Crew tactical review: Formation changes salvage point for Black & Gold

The Columbus Crew battled back in dramatic fashion to tie the New England Revolution 1-1 at Field on Saturday night. This was a tough test for the Black & Gold, facing one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference early in the year, but they managed to grab a point due to a 98th minute equalizer from substitute midfielder Sean Zawadzki.

The Revolution provided a more challenging opponent than Columbus faced in recent weeks, but the Crew managed to find the tying goal against a 10-man New England team to maintain a four-game unbeaten run. The Black & Gold made a few formational tweaks to begin the game and made some adjustments after the Revolution were reduced to 10 men.

Let’s dive into the tactical side of this match.

Attacking in a 4-2-3-1 formation, defending in a 5-2-3

Yet again, head coach Wilfried Nancy made a tweak to the formation in which Columbus attacked against New England. Set up in his favored 3-4-2-1, Nancy opted to go at the Revolution in a formation familiar to Crew fans, the 4-2-3-1.

In this game, Gustavo Vallecilla and Milos Degenek play as the two center backs, while Steven Moreira played more like a right back. For much of the match in attack, Will Sands played a traditional left back.

Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe played as central midfielders, while Lucas Zelarayan was the lone attacking midfielder. This meant Alexandru Matan shifted out wide to the left, while Mohamed Farsi occupied space as a right winger more often than not. Christian Ramirez remained as the lone striker.

The Crew’s formation looked more like what Black & Gold fans were used to seeing under previous managers at times on Saturday.

Having Matan and Farsi out wide opened space in the middle for Zelarayan to move and get the ball into his feet. From there, Zelarayan could turn and run at the opposing defense with multiple options to his left and right. Ramirez mixed his runs up top, occasionally checking in alongside Zelarayan to provide another build-up option. Other times, Ramirez stayed high and waited for service from out wide.

When the Black & Gold defended, Columbus reverted to a 5-2-3 formation with traditional back five and Morris and Nagbe in front of the defense. Zelarayan went out wide right, while Matan stayed on the left.

This formation allowed the Crew to set up the press. Ramirez’s job was to man mark the central defenders, while Zelarayan and Matan marked the outside backs. From there, the the Black & Gold midfielders stepped high up the pitch to mark their New England counterparts. The back five dealt with the rest of the attack, pressing as soon as they touched the ball.

This often meant Degenek or Vallecilla press their man backward all the way up the field until they released the ball. Then they would simply recover back to their position. Forcing the Revolution to play the ball long and force their forward to get into an aerial battle with the Crew defenders was the key.

Nancy continues to make these formational tweaks, and they have worked pretty well so far. Saturday was another test of his tactical adjustments.

Columbus’ mistakes and miscues

While the Crew did not play the team’s best game on Saturday, the Black & Gold managed to salvage a point. There were some uncharacteristic mistakes from Columbus that fans have not seen consistently this season, some of which had to do with the quality of the Revolution.

One of those was Degenek’s own goal. It was a freak mistake that unfortunately happens from time to time. The center back mishit the ball on a clearance, pin-balling it off his heel to his plant leg and into the net. Degenek could have positioned himself better to make a clean clearance, but it’s not a mistake the defender will make often.

New England was able to take advantage of the Crew’s high line. There were multiple times when forward Giacomo Vrioni received the ball behind the Black & Gold backline and nearly had a free path to goal. Columbus has not seen this as an issue consistently in games this season, so New England was attacking a weakness that they saw in the Crew’s defensive set up.

Playing a high line can be like playing with fire if not handled correctly. A coach needs smart, disciplined players commanding the line and making sure the defenders are together. If one piece is out of place, the striker has a good chance as Vrioni did. It will be interesting to see if other opponents can exploit this issue that the Revolution made apparent.

Marking in recovery situations was also spotty for the Black & Gold. In the 40th minute, the Revs attacked down their left flank while the Columbus defense receoved. As Vallecilla retreated, Sands didn’t shift over to mark the far-side winger and forced goalkeeper Patrick Shulte to come up with a big save. It’s just these little miscommunications that can be the difference between winning and losing, or in this case tying.

The Black & Gold did not do a good job of marking at times against New England.

The Crew also had spells when the team could not find the final pass in the final third, typically between Zelarayan and Ramirez due to miscommunication. Ramirez has proved his worth already for the Black & Gold, but Saturday was a reminder that he and Zelarayan still have to develop chemistry after limited playing time together.

Changes after New England’s red card

The game flipped on its head when the Revolution’s Dylan Borrero got sent off in the 65th minute. To put the Revs under significant sustained pressure with a man advantage, Nancy made some changes to the formation and personnel.

In the 79th minute, forward Jacen Russell-Rowe, and winger Yaw Yeboah came into the game and the formation changed. Columbus shifted into a variation of a 4-3-3 with an inverted diamond in midfield. Moreira and Degenek played center back, with Farsi out right and Sands on the left. Nagbe played as the lone central midfielder, with Zelarayan and Matan as double attacking midfielders. Russell-Rowe played on the left side of a front three, with Yeboah out right and Ramirez through the middle.

It wasn’t a pure 4-3-3 though, because the Crew wanted to overload the right side and free up space on the left. Russell-Rowe shifted almost alongside Ramirez as a second striker to make space out wide for Sands, and eventually Jimmy Medranda, down the flanks.

Yeboah stayed out wide right with Farsi tucking inside a bit to provide support. Moreira pushed up the field to add another body into the mix with Degenek as the lone defender back. Even he was 10 yards past the halfway line often, really pinning the Revolution in.

Nagbe, and eventually Zawadzki, waited at the top of the penalty box while Zelarayan and Matan probed to try and get in behind the defense. It was Zawadzki making a late run into the box that no opposing defender picked up that gave him the header opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s