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Crew tactical review: First win of the Wilfried Nancy era

The Black & Gold are building confidence in the new head coach’s system game by game.

The Columbus Crew picked up the team’s first win of the 2023 Major League Soccer season on Saturday night with a 2-0 victory against D.C. United at Field. A Lucas Zelarayan brace powered the Black & Gold to have a Crewsmas to remember in a game where Columbus was uncharacteristically out-possessed by Wayne Rooney’s side.

It was a good team win for a group that is just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential under new head coach Wilfried Nancy. With more games comes more tactical nuances and details Nancy installs, so let’s dive in.

The front three

One thing all Crew fans can be excited about is the potential of the Black & Gold attacking front three with Cucho Hernandez, Lucas Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan. Hernandez and Zelarayan are locks to be dangerous, but Matan has shown that he can be dangerous as well, despite past criticisms of his defensive willingness.

The key to the front three being dangerous in this game was the trio’s ability to move around and not be restricted to one area of the pitch. Many times in this match, Hernandez was all over the attacking half of the field on the right wing, left wing and, of course, the center, which is his natural striker position. His variety of positioning makes it hard for defenders to track him and it allows the Colombian to have different attacking vantage points instead of always going through the middle.

Zelarayan and Matan are slated to play as two attacking midfielders, but they often will drift depending on the positioning of the ball. Nancy likes to create numerical advantages in the wide areas of the pitch, so Zelarayan and Matan will often shift over to the ball side so they can provide support to help the team break out.

Another noticeable tactical wrinkle is the variety of runs these front players make. One particular pattern of play that worked well for the Crew was Matan cutting inside and then slipping the ball through to a streaking Zelarayan. This happened or came close to happening a few times, and one time it resulted in Zelarayan’s second goal of the evening. The ball never made it to Hernandez, but the times this pattern happened, he made a delayed run from the top of the penalty box to receive a cutback from Zelarayan.

The attacking options for Columbus mmay change as the year goes on, but the Crew is in good hands so far.

Defensive press and style

We touched on this last week but with more game tape comes more understanding of exactly what Nancy wants his squad to do. On the defensive side of the ball, the Crew has opted to play an aggressive press and a high line so far this season.

Often when the opponent has the ball, the Black & Gold send the front three to press the player in possession and cut off potential passes. Midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris also mark players that could potentially receive the ball so they can get easy interceptions if a bad pass is played. The wing backs often join in as well, taking away the wingers as potential passing options. This means the only options for the opposing team in possession are to attempt to play through and combine or go long and hope the striker can hold the play up.

While the pressing was not perfect on Saturday, it was improved from the first game against the Philadelphia Union.

As soon as the opponent made a pass backward, Nancy screamed on the touchline to press up and the backline to get higher. The press and defensive line must work as a unit.

The idea of playing a high line is so that the Black & Gold can keep their opponents in their own half. If the press doesn’t work and the other team breaks, the defenders have the option of an offside trap or step to a bad pass or heavy touch. The only downside to playing this high line is if a pass is timed right, the other team can have a clean break on goal.

Columbus will continue to tinker with the defensive system in the coming weeks, but after two games, the Crew is intent on creating chaos for opposing teams.

Morris playing as a “half-pivot”

Last year in Caleb Porter’s system, one of the defensive midfielders would play the role of the “pivot,” where he would drop in between the center backs so the outside backs could get upfield. On Saturday, Morris sometimes took up the role of playing as a “half pivot,” between the outside center back and the wing back so the wing back could get higher up the pitch.

Aiden Morris playing as a “half pivot” so Yaw Yeboah can get higher up the pitch

This happened a lot on Yaw Yeboah’s side, which makes sense because he is the more offensive-geared wing back. Morris drifted out wide and occupied the space the wing back usually takes and then Yeboah moved higher up the field in more of a pure winger position.

This allowed the Crew to be able to connect down the sideline and possibly get Yeboah in a favorable attacking position against an opposing outside back. This is also smart on the defensive side too, because if Columbus got countered, Morris is already in a position where he could cover for Yeboah.

This is something minute that may not play much difference at the end of the game, but with time this could lead to wing backs racking up assists or even goals from getting in more attacking spaces.