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Crew tactical review: The Black & Gold makes changes to earn an important win

Take note of what Caleb Porter did to finally get three points.

The Columbus Crew finally got back to winning ways this past Saturday, trouncing D.C. United by a 3-0 score. After finally getting on the scoresheet for the first time in April in MLS play, the Black & Gold added two more goals before the final whistle blew.

All Crew fans hope that this win puts the club back on track to keep climbing up the Eastern Conference standings and earning an MLS Cup playoff spot. There was not much change in Columbus’ tactics from the last game, but there were a few nuanced tweaks that helped the Crew to victory. Let’s take a look

The Black & Gold in a 4-3-3

For the second straight game, Columbus lined up in a 4-3-3 formation and looked dangerous and organized, something Crew fans haven’t seen enough of in the past few weeks. This formation has changed things for the Black & Gold in a few ways.

First, the Columbus press has been tweaked. In the 4-2-3-1 formation, the Crew pressed in situations where the opponent was getting near the sideline or if the Black & Gold had a numbers advantage. That has changed. In the last two games, Columbus man marked and pressed instantly on a player’s touch.

Forward Miguel Berry, or whoever plays the position, pressed the ball until it is passed forward into the midfield. That’s where the Crew midfield marked the opposing midfield, making it difficult to turn and go at the Black & Gold defense. This forced the ball to either be played back to the defense where Berry continues to press or a bad pass.

Another nuance to the press is the Columbus wide backs. If the ball reaches an opposing winger, Pedro Santos and Steven Moreira stepped up to press and try to turn the ball over. When this happened, occasionally a midfielder filled in the space where the back vacated, so the Crew couldn’t get countered in that space.

Secondly, the midfielders have been more interchangeable in a 4-3-3, allowing more creative freedom. The Black & Gold central midfield on Saturday was a revolving door with Aidan Morris sometimes higher up the pitch, but Darlington Nagbe or Artur equally able to step into this role. This displays the understanding that each of these players has for head coach Caleb Porter’s system as they work together so well.

Finally, Columbus maintained the philosophy of creating positional overloads, despite the change in formation, part of Porter’s mantra is to gain an advantage over the opponent. The simple way to explain this is that the Crew wants to have more players in an area than the opponents.

This numerical advantage is useful in getting forward in attack through combining with each other and pressing on defense. This was evident on Saturday by the way that the Black & Gold wingers pinched so far across the pitch. When the opposing team had the ball near the sideline, the winger on the opposite side of the pitch was often all the way in the middle of the field. That’s because the Crew shifted all three midfielders, a winger, a wide back and sometimes a forward to create these numerical advantages to win the ball and then break through the opposing defense.

Dropping into a 5-4-1

This tactic was employed after halftime when the Black & Gold had a 2-0 lead. Last week, fans saw Columbus drop into a 4-5-1 defensively against Sporting Kansas City, but this week it was more of a 5-4-1 in certain spaces.

When United came on the attack into the Black & Gold’s half, one of the wingers dropped into a wing back role. This allowed Columbus to have more numbers behind the ball and for Santos or Moreira to be free from marking the backside runner.

There may be a few reasons for this change. The Crew might just have prepared to park the bus and protect a two-goal lead, in which case the team would be comfortable having an extra defender back and sacrificing in attack. Another reason is to free up more space for Berry, or later Lucas Zelarayan, to be free and create. By dropping that winger all the way back into defense, it frees up the entire side that was once occupied.

The Black & Gold only switched to a 5-4-1 when on defense. When Columbus was on the attack, whichever winger was back — either Derrick Etienne Jr. or James Igbekeme — moved up the field to support whoever was on the ball. This was done to be more solid defensively and to create more space.

Zelarayan as a forward

This is a change Caleb Porter will likely play more with in the coming weeks. Given that the Crew only has Miguel Berry on the roster as a striker, the Black & Gold needs options to play up at that No. 9 spot if Berry is struggling to produce. Maybe Porter doesn’t turn to Zelarayan to start the game playing that striker position, unless Berry gets hurt, but knowing that he can play up top and produce is a big ace for the Crew to have in its pocket.

If Porter does decide to play Zelarayan as a forward, it allows Morris, one of the better players in his last two starts, to remain in the midfield. A midfield of Artur, Nagbe and Morris can prove to be highly productive, and this way it doesn’t sacrifice Zelarayan’s time on the pitch.

This midfield trio benefits the Black & Gold because all three players are highly technical and very good at putting in work on the defensive end, winning more balls in the middle of the field and giving the attackers more chances going to goal. This idea also puts Columbus’ best player closer to goal and gets Zelarayan in more dangerous positions.