Crew tactical review: Black & Gold fall to Charlotte FC, rebounds against Indy Eleven

The Columbus Crew lost to Charlotte FC 1-0 on the road last Saturday night before returning back home for a mid-week clash with USL Championship side Indy Eleven in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. The Black & Gold dominated throughout the game, but only managed a 1-0 victory against Indy. In a game with plenty of opportunities to score, substitute Mohamed Farsi combined with Steven Moreira on a give-and-go to send Indy back home with a loss and the Black & Gold into the fourth round of the Open Cup.

Tactically, there wasn’t much different from past matches against Charlotte, but head Wilfried Nancy changed some things, both in terms of personnel and tactics, in the Open Cup match. Let’s dive into what happened tactically.

Different playstyle between Cucho Hernandez and Christian Ramirez

It’s no secret that Hernandez and Ramirez are two very different players, despite their knack to score goals. Fans haven’t seen both strikers on the pitch together yet due to injuries, but with Hernandez coming back, the time could be coming soon.

In the Charlotte game, Ramirez was the primary striker and often stayed central, often dropping into midfield to help Columbus possess the ball and build out of the back. In the Open Cup game, Hernandez’s movement was obvious. He started the game up top alongside Jacen Russell-Rowe but drifted out to the wing and dropped into the midfield in a roaming role.

When both Hernandez and Ramirez are healthy, Nancy will have to make a decision on what Ramirez’s role will be. It will all depend on what formation the manager wants to play.

In his days coaching at CFMontreal, Nancy sometimes played a system with two strikers and one attacking midfielder. Pairing both strikers together could be a viable option for the Crew, but that means you have to bench one of the attacking midfielders. Both Alexandru Matan and Lucas Zelarayan have played well, making this decision less cut and dry.

The other option is to have Ramirez come off the bench. Hernandez is more dynamic than Ramirez due to his athletic ability and versatility. The Colombian can play on the wing as well as in the traditional striker role. It’s this versatility that makes him difficult to play against because he can hurt you in so many different ways.

This is not a slight on Ramirez, who has proven his worth when thrust into the starting role. He is deserves playing time in this team. But with Hernandez coming back, and other starters playing well, only time will tell what Nancy will decide.

Nancy’s formational fluidity

It may look like the Black & Gold line up in the same formation each game, but there are some subtle tweaks each time out. There hasn’t been much change to Nancy’s preferred defensive system, but he likes to adjust positionally on a game-to-game basis.

Against Charlotte, the Crew lined up in a 3-4-2-1, which is what the team has done for the majority of this season. Three center backs anchored the backline with two wing backs pushing up the pitch to contribute on both ends. Two central midfielders sat behind the two attacking midfielders with a single striker up top.

Now, that formation seems pretty bread and butter for Columbus, but occasionally one midfielder pushed higher, or one attacking midfielder roamed more. Those are some nuances that Nancy has toyed with in this early part of the season.

Against Indy, the Crew manager tweaked things slightly, adding in a second striker and opting to go with only a defensive midfielder behind two central midfielders, a 3-5-2 with an inverted triangle in the midfield. This meant the back three was the same, but Sean Zawadzki played the lone defensive midfielder while Darlington Nagbe and Isaiah Parente played as central midfielders. Hernandez and Russell-Rowe were the strike partnership up top.

This fluidity is something that Columbus hasn’t used very much this year. Typically, former Crew head coach Caleb Porter would line up in his classic 4-2-3-1 and go, but Nancy makes these little formational adjustments more frequently.

These adjustments are not limited to a game by game basis either. At halftime of Wednesday’s game, Hernandez came off and Matan in, playing more like a striker at first. As the game wore on, Matan dropped back a little bit more into midfield, and because of that, Nagbe dropped back a little further too.

These little tweaks have been going on since the season began, and will likely continue as the campaign goes on. 

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