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Crew tactical review: Late changes rescue a road point for the Black & Gold

Caleb Porter had to make a number of adjustments to secure another point on the road.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New England Revolution Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that was the tale of two halves, the three road points were there for the taking for the Columbus Crew against the New England Revolution on Saturday. Despite losing the first half lead in the second half, the Crew equalized late and left Gillette Stadium with a point on the road after a 2-2 draw.

Once again, the Black & Gold made some tactical adjustments in this game, one major one that was forced, to help return home with a result. Let’s take a look at what Caleb Porter did for Columbus against New England.


Before getting into the game itself, the team had to make a switch up before the match even started after Marlon Hairston felt hamstring tightness during warmups. This saw winger Derrick Etienne Jr., who was going to start on the right win to help Hairston defensively, slide to right back and Yaw Yeboah move into the starting lineup on the wing.

While this meant a more attacking presence down the right, with a natural winger now playing fullback, it also meant less natural defensive ability. This was evident in Etienne recording two assists, taking more space when attacking from deeper, but also in that both of the Revolution’s goals came from the Crew’s defensive right side.

First half

The Black & Gold began pressing New England in a 4-5-1 formation that changes depending on the movement of the opponent throughout the half. When the ball was played to either center back, forward Miguel Berry held his line of confrontation until 10 yards from the half circle. His first movement was to cut off the pass to the opposing center back, restricting the available players in which to play the ball. The winger, whether that was Yeboah or James Igbekeme, cheated up to the outside back, allowing the opposing player to receive the ball but then give little to no time before needing to make a decision on what to do with it.

Off the ball, the closest of the midfield trio of Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Artur would then step with the Revolution’s No. 6, who looked to receive the ball and switch the point of attack. Morris, for the most part, was responsible for sticking to whoever checked to the ball and this caused quick play and total resets for the home side.

This also changed Columbus’s defensive shape into a 4-4-2 at times, as Morris sat higher and waited for the secondary movement of the man he previously marked. To make the 4-4-2 possible, Artur or Nagbe, whoever was deepest would step up to the next line.

For the most part, this worked well for the Crew. But as space was given to New England players, the wings become more open. Within the first 20 minutes of the game, both the Revolution winger and fullback were instructed to stay as wide as possible on Etienne to test his discipline in an unfamiliar role. Needless to say, Etienne proved he could do the job, and eventually New England switched this approach.

On the defense, the Black & Gold played with a free-floating triangle in the midfield that took shape depending on the movements of the opponent. Offensively, the Black & Gold played with an inverted triangle. On the counter attack, either Artur or Morris joined Nagbe, who was typically the higher of the trio, in the attack. This overloaded the numbers that Columbus had and was one of the reasons that Nagbe had a chance to score 15 minutes into the game.

The second and third runs of Crew players opened many options in the attack. After collecting the loose ball and taking the open space in the midfield, Yeboah, who likes to cut inside, often made a diagonal run to the top of the 18-yard box. This drew both the fullback and center back with him on the play that led to the opening goal, giving Etienne the space to drive in the cross to Berry.

Second half

The Black & Gold went into the second half with one change, as Berry came out for Lucas Zelerayan. This change is one that has happened before, typically taking off the striker for a midfielder, overloading the midfield and leaving Zelerayan to play the False 9.

Leaving Zelerayan at striker left him all alone, and for somebody who isn’t very big physically, ball skills can only get you so far against two bigger center backs. This left Columbus’ shape defensively in a 4-5-1, which held up until the 70th minute when the Revolution tied the game.

Jozy Altidore and Emmanuel Boateng came into the game for the home side in the 67th minute, switching New England’s formation to a 3-5-2. Head coach Bruce Arena aimed to overload the midfield, giving the wingers more space to operate. Among the chaos of switching marks and figuring out who marked the man on the ball, the Revolution wingers were able to receive and play a ball into the penalty box for one of the team’s two big forwards to finish.

The Crew showed the team’s versatility in switching formations quickly. After the 82nd minute go-ahead goal, Porter subbed out Morris for forward Erik Hurtado. This change brought the Black & Gold back to their more traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, with Zelerayan slipping back into the attacking midfielder role.

This created problems for New England, as the 3-5-2 wasn’t effective against the 4-2-3-1. Columbus’ midfield trio was easily able to distribute the ball to the wingers who could exploit the large gaps in between the center backs and wing backs of the 3-5-2. The 4-2-3-1 worked extremely well for the Crew against the 3-5-2 late, just as it did the first few games of the season.