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Crew tactical review: The good and bad of the Black & Gold’s draw at CF Montreal

The Black & Gold had yet another collapse on Friday night, but there are some positives (and negatives) tactically that went into how the game turned out.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at CF Montreal Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew tied yet again on Friday night, blowing a two-goal lead in stoppage time after a Luis Diaz red card forced the Black & Gold down to 10 men and settling for the 2-2 draw with CF Montreal. While this isn’t the worst result for the Crew on the road, the squad will be left frustrated with the way that the players let a two-goal lead slip away in the dying moments of the match.

The Black & Gold had a distinct game plan of how to attack Montreal that had its pros and cons, but in the end only yielded a point. Let’s dive in.

Columbus constantly pressed high

We’ve seen many variations of pressing from the Crew this season, but the type of press employed on Friday night was unique. Head coach Caleb Porter knew going into this game that Montreal was an incredibly dangerous team, especially when they get high up the field and can make a defense pay by utilizing the wing backs. The home side likes to line up in a 5-3-2 with two wing backs that will run the length of the pitch to attack and defend.

The Black & Gold countered this danger by trying to put Montreal under as much pressure as possible, so the home side did not get the opportunity to build into Columbus territory. This meant the Crew sent as many as eight men to press and force Montreal into bad passes and turnovers.

The good part about this strategy the Black & Gold were in a dangerous part of the pitch to strike quickly when they did force turnovers. The press had many layers that had to go right if the press was going to work.

Columbus sent forward Cucho Hernandez and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan high to pressure the middle center back and goalkeeper. Wingers Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. were assigned to mark the other two outside center backs while fullbacks Will Sands and Steven Moreira took away the Montreal wing backs. Midfielders Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe marked the opposing central midfielders, so the press could not be split and broken by one pass. Depending on the side of the pitch, Morris and Nagbe marked the near-side midfielders so the only unmarked player was across the field.

The downside of playing this type of pressing is that if Montreal does break out, it is a favorable counter chance and incredibly dangerous for the Crew. The Black & Gold performed well in these situations defensively. The goals for Montreal only came when Columbus dropped back defensively down a man late in the second half.

Columbus’ pressing shape against Montreal

Short set pieces finally pay off

A coach’s dream is when his team scores off a set piece that was designed on the training ground, which is exactly what the Crew did on Friday night.

On a free kick just out of shooting range, Zelarayan played a pass short to his right to Morris, who repeated the action finding Diaz near the right corner of the penalty box. Moreira then came streaking on the overlap and played a perfect looping cross to center back Jonathan Mensah, who headed the ball home to give the Black & Gold the 1-0 lead.

Columbus started taking most of the team’s set pieces short a few games ago. Until now it had not yielded a goal, but short set pieces do have their advantages.

Firstly, it can confuse the opposing defense if the players do not communicate. The ball getting played short requires defenders to leave their marks and push up towards the ball, before sorting out marks again while also being worried about an impending shot. Playing the ball short draws the defense out of its normal line, but then the attacking options open up depending on what the defense does.

Secondly, short set pieces open attacking options. Whether Zelarayan decides to cross the ball or take a shot from a dead ball situation, the defense is already set up to defend against both. When the Crew decides to play the ball short, the ball becomes live and passing and shooting options open up from multiple players, not just the taker. Moreira was not in a position to get an assist when the Black & Gold lined up to take the free kick because he was out of the play. But with a few quick passes, the fullback was in a prime position to play the ball to Mensah’s head.

Defending the lead with 10 men

Here is where Columbus failed on Friday night. A game with a comfortable lead was changed by a Diaz red card that forced the Crew on the back foot.

Porter made a few personnel changes to ensure the Black & Gold saw out the game and earned a win, but it might have been Columbus’ ultimate downfall. Porter elected to go defensive in the 80th minute when he brought on center back Josh Williams and midfielder Artur. This moved the Crew into a 5-3-1, with three defensive midfielders and Hernandez up top to stretch the defense.

Porter’s share of the blame came when he took Hernandez out in the 83rd minute for Erik Hurtado. Hernandez offers a plethora of things in this situation for the Black & Gold. He works work defensively, tracking back deep into his own half to win the ball back, and is relentless in his pressing. This is in contrast to Montreal’s first goal, when Hurtado was caught watching as the home side switched the ball to the winger who provided the assist.

Hernandez also could keep Montreal’s defense honest, threatening with a speed and skillset that, with all due respect to him, Hurtado does not have. This cost Columbus.

The second problem was the Crew’s focus on stepping out and marking players. The first Montreal goal is created because a late runner towards the penalty box is not picked up and then Nagbe is too late to step out. This leads to a shot at the top of the 18-yard box and a favorable deflection off of Victor Wanyama. On the second goal, Hurtado does not chase down the play, Artur is late to step out, the shot goes through bodies and gets deflected into the back of the net.

The moral of the story is the Black & Gold was poor in late-game defending and those moments matter most when attempting to hold a lead.