Crew tactical review: Black & Gold rolls Real Salt Lake

The Columbus Crew won the team’s second game straight at home with a 4-0 thrashing of Real Salt Lake. This win moved the Black & Gold up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference and set an offensive milestone for the club, scoring 10 goals in the last two games.

Central midfielder Aidan Morris was the star of the night, scoring a brace and bossing the midfield throughout the 90 minutes. Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan also got in on the scoring action from the penalty spot and winger Yaw Yeboah finished off the visitors with the fourth goal in second half stoppage time.

The Crew has looked much better these last two games with new tactical nuances being revealed in each. Let’s dive into this match.

Moreira and Nagbe play as half pivots

Earlier in the season, fans saw Morris play the role of a half pivot, or a player that takes space between the outside center back and the wing backs so a wing back can get higher up the pitch. This happened often on Saturday night, but there was a new twist. Both right center back Steven Moreira and center back Darlington Nagbe played the role at the same time.

When the Black & Gold had possession, Nagbe drifted out left to take up the space left wing back Will Sands vacated going forward. This allowed Sands to get higher up the pitch in almost a winger position without leaving too much space behind. On the right side, Moreira did the same thing so that right wing back Mohamed Farsi could push forward as well.

This left more space in the middle for Morris to occupy, along with Alexandru Matan and Zelarayan. Both attacking midfielders were free to drop back and help build out of the back and Columbus could maintain the team’s width.

Now the question is what is gained by having two pivots instead of only one? With two pivots, Columbus got both wing backs into wide attacking positions instead of just one. This stretched the RSL defense and opened up space in the middle for the midfielders to create. It also made the Crew less predictable because now the team can get the ball to a wing back on either side, rather than focusing on one flank.

The Black & Gold then built normally from the back, being patient and only going forward when it was open. It was still the same offensive system being employed by head coach Wilfried Nancy, just with the wrinkle of having two pivots, rather than one.

Changing formation offensively

It’s no secret that Nancy prefers to line up in a 3-4-2-1 or some other variation of a five/three-back system. But when Columbus got possession on offense, the team switched how it looked drastically from a formation standpoint.

On defense, the Crew settled into a 5-3-2 formation. As soon as they won the ball back, however, the Black & Gold switched to something looking more like a 4-1-4-1. Milos Degenek and Gustavo Vallecilla manned the center back positions that have previously been in a four-back system. As mentioned, Nagbe and Moreira stepped into the outside fullback positions while operating as half pivots, while Morris would be the lone central midfielder. Higher up the pitch, Zelarayan and Matan stay as dual No. 10s, with Farsi and Sands as wingers. Christian Ramirez was the lone striker.

This was a risk/reward call by Nancy. The offensive output was the reward, but also the defensive risk. Often the Crew gets around eight players into the attacking third as much as possible, leaving two defenders back to cover the counter. This means there usually will be an open man on the offensive end due to the overload of players in that area. That’s the reason why Columbus had so many attacking opportunities throughout the game.

On the risk side, the Black & Gold dared RSL to counter with the team’s two strikers going against Degenek and Vallecilla. It was a classic training ground 2 v. 2 battle between the visiting attackers and the home defenders, and it was overall won by the Crew.

The shift from a defensive five backline to an offensive-oriented back four is one of the main reasons Columbus had such attacking success, and it’s something to keep an eye out for in the coming games.

What is Nancy’s offensive system?

Nancy hasn’t taken long to put his imprint on the Crew, but what exactly is his offensive system? After six games, fans of the Black & Gold can agree this team is fun to watch. The question is what sets this team apart offensively from past Columbus squads. After watching the game tape, there are four keys for Columbus in the attacking third.

The first is getting around seven to eight players forward in attack. This usually means that in a typical three-back offensive system, one center back joins the attack. This has been Moreira.

This gives the Crew a numerical advantage and forces opponents to choose how to defend. Opponents can leave attackers forward to counter, but risk getting overloaded. The other option is to defend with nine or 10 players, but then are pinned deep with no outlet. This is exactly the dilemma that Nancy wants teams to face.

The second key is attacking from the wide areas of the pitch. This is why the Black & Gold put so much effort into getting the wing backs forward. It stretches the defense, which frees up space inside for skilled players like Zelarayan and Matan to operate.

This also applies to attacking players drifting out wide, like Zelarayan and Cucho Hernandez did earlier in the season before the forward got hurt. This approach keeps defenses on its toes and allows players to create in 1 v. 1 situations.

The third key is the front three dropping deeper or receiving the ball to feet. This has been more the case since Ramirez took up the mantle of the starting striker after Hernandez’s injury because that’s more his play style.

This approach draws the center backs out and allows space to open up behind, which brings up the fourth key: secondary runners.

When the attackers drop in and the center back covers, the passing lanes open up quickly. This is why the first runner through isn’t always the best pass to make because the defense’s focus is on them.

That being said, not every goal is going to be scored by a secondary runner, but it is a common theme that keeps popping up in different games. This is the reason why it will be interesting to see where Hernandez fits into this peaking Crew team when he comes back. He will definitely be a starter, but watch if the team’s style changes with him in the lineup compared to other players.  

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