Artur and Nagbe, looking to penetrate in wide areas using both wingers and outside backs and create numerical overloads out wide. Once in space, these players will often look to offer an early service to the striker or drive to the end line and pull the ball back towards the penalty spot.
In principle, this is a good tactical plan and one that has no doubt worked for Columbus (and many other teams) in the past. But as mentioned before, this space is hard to come by, especially against teams that defend in a lower block. Thus, the Crew would benefit from taking some time to explore new ways to create and attack space against its opposition, rather than relying on the previously stated tactics.
There are several ways to accomplish this, especially as the Crew has a very versatile squad in 2020. One thing the Black & Gold may do is bring one of the wingers into the central part of the midfield to partner with the attacking midfielder and have the outside back on the correlating side push higher up into the attack. The diagram below illustrates this idea.
As you can (hopefully) see, this change would certainly give the Black & Gold more options in the central part of the field as they will have likely created numerical overload against the opposition’s central players. It would also allow the team to be more creative with its attacking runs in the final third.
In this setup, any number of players centrally could make any number of runs, whether it would be checking back to receive the ball, running in behind the defense or making diagonal runs across defenders, which would require the opponents’ defenders to make quick and accurate decisions on who to defend. Presumably, especially against poor individual defenders, the Crew would be able to exploit poor decision making and create more opportunities, seen below.
This would also enable the Crew to not only try to pass and combine in the central part of the field but also allow the team to “counter-press” or try and win the ball back as quickly as possible from the opposition. This has been a big part of Porter’s game plan thus far in his tenure as head coach in Columbus and would no doubt contribute to the Black & Gold dominating possession the majority of the time.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a huge emphasis in the Crew locker room on having a quick start to the game. Scoring the first goal against a team that is choosing to defend in a low block like Cincinnati, will completely alter its gameplan and force it, at one point or another, to try and be more expansive both offensively and defensively. Not only will it allow for more space for the Black & Gold to attack, but it will also prevent their opponent from being able to settle into its defensive shape.
In addition to this, if a team defending in a low block manages to score first, its opposition will no doubt find it even more difficult to find a goal as the team defending in a low block no longer has a need to venture too far out of its comfort zone.
While the last match against FC Cincy was no doubt frustrating for Crew supporters, all is not lost on the Black & Gold in 2020. In fact, had the Crew converted any of their minimal chances in that match (or against NYCFC), there would be a very different conversation about the team’s attacking performances. However, it is no doubt that the Crew will continue to face stingy low blocks in MLS play until the team proves that it has a way to counteract this tatic and create a multitude of dangerous opportunities that lead to goals.