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Crew tactical review: Adjustments led the depleted Black & Gold to get a result

Caleb Porter had to make tweaks to how his usually plays with so many players out.

SOCCER: JUN 18 MLS - Charlotte FC at Columbus Crew Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Columbus Crew returned to action on Saturday with a 1-1 draw with new expansion side Charlotte FC. After finding the breakthrough goal late in the first half off of a goalkeeping error, the Crew failed to hold on or add to that advantage, giving away a goal early in the second half and settling for the tie.

In a week when much of the Black & Gold media attention was focused on the signing of Watford striker Cucho Hernandez, head coach Caleb Porter was forced to change his lineup massively due to injuries in the first team. With these changes also came formational and tactical switches as well.

Let’s dive into what Porter did to try and manage a depleted squad and still get a result.

Formational fluidity

Instead of remaining in the classic 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that fans have seen from the Crew all season, Porter decided to change up his formational set up in a big way. The Black & Gold started the game off in a 3-5-2, going with a rare dual striker look in attack and a back-three defensive look.

The beauty of playing in a 3-5-2 is the option to make formational changes without much fuss. For example, when Columbus began to get pushed back into the team’s own half on defense, wing backs Derrick Etienne Jr. and Steven Moreira dropped in alongside the three central defenders to form a 5-3-2.

This not only gave the Crew better numbers to defend against Charlotte, but it also didn’t require outside center backs Milos Degenek and Jahlil Anibaba to have to go out on the perimeter and defend against quicker wingers. This is why Etienne and Moreira’s roles were so important on Saturday. They were both integral in the attack but also had to get back down the pitch to help defend.

At some points, the Black & Gold also morphed into a 4-4-2 formation, with only one of the wingbacks dropping in to defend, with the other staying higher up the field. Typically, it was Moreira dropping so then Etienne — a natural attacking winger — could have more of an attacking role, but this fluidity of formation was something that was really positive for Columbus and could be utilized in the future.

Pressing with two strikers

This is a change that fans have not yet seen from the Crew this year, although many fans at the beginning of the season wanted a striker pairing between Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry. On Saturday, those at Lower.com Field got to see how Berry and Erik Hurtado worked together. Hurtado ended up getting the lone goal for the Black & Gold on the evening, but Berry had a major role to play in that ball being put in the back of the net.

When Columbus plays with a lone striker up top in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, the forward’s job is to force the ball to be passed to the sideline so then the wingers can press. When playing with two strikers, the pressing becomes easier because forcing the opposing team to pass the ball toward the sideline means another teammate in the striker position can intercept the ball or force the central defenders into bad decisions. The wingers still press onto the opposing wingbacks, so a team can commit four attackers into the press rather than three.

This is why the Charlotte goalkeeper had less time, why he took a bad touch and what gifted the Crew the team’s only goal of the match.

The defensive midfielders’ role

The Black & Gold typically line up with two defensive midfielders in whatever formation they play, and that was no different on Saturday night. Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris both lined up in the defensive central midfield position, but the way they played changed a little bit due to the new formation.

First, Nagbe and Morris were tasked with covering for Etienne and Moreira when they were caught in transition high up the pitch. If the ball turned over and either wingback was out of position, Nagbe and Morris slid in alongside the three central defenders to provide that defensive help and allow Etienne and Moreira to recover.

Both Nagbe and Morris also tended to drift out into wide areas to link up little one-two passes with the overlapping wingbacks. This opened the opposition defense and gave Etienne and Moreira a chance to run into space and at the Charlotte goal. This link up between the wing backs and defensive midfielders was the main way that Columbus advanced the ball up the field. When the Crew wanted to just keep possession in its own half though, Nagbe and Morris checked toward the center backs to receive the ball and then found an easy outlet.

All of these changes to what the Black & Gold defensive midfielders usually do shows the versatility of Nagbe and Morris, along with Porter’s ability to adapt game plans based on injuries or opponents.