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Crew tactical review: Preventable mistakes bite Columbus

What went into the Black & Gold dropping yet another road game?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew fell to the defending champions New York City FC Saturday night, 2-0. It was another game where mistakes at the back and an inability to be lethal in front of goal cost the Crew.

Tactically, head coach Caleb Porter did make changes to attempt to get a result against a good team like NYCFC. A ninth minute goal from the home team changed things from the get go and a mistake at the back compounded matters in the second half.

How did the tactics play out in all of this? Let’s dive in.

Lucas Zelarayan on the wing

This was a surprising change in the prematch lineups. Porter sang the praises of James Igbekeme over the past weeks, so he decided to slot Igbekeme in central midfield and push Zelarayan to the winger position, in order to maintain the 4-3-3 formation that had been successful with the Argentine recovering from a knee injury.

The idea behind this was to allow Zelarayan to work one on one with the City outside back and hope to create mismatches and chances to attack. Zelarayan wasn’t confined to the winger position though, as many times he came into the midfield to possess the ball. This interchange showed the freedom that the Crew operates with, but it didn’t pan out in the form of goals.

Coming into the game, Porter knew Zelarayan would not provide the defensive workload that Igbekeme did on the left wing in the last few games. This meant more work for the central midfielders, as Zelarayan looked defensively disinterested. The playmaker worked incredibly hard on the attacking end, but as soon as the ball is turned over, he switched off to some degree.

If this setup is going to work, it’s going to take more time and reps with Zelarayan on the wing.

The defensive setup is very vulnerable to counter attacks

Everyone watching this match saw the second NYCFC goal. Center backs Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah stood 10 yards past the halfway line on an attack set piece while arguably the most dangerous player in MLS sat unmarked behind them ready to bear down on goalkeeper Eloy Room. This is the kind of play kids learn to avoid early on; “Make sure we have a last man back.”

It’s hard to tell if this was a tactical call by Porter or just a lapse of concentration by the center backs. Either way, Columbus setting up this way that left the team incredibly vulnerable to the counter attack.

On many occasions when the Black & Gold attack, the only two players back are the two center backs. The wingbacks get high to help bring width and attacking numbers, but it leaves Williams and Mensah isolated. When the opponent has attackers as fast as Castellanos and Talles Mango going against Williams and Mensah, this leaves a lot of opportunities to get burned. There has to be a balance of pushing numbers forward and stout defensive performance. In this instance, and others, on Saturday, that was not the case.

The lack of a vertical threat for the Crew

This was incredibly evident throughout the game on Saturday. The Black & Gold lack a quick, decisive player up top who can stretch defenses, create space for Lucas Zelarayan and finish good chances. This player is not Miguel Bery.

An example for Columbus was Castellanos on Saturday. Granted, it will be hard for the Crew to find a player of Castellanos' quality, but the team doesn’t have a game-changer like this to partner with Zelarayan.

The Black & Gold had success in 2020 on their run to an MLS Cup title because Gyasi Zardes was the player stretching defenses and allowing Zelarayan to work his magic. The formula is there. Now Columbus has to go out in the next transfer window and sign a Designated Player who can provide this for the Crew.