The last two matches for the Columbus Crew have not been pretty. A 4-1 drubbing at the hands of New York City FC was followed quickly by another disappointing loss, this time to D.C. United at home 4-2.
If you’re looking for good news for the Black & Gold it’s that there’s a chance to rebound quickly with another match at home Saturday night against Atlanta United. Columbus is familiar with the Five Stripes having just played two weeks ago in Atlanta, where the Crew came home with a 1-0 win.
Here’s what to expect from United and how the Black & Gold can get back to winning ways.
Atlanta United at a Glance:
Record: 2-9-6, 15 points
League Form: D-L-L-D-L
Leading Scorer: Marcelino Moreno (5)
Assist Leader: Jake Mulraney, Brooks Lennon (2)
Player to Watch: Marcelino Moreno
With Josef Martinez suspended after receiving a red card in Atlanta’s previous match, Moreno will have to carry the torch for United’s attack in this game. Moreno is the team’s leading scorer and has a goal in each of the last two games.
In total, Moreno has scored seven times in 27 matches since joining Atlanta last September. These numbers aren’t super impressive until you realize that five of those seveng goals have come in his 2021 campaign. Moreno seems to have figured out how to be productive in MLS and looks to continue his hot streak, despite Martinez’s absence. The Black & Gold know that stopping Moreno would go a long way towards securing three points at home.
How Atlanta United play:
United has had a whirlwind 2021 campaign so far, culminating with the dismissal of then-head coach Gabriel Heinze just 13 matches into his tenure in Atlanta. United is now led by interim head coach Rob Valentino, who has made some slight tweaks in Atlanta’s playing style. However, the team’s main points of emphasis remain the same.
The most important part of the Five Stripes’ game is their possession. Atlanta actually leads the league in average possession per match with 58.5 percent. In spite of this, United is 18th in MLS in shots on goal, 22nd in goals per match and dead last in chances created (just behind the Crew.)
All of this is to say that despite the ball dominance, Atlanta has struggled to find the back of the net so far in 2021. However, some of Valentino’s wrinkles may be paying off as the Five Stripes have scored four goals in their last two matches.
United will utilize an expansive attacking shape when in possession. Specifically, look for the Atlanta fullbacks to join the attack as often as possible in the wide areas. In the first meeting with the Crew, the Five Stripes struggled to penetrate the Black & Gold centrally and therefore relied on crosses into the penalty box to create scoring chances. In this match, United should look to penetrate the Columbus defense more centrally in order to create better scoring opportunities.
Defensively, Atlanta has done a few different things so far in 2021. At times, the Five Stripes have looked to press high up the field in order to rattle their opponents and win the ball back closer to goal. There have also been games where United has defended a little deeper and more compactly in an effort to limit the space for the opponents to attack behind their backline. This also helps to create space for Atlanta to counter attack after win the ball back.
While we can’t be sure which strategy Valentino will use against the Crew, there is a case to be made for both. Sitting in a more compact defensive block will allow the Five Stripes to control the tempo of the game on the road where they have been woeful this season. However, after watching both Jonathan Mensah and Aboubacar Keita give the ball away under pressure (leading to D.C. goals), Valentino may be inclined to apply similar pressure to the Crew backline in this match.
How the Crew can win:
While far from an actual “must-win” game for the Black & Gold, it cetainly is a game Columbus wants to have. It’s no secret that the players, coaching staff and fan base are unhappy after two dismal performances in the last week. A win against Atlanta at home could signify the start of a positive run of form leading into this crucial part of the season.
In order to do this the Black & Gold, first and foremost, must get off to a good start in this match. In the last two games, Columbus trailed inside the first 20 minutes. It’s no secret that this is not a winning formula for any team in the league.
The Crew has won just once when conceding first in 2021. Conversely, Columbus is 5-0-0 when scoring the first goal. Being the first team to score obviously is a good thing, but the importance may be doubled when playing a team like Atlanta who has consistently struggled to score and create chances this year. If the Black & Gold get off to a fast start and score first, it could go a long way in setting the tone for the rest of the match.
In addition to starting the match in a positive way, Columbus’ backline needs to return to normal form in this match. The Crew has conceded four goals in each of the last two matches, which is incredibly out of character and concerning. The backline has been prone to uncharacteristic lapses of focus in the last two matches, including the mix-ups in possession from Mensah and Keita.
If the Black & Gold are going to return to winning ways against the Five Stripes, they will need the defensive line to be at their best. As mentioned, United leads the league in average possession, which means the Crew is likely going to have to defend a lot in this match. If the backline is able to rebound after two dismal performances, Columbus could have similar success to previous matchup with Atlanta.
Lastly, the Black & Gold need to be ready to attack in transition in this game. Due to the expansiveness of United’s shape in possession, there is a lot of space to attack behind the Atlanta backline in the moments after they lose possession. This is an area that the Five Stripes have struggled with in 2021 and the Crew is well equipped to exploit.
With the speed that players such as Luis Diaz, Derrick Etienne, Pedro Santos, Gyasi Zardes and Alexandru Matan and with the passing ability of the likes of Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus could be lethal in attacking transition against United.
At times in 2021, the Crew has been hesitant going forward in these moments. However, for a team struggling to create chances in possession, the Black & Gold could really benefit from exploiting teams in transition.