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Crew tactical review: Black & Gold shutout against Nashville SC

Columbus lost its first game of the season, but there were tactical setups in place to exploit Nashville.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Columbus Crew fell to Nashville SC 1-0 on Saturday, losing for the first time this season after the Black & Gold went behind and were never able to answer back. On a day that honored a Crew legend Federico Higuain, Columbus lacked that signature finish that was often there from the Argentine to get on the board at Lower.com Field.

Nashville went on the road with a game plan to shut the Black & Gold down and succeeded, walking away with all three points. While the goal that Nashville scored could be attributed to Pedro Santos losing his footing and not being able to challenge the header, the Crew should have capitalized on some of the chances the team created in the match.

Let’s take a look at what Columbus did tactically against Nashville.

Wingers pinching in the attacking half

One way that head coach Caleb Porter decided to attack the stout Nashville defense was by pulling his two wingers closer inside so that they could possess the ball better in the attacking third. Fans saw this mostly with Derrick Etienne Jr. playing more centrally, almost alongside Lucas Zelarayan to give another option to gash through the opponent’s defense.

It seems Porter’s thinking behind this switch was to try and unlock the away side’s defense by quick passing and give-and-goes. Combinations between Zelarayan, forward Gyasi Zardes and one of the wingers provided a few glimpses of promise but never panned out with a goal.

The hard thing about playing Nashville is dealing with the team’s low-block defensive structure. The away side was content with just putting at least eight or nine players behind the ball, clogging passing lanes and forcing the Columbus to make absolute magic happen for a goal. Once the ball turned over, Nashville outlet to attackers Hany Mukhtar or C.J. Sapong and go off to the races.

By pulling the wingers in, Porter tried to find little pockets where the Crew could have numerical advantages and combine, but the spaces just weren’t there. Putting 95-100 percent of the team back on defense makes it hard for the other team to score, and that’s what the Black & Gold ran into on Saturday.

Artur dropping into defense to send the wing backs up the field

Another change was in the Crew’s defensive structure while Columbus possessed the ball. With the wingers up top pinching in toward the middle of the field, the space left was now occupied by Pedro Santos and Steven Moreira. This allowed the Black & Gold to have some creativity and width, as well as numbers inside to combine and get on the end of crosses.

While doing this, Porter didn’t want center backs Jonathan Mensah and Milos Degenek to be forced to deal with Mukhtar, Sapong and Randall Leal alone on the break, so midfielder Artur dropped in sometimes to play a three-back defensive formation while the wing backs were high. up the field. This was in case the Crew did turn the ball over, it would be an even 3 v. 3 transition instead of the pacey Nashville attack running past the two Columbus center backs.

This also pushed possession higher up the field so the Crew didn’t turn the ball over in its own half. Most of the time the ball was higher up the field being possessed by the Columbus midfield, but occasionally when the ball made its way back to the defense, the wing backs dropped to help push the ball higher.

The emphasis was getting the ball through the chunk of nine or more Nashville defenders to Zelarayan’s feet and letting him make magic. He had a few chances in the game, but none where he could add to his goal tally.

Playing a ball-heavy formation

Porter’s system revolves around creating numerical advantages in the attacking half and combining. Many times, the Crew tried to accomplish this by shifting the whole midfield and even the opposite side winger over to the ball side of the field.

From there, the opposite side wing back moved up into the space that the winger vacated. Nashville then had to make a choice to either shift all of the players over to defend the numbers or stay in place and risk Columbus combining and getting through on goal. The only downside to this tactical change is that shifting all these players into one area means there’s not much space to work with and exploit. It gets congested, and the only way out is by all the players being on the same page and quickly combining to go forward in attack.

The Black & Gold had some good combination play, but it just didn’t result in a goal. The idea and tactical setup was there to break down Nashville, but it was just the stubbornness of defense and a Santos slip that sent the away team back to Tennessee with all three points.