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Crew tactical review: Learning curve sinks Columbus

The Black & Gold tried out some new tactics on Saturday night, and while some worked, others didn’t.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew opened up the 2023 season with a 4-1 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Philadelphia Union. The Black & Gold went up 1-0 in the first half due to a Union own goal, but the home side rattled off four unanswered goals, including two controversial penalty kicks, to take all three points. Columbus looked strong in the first half, but lost momentum in the second, allowing Philadelphia to take control.

This game marked the beginning of the Wilfried Nancy era in Columbus, and with that comes a new set of tactics. Let’s dive in.

Playing in a 3-4-2-1/5-2-2-1

The biggest change from last season to this was the formation for the Crew on Saturday night. Under previous head coaches Gregg Berhalter and Caleb Porter, fans were used to seeing a 4-2-3-1 formation week in and week out.

Nancy, however, brought a big change because he prefers to play with three center backs and two wing backs. On Saturday, the three center backs consisted of Milos Degenek, Philip Quinton and Steven Moreira in that central defensive role, with Will Sands and Mohamed Farsi in the wing back positions.

Wingback will be a position to keep an eye on as the season progresses, because Nancy’s system relies on those backs getting high into the attack, but also supplying defensive cover in transition.

Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris played the two defensive midfielders against the Union, which was not a surprise. But in front of those were two attacking midfielders, Lucas Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan. Zelarayan and Matan played almost positionless in attack, roaming from sideline to sideline and creating freely. These two often switched sides just based on the runs they made and let those dictate where they were on the pitch.

Cucho Hernandez was the lone striker and he played into what Zelarayan and Matan did. The front three often presses as a group as soon as the ball was turned over, not allowing Philadelphia to have too much time to settle.

Fans should expect to see more of this formation going forward in some capacity or another due to Nancy’s preferred system. Fans should also expect this team to get much better with this system as time goes on. With new tactics come new learning curves, and this team just needs time to get comfortable with what the new coach wants from each role.

Offensive strategy

In the first half, the Crew looked like a well-oiled unit, defending and attacking with purpose and even grabbing the opening goal. The second half was a different story. But the way the Black & Gold went forward offensively was very promising.

The offensive emphasis for Columbus was attacking down the wings and then getting a high number of players up the field in possession. To attack the width, often the outside center back (usually Moreira) formed a triangle with the defensive midfielder and wing back on his side. This created a numerical advantage in that area and with the right combination gave the Crew an opportunity to move up as a unit.

Once in the Union’s half of the field, the Black & Gold often committed as many as eight out of the 10 field players forward to assist in the attack. The only players who stayed farther back were Degenek and Quinton. Since Moreira has a background at right back, he pushed further up the first than the other center backs to provide another attacking option.

When Columbus got into these situations, the team was on the front foot. The Crew looked more comfortable on the ball and made some good combinations. This just fizzled in the second half as the Union made adjustments to this strategy. Conceding four straight goals is a blemish, but this can be a dangerous offensive team once things click.

Defensive strategy

The staple of the Black & Gold’s defense on Saturday was having a disciplined high line that caught the Union offside on multiple occasions, nine times to be exact, an amount that was frustrating to the crowd at Subaru Park.

This high line was what contributed heavily to Columbus’ success in the first half because the home side could not figure out a way to beat it. Of course, Union head coach Jim Curtain made smart switches at halftime and the offside calls reduced dramatically and resulted in much more promising attacks, and goals, for the home team.

The other defensive key was how the Crew pressed. As soon as the ball turned over, the Black & Gold switched into a high-intensity press to try and win it back immediately. The good thing about having numbers in attack is that a team has more bodies to press with if the ball does get turned over. When Philadelphia was able to sustain possession for a period of time, Columbus still applied pressure with the front three. Typically, two players pressed the Union center backs, while the third player marked the splitting midfielder so Philadelphia couldn’t break lines as quickly.

The problem with pressing after losing possession is if players overcommit. This was the case with the Union’s second goal. After Zelarayan lost possession, Nagbe and Morris stepped up to try and win the ball back and got caught out by a pass that split them. The gap between the midfielders and defenders was so wide that Philadelphia had room to create and a numbers advantage that led to a goal.

Crew midfielders getting caught out pressing that led to Philadelphia’s second goal

With time, these tactical mistakes will be sorted out and learned from. But the reality for Crew fans is that players must be allowed to make mistakes if this team is going to get to where it wants to be under Nancy.