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The Crew’s change in formation vs. Atlanta United worked, showed Black & Gold’s versatility

Caleb Porter took a risk changing the team’s shape, and it worked.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Porter doesn’t like much change on the field. The Columbus Crew head coach believes in his style of play and won’t often go away from that once he’s built his team in his image.

“For me, I don’t believe you should be doing that (changing tactics) every game,” Porter said this week, “because at the end of the day, when you start getting too tricky and you start thinking you’re the reason you’re winning and guys overthink it and start changing tactics every game, I don’t see those teams win. The best teams, they build from a position of strength, they execute and they have little tweaks.”

Porter certainly makes tweaks to the team’s play. Although not all will be obvious to the casual observer, the Crew rarely does the exact same thing in back-to-back games.

In Saturday’s 1-0 win at Atlanta United, Porter’s changes were clear to anyone who regularly watches his team. After playing a 4-3-2-1 formation for nearly every game of Porter’s tenure in Columbus, the head coach made a switch to a 4-4-2.

Without striker Gyasi Zardes, who usually is at the tip of the Black & Gold offense, the winger positions not at full strength and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan coming off 174 minutes in a four-day stretch, Porter recognized there was an opportunity to do something different. Given the consistency of Porter’s formation, the hope was it might also catch Atlanta off guard.

“Obviously, I believe in continuity, I believe in consistency, I believe in execution,” the head coach said. “I believe that the way that we want to play, if you execute, you increase your chances of winning. But I also, within that, believe that you have to be adaptable at times and you have to look at your personnel and you have to look at the opponent and I have no problem throwing wrinkles in from time to time.

“We felt today in this game, looking at their team, looking at how they get their outside backs forward very aggressively, how they go a little bit more man as well with their outside backs, we felt like a 4-4-2 shape would work. Also knowing Lucas was a little bit cooked after the last game, we felt like a 45 for him was a smart thing to do.”

In addition to the formation switch, Porter also adjusted how the team played. While the Crew hasn’t been able to play its possession-heavy, match-control style as much lately with so many important players unavailable, Porter went away from that style almost entirely.

Instead, the Black & Gold were willing to sit deeper and defend, staying compact with the back four and the four midfielders. Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan played more as inverted wingers, helping to clog the center of the field defensively but being ready to break out and help in transition.

Despite no goals in the first half, Porter thought the switch to the 4-4-2, which kept the Five Stripes off the board and led to enough chances for Columbus to keep the home side honest, “had some nice moments.”

The best of those came in the 16th minute when Bradley Wright-Phillips dropped into midfield to receive the ball and played a perfectly weighted pass into the path of strike partner Erik Hurtado. The newly signed forward had a great chance on goal but put the ball wide. However, it was exactly the way Porter drew it up.

“If Hurtado scores that breakaway, we’re up 1-0 and who knows what happens,” he said. “But I thought we had some really nice moments out of that shape actually and it worked pretty well when Molino and Matan were very narrow and we were getting our outside backs forward and we were pinning their center backs with our two strikers. Even at times pulling Bradley off the line and running Hurtado in behind, I think there were some nice moments. So that possibly gives us a little bit of a different shape.”

The pre-planned substitute of Zelarayan to begin the second half changed the shape. The Crew returned to the 4-3-2-1 shape the team traditionally plays. While United still held more of the ball, the Black & Gold played more as fans expected of them. The winning goal in the 65th minute came off a corner kick headed home by captain Jonathan Mensah.

Atlanta, winless in nine coming into this contest, pushed for an equalizer, throwing numbers forward in the final 15 minutes. Columbus leaned on the team’s strength, defending well to get the sixth shutout of the year and, more importantly, a win away from home.

“Great road win. Unbelievable road win. Second of the year,” Porter said. “I told the guys before the game that I kind of felt like this was going to be our second win on the road, and I told them before the game that the main reason why was because of our confidence, our belief and that we’re a team that’s finding ways to win, finding ways to get points and get results. We knew we were facing a desperate team, a team that had very little pressure actually.”

In an ideal world, the Crew doesn’t deal with injuries or absences, can consistently deploy its strongest lineup and play more or less the same way in every game. But the Black & Gold don’t play in an ideal world.

Because of this, Porter has to have wrinkles, major or minor, in the back of his mind at all times and know when to deploy them. On Saturday, he took a risk, going away from the team’s traditional shape and trying something new.

It worked.

“Certainly it’s something we can do from time to time,” Porter said. “It’s good for the opponent to know that we can do that and we’re not just going to, every single game, do the same thing or that they think we’re going to do the same thing. So I think it’s something you’ll see down the road and you might see some different things too.”