The Columbus Crew fell at home to Inter Miami 2-1 on Saturday night in a game the Black & Gold dominated for large stretches. Miami broke through first, but Columbus answered just minutes later with a sensational Cucho Hernandez strike.
Hernandez’s first goal of the season came at a perfect time to pull the Crew even with the visitors. Miami regained the lead later in the first half though courtesy of a front post corner that snuck in past Schulte. The Black & Gold went on to dominate in the second half but were unable to find the equalizing goal.
There are some issues that seem to be arising around the Columbus squad and adjustments that need to be made by head coach Wilfried Nancy. Let’s dive into some of the tactical decisions he made against Miami.
Pushing the outside center backs higher
This is something that the Crew has done throughout this season, but the center backs were farther up the pitch than usual on Saturday. Steven Moreira and Gustavo Vallecilla both pushed up to join the attack while Philip Quinton, after he came off the bench fo the injured Milos Degenek, stayed on the halfway line to mark the opposing striker.
Fans have seen Moreira push up the field throughout the year, sometimes acting as a third central midfielder, but both center backs did this more together against Inter. This could be a reaction to the early Miami goal, but the logic of it is simple.
Since both defenders were higher up the field, central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris both could push up as well into a wider space to link up with the wing backs. It also added pressure onto the Inter defense, forcing the defenders to mark more bodies in the attacking third.
Because Nagbe and Morris were higher on the fiedl, playmakers Lucas Zelarayan and Alexandru Matan had the freedom to roam and find open space to collect the ball and possibly link up with Hernandez. This forced Miami back into a low block — which is probably what the visitors wanted after taking the lead — and put Inter under considerable pressure for long periods, only able to counter, which they did a couple of times.
The downside of pushing the defenders higher is this exact risk: getting beat and the counter and not having the numbers to recover. This is exactly what happened on the first goal the Black & Gold conceded. Miami was able to break the Crew’s press and Vallecilla was caught too high up the field. The ball was played over his head and the visitors were able to combine and grab the opener.
Playing a high line will never be successful all the time, but this goal was preventable. If Matan forces his mark back instead of letting him go down the line, or if Vallecilla checks his shoulder, the Black & Gold are in a better spot to avoid conceding.
The idea of pushing the center backs higher did result in Hernandez’s goal, but the high line ultimately hurt Columbus more than it helped in this and in the last game against Charlotte FC.
The return of Cucho Hernandez
The Crew with Hernandez in the starting lineup is a different team than with any other striker. Christian Ramirez and Jacen Russell-Rowe want to be more central and attack balls into the penalty box. Hernandez on the other hand, wants to be involved as much as possible in the buildup.
From the first kick, the Colombian was all over the field. Oftentimes, Hernandez shifted out wide anded allow Zelarayan or Matan to make secondary runs in behind. Other times, he dropped so far back into midfield that the forward was almost in the area occupied by Morris and Nagbe.
Even on the goal that he scored, Hernandez started in the typical striker position in the penalty box, but then just drifted back out to the edge and ripped a curler back post. This glimpse of his creativity and adaptability to other areas of the pitch is what makes him so dangerous.
Despite this, the Black & Gold still only managed one goal and lost at home against a weaker Eastern Conference side. The problem that Columbus ran into was they didn’t shift the team’s attacking focus to the right places. The Crew was so focused on getting the ball outside to the wing backs and whipping in crosses even when it wasn’t working. Yaw Yeboah’s crosses were poor all night and Mohamed Farsi didn’t get a lot of chances because most of the attacking was done down the left side.
It doesn’t help either when there is no true No. 9 in the 18-yard box to get on the end of these crosses.
The adjustment that needed to be made was to try and combine inside between Hernandez and the midfielders to unlock the Miami defense. Once the visitors went up 2-1, Inter was ready to head out every cross that came in and the adjustment never came.
The Colombian striker’s return means that tweaks will need to come from Nancy on how to get Hernandez scoring goals, because crossing the ball 20 to 30 times per game isn’t working at the moment.
The left wing back spot
Probably the most glaring issue for the Black & Gold on Saturday was the play on the left flank. With Will Sands out for the season, Columbus is still searching for a replacement on that left side. Yeboah is not the answer.
Yeboah has filled in for Sands a few times throughout this season, whether it be starting or off the bench, and while he has his moments, he is wildly inconsistent, particularly defensively. That inconsistency, coupled with the fact that often he gets stuck crossing only with his left foot, is an issue that Nancy has to resolve.
The Crew did make a trade for Malte Amundsen from New York City FC, but he still has to learn the system. With time, he could be a good option at left wing back.
Jimmy Medranda is another option for the Black & Gold. An offseason signing, Medranda is a seasoned veteran with lots of playing time under his belt. Why he hasn’t seen more time when healthy is a mystery.
Nancy even experimented with rookie Max Arfsten at right wing back in the U.S. Open Cup against Indy Eleven and he seemed to have a decent night against the USL Championship side. But Arfsten is still young and probably not the best option to slot in on the left side.
No matter what the decision is, even if Nancy decides to stay with Yeboah, that is the position of need for Columbus right now. The way the Crew sets up to play relies heavily on wing backs, so someone in the squad needs to step up to help stop this skid.