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Crew tactical review: Lack of energy sinks Black & Gold against Philadelphia Union

Tired play and personal mistakes left the Crew with no points to show for in Philly.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew fell 1-0 for the second straight game on the road Saturday against a solid Philadelphia Union team. The result dropped the Crew to seventh place in the Eastern Conference.

Columbus conceded early due to a howler of an own goal by goalkeeper Eloy Room and the team was never able to claw back into the game. This now marks two straight games in which the Black & Gold have failed to score and conceded the winning goal on a defensive mistake.

The way the Crew was set up was different from the past few games in subtle ways, but the scoring touch was lacking from the Columbus attacking players.

Let’s take a look at what changed in this game tactically.

Switching to a 4-4-1-1 and 4-4-2 defensively

The Black & Gold lined up in their typical 4-2-3-1 formation on Saturday but shifted when the ball was turned over. What formation the team switched to was dependent on where the ball was on the field. When Philadelphia had possession in the middle of the pitch, the Crew played in a 4-4-1-1 with Lucas Zelarayan as the lone attacking midfielder and forward Miguel Berry in front of him. Wingers Derrick Etienne and Yaw Yeboah dropped in deeper than Zelarayan in the half space between the defensive midfielders so that the Union couldn’t get behind.

When the ball was switched wide, Columbus reacted by going into a 4-4-2 formation. The wingers stayed in the exact same spot as in the 4-4-1-1, but Zelarayan stepped up alongside Berry and took the weak side of the field. This meant Berry always pressed the ball on the sideline, while Zelarayan prevented the switch. Central midfielders Artur and Darlington Nagbe also stepped up a bit more in the 4-4-2 than in the 4-4-1-1 to prevent Philadelphia’s midfielders from receiving the ball and turning.

The Crew’s whole defensive mantra was meant to keep the Union in front of the defenders, pressing the ball and then preying on a bad touch, pass or mishap.

The Crew’s shape in a 4-4-1-1 defensive look.
The Crew’s shape in a 4-4-2 defensive formation.

Columbus pressed as soon as the ball went toward the sideline

This is the opportune pressing system that is a staple of head coach Caleb Porter coached teams. When the ball is in the middle of the pitch, the player in possession has lots of passing options and it’s easy to get exploited if players press too hard. This is why the Crew tended to sit back in the 4-4-1-1 in this situation. But as soon as the ball was played to an outside back or winger, the press was on immediately.

The idea of pressing toward the sideline is more opportune than pressing in the middle because the options are cut down. As soon as the Black & Gold press, the field is cut in half, and so are the opposing player’s options because the Crew cuts off the switch, cutting off the pivot player, and the opponent is backed up against the sideline. Typically, if the press works, the only options are to play back to the goalkeeper or to play a long ball up top to the striker. If the opponent plays back to the goalkeeper, Columbus gets to step up and gain ground. And if the ball is played up top to the striker, that player is going to have a headache winning a ball against center backs Jonathan Mensah or Milos Degenek.

The problem on Saturday was the Black & Gold’s press was too slow. The players looked tired and lethargic as they pressed toward the ball, which allowed the Union to either switch the ball or find the pivot player quicker than the Crew pressed. This is a problem that needs to be resolved in the upcoming games if Columbus wants to get back on track after two straight 1-0 losses.

The absence of the pivot player

Another staple of a Porter coached team was missing on Saturday, the pivot player. Porter wants to possess the ball and break down an opponent until the Crew can create positional overloads and go on the attack. This is accomplished by repeatedly switching the ball and probing the defensive team until they crack and the Black & Gold can break through. Columbus is completely fine with passing the ball around the team’s backline until they see an opening they can exploit, and this is where the pivot player is so important.

Typically, the pivot will be either Artur or Nagbe. When the Crew gets possession in the defensive half, either of the defensive midfielders will tend to drop in between the center backs and provide an extra option for the ball to be played to. This accomplishes a number of things for the Black & Gold.

Firstly, it allows the center backs to get wider and pushes the outside backs, such as Pedro Santos and Steven Moreira higher up the field. Secondly, it gives the other defensive midfielder more room in the middle to find splits and be creative. Thirdly, it takes the pressure off of Mensah and Degenek to control playing out of the back.

By sticking a midfielder in the backline, it provides a sense of comfort and technical skill for the team as the players work the ball around and try to find an opening. On Saturday, the Crew opted to play more without a pivot player. This may be due to conceding the early goal, but Artur and Nagbe stayed, for the most part, in their midfielder spot and tried to get the ball to feet.

This change could explain the lack of attacking creativity going forward because when removing the pivot player from the defensive line means the outside backs can’t get up as high, the space in the midfield is more occupied and the wingers are forced to go one on one against the opposing outside backs. The pivot player is essential in Porter’s system and it is puzzling why he abandoned it for this match. This change though could explain the Black & Gold’s inability to score on Saturday.