The Columbus Crew finally picked up a road win on Saturday, the first of the 2022 season, with a 2-1 victory at Atlanta United. After an early goal from center back Jonathan Mensah off a corner kick, forward Erik Hurtado doubled the Black & Gold lead just before halftime. From there Columbus held on, only conceding a bicycle kick goal to Dom Dwyer in stoppage time. Heroics from Eloy Room along with some changes in play from head coach Caleb Porter led the Crew to the win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
These were an important three points for the Black & Gold. Not only was it a first win away from Lower.com Field, but it also ended a run of three straight games without a win, two consecutive losses and sent Columbus into the international break feeling more positive about things.
Let’s take a look at what the Crew did tactically to earn this victory.
Darlington Nagbe playing deeper
It can be said that Nagbe has had his fair share of bad press in the week leading up to this game for his part in the team’s 2-0 loss to LAFC, but the midfielder bounced back with a nice performance on Saturday evening. His positional placement was key to that and to the Black & Gold coming home with three points.
At the beginning of the season, Nagbe and Artur were given the freedom to roam the midfield, keep possession of the ball and make plays. That changed this past weekend, as Nagbe was placed in front of the defense in a defensive midfielder role, while Artur was pushed a little bit higher up the pitch. This allowed Nagbe to see the play in front of him clearer, make interceptions and organize the team from his defensive midfield spot.
Pushing Artur higher also gave Nagbve more space to find passing lanes instead of restricting him to one side of the field, which tends to happen when the Brazilian is playing alongside him. This openness gave Nagbe creative freedom and also put one of Columbus’ more dangerous players in a favorable situation
More emphasis on playing the ball through the middle of the pitch
In the preseason, Porter said that the Crew needed more production from his wingers this year, meaning the ball would have to be put at their feet out wide to allow them to create. This has been mostly what the Black & Gold have done this season, attacking down the sides of the pitch. This was not the case Saturday and most of the play made its way through the middle of the field.
With the players Columbus had in midfield, this was a good move because Artur, Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris are highly technical quality players on a consistent basis. By putting the ball at their feet, they could feed Hurtado down the middle, while also still having the option to swing the ball out wide to the Crew wingers. When only are attacking down the sides of the field, a team doesn’t have aren’t many options in the attacking areas, leaving either cross into the penalty box or dropping the ball back to a trailing wing back or midfielder. When a team attacks down the middle, the whole field is available.
Another element of this style of play is the wing backs can be more defensive. Because the ball is not being isolated on one side of the field, there is no need for the wing backs to push up as high and support because the midfielders have enough support already in the middle of the pitch.
Where the Crew still needs to improve
The quality of play and lack of mistakes were much better at Atlanta when compared to past games, but there are still areas of improvement for the Black & Gold to get better results.
The main thing the team needs to fix is its passing. Columbus prides itself on a style of play that emphasizes control and possession. The Crew wants to break down an opposing team and capitalize on the chances created through a series of passes. However, the passing has not been good enough in the past few weeks.
Many times, there are chances to pass out of an opposing team’s press, but the Black & Gold players instead look to play long, often losing possession instead of retaining it. Nagbe and Artur find good splits, but the defense elects to play long instead. Instead, these other players need to look for better passes and be more efficient.
The players also have to get the ball off of their foot quicker. Too many times the players try to dribble by the opponent when there is an easy pass that can be played. These are simple mistakes that can be fixed, but that is up to Porter and his coaching staff.