Crew tactical review: The Black & Gold keep rolling vs. D.C. United

The Columbus Crew made it three straight wins on Saturday night, completing a season sweep against D.C. United with a 2-0 win at Audi Field. The Black & Gold have now scored 12 goals over the past three games while conceding just once to keep their hot streak going.

Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan converted a penalty in the first half to get Columbus on the board and forward Christian Ramirez added another to his tally to put the Crew up by two early in the second half. From there, the Black & Gold never looked back.

Much of what Columbus did was similar to previous games, but the Crew keyed in on attacking where D.C. had weaknesses. Let’s dive into the tactical side of this match.

Playing in a 3-1-5-1 formation in possession

The Black & Gold have switched up formations in-game quite often this season based on when they have or do not have the ball. Last weekend, Columbus opted to attack United in a 3-1-5-1 formation and it yielded pretty good results on the attacking end.

Starting from the back, the Crew kept the three center backs in their normal positioning to help keep possession and prevent D.C. from breaking forward. Aidan Morris sat right in front of the back three as the lone defensive midfielder to provide a passing option, along with additional defensive cover if the ball was turned over.

The wing backs pushed up the field and tightrope the touchline, giving the Black & Gold as much width as possible to attack. Lucas Zelarayan, Alexandru Matan and Darlington Nagbe played almost as three attacking midfielders with Matan on the left, Zelarayan in the middle and Nagbe often on the right side.

Forward Christian Ramirez stayed in his striker position but played roamed more that in previous matches. He often mixed up his runs, with some in behind the defense but also dropped into the midfield occasionally. Either way, he posed an attacking option for whoever had the ball.

The 3-1-5-1 offered balance between offense and defense. On the defensive side, the Crew still had four defenders back in case of a high turnover. On the offensive side, Columbus had several attacking options in the middle and out wide to pose a threat to the opposing goal.

Specifically, against D.C., this formation worked well because the home side played very narrow defensively to combat the three attacking midfielders. This meant that the Black & Gold were able to do what they do best, attack from wide areas.

Again, offensive formations are subject to change based on personnel and opponents, but head coach Wilfried Nancy got this one absolutely spot on to exploit United’s defense.


Committing numbers forward


The Crew has been masterful in this recent stretch at attacking, but also keeping the opponents bottled in its own half. This is due to how many men Columbus send forward in attack.

Routinely, the Black & Gold commit up to eight players forward in the attacking third when they have the ball. This means that often times one center back, usually Steven Moreira, joins the attack alongside both wing backs, the midfielders and the attackers.

Typically committing that many players forward can be a double-edged sword, but Nancy has stated that he wants his team to play bravely. This means that he trusts center backs Milos Degenek and Gustavo Vallecilla to be able to ward off any counter attacks.

On the offensive side, this means a few things. First, the Crew can create numerical overloads and combine to create chances. This is one of the staples of Nancy’s offensive system, and with skilled players like Zelarayan, Nagbe and Matan operating in the middle, it has a high chance of being successful.

Second, the Black & Gold are able to maintain width with the wing backs. This can cause the defense to stretch and create space inside for others to operate. On the flip side, if the defense decides to stay narrow, it allows the wide players to create and have time to put crosses into the penalty box.

Third, it’s overwhelming to mark eight players. Teams need communication to work out what is going on defensively. The level of communication that opponents need to have when marking eight players while having their backs against their goal is extremely difficult. It gets even harder when the attackers move dynamically and make runs.

On the defensive side, the key for Columbus is to keep the opponent in the defensive half and not get countered. The Black & Gold have done a good job of that during this stretch due to a combination of the center backs being solid and the attacking players putting pressure on the opponent.

There will likely be some occasions where the Crew will get countered and give up a goal, but right now the Black & Gold are stifling teams with their attacking numbers.

Putting pressure on the ball instantly

This is the biggest difference in how the Crew plays defensively this year versus last year. Last season, Columbus often pressed for a little bit after losing possession but then dropped back into the team’s defensive shape.

This season, that has changed. Now the Black & Gold do not allow opposing players to have time on the ball other than center backs. Nancy has sent a message that teams the Crew face will have to beat them with quick combinations or counter attacks because the Black & Gold will not have much time before a Columbus player presses.

The best example of this is Morris. His play has been spectacular this year because before opponents even get their first touch, he is already trying to tackle the ball and win back possession. Keep in mind, the Crew still organize defensively, and don’t do an all-out press, but there is an urgency to put pressure on opponents when they have the ball.

This also brings the topic of energy into the conversation. Watching Crew games last year was tough because some players just didn’t seem to have any energy or spark. This season, that narrative has flipped. This squad looks energetic, quick and lively in every aspect, which contributes to the results.

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