Crew Tactical Review: Black & Gold fold in the second half against Orlando

The Columbus Crew hosted Orlando City SC on Saturday night, settling for a 2-2 draw. The Black & Gold watched a two-goal lead evaporate at home on Saturday, as Orlando stormed back in the second half to force a tie.

Columbus went up 2-0 courtesy of midfielder Darlington Nagbe and forward Jacen Russell-Rowe finishing chances just before halftime but could only manage a point in the end. The Crew is now winless in the team’s last four games against MLS competition after a hot start to the season.

Head coach Wilfried Nancy had to make some tactical and personnel switches for this game, but it was a tale of two halves for the home side. Let’s dive into what happened in this match.

Formation change

Yet again, Nancy made a switch in the formational department, opting to start in a 3-4-3. This look morphed into a 5-2-3 on defense with the wing backs moving back in recovery, but the big change was in the midfield and up top.

Nagbe and Aidan Morris played in the middle as the two lone midfielders. At times, forward Cucho Hernandez dropped into the attacking midfielder role, but spent more time in a wide position on the left.

The two American midfielders did not play in a straight line across the field though. Oftentimes Nagbe stepped higher into more of an attacking position while Morris trailed behind. In these moments, the Crew had more attacking success, which is definitely something Nancy will take away from this game.

Up top, going with a front three featuring Alexandru Matan and Hernandez out wide was different from what the Black & Gold have done more much of the season. Despite getting an assist in the first half, Matan’s natural position is inside, and it showed early in the game on Saturday. At times he could get disjointed from the play and disappear, but Matan is dynamic enough that he can hurt defenses with a few touches.

Hernandez is versatile but his natural position seems to be inside as a pure No. 9. Russell-Rowe did a good job of getting into dangerous areas and getting a goal, but the Colombian in the middle is a different force.

This attacking trio is likely to have looked different if playmaker Lucas Zelarayan had played, but he didn’t.

Emphasizing attacking down the wings

Playing in a 3-4-3 adds to the attacking danger on the outside of the pitch because the squad now has wingers and wing backs together. This allows the team to create simple overloads out wide and double up on the opposing outside backs.

A high percentage of the Crew’s attacking play in the first half was centered around getting the ball out wide and getting crosses into Russell-Rowe. Both goals that Columbus scored were served in from an outside area and tapped home.

With this emphasis on attacking from the width came a pattern of play that the Black & Gold repeated often throughout the match. It was a simple combination to free up space down the wing so that the wide players could serve in crosses.

This combination is simply a give-and-go from the outside back down the wing into space behind the outside back. Because the winger and wing back are both occupying the same space, the outside back has to mark both players. This forces the player to make a decision to follow the runner or stay put, which opens up a pass either way. If the defender stays, the ball is played behind abd is an easy one touch pass to make. If not, the player on the inside can just give it back to the one who passed him the ball and reset or switch the play.

This is yet another component that Nancy will want to keep in mind going forward because it worked well for the Crew. Now in his preferred 5-2-2-1, there isn’t any natural wingers other than the wing backs. For this pattern to work in that formation, the striker or one of the attacking midfielders would have to shift out wide to a winger position, which we have seen before.

These are just little components that worked on Saturday to keep in mind and look for going forward. At this point in the season, it’s about finding what works and getting rid of what doesn’t.

What went wrong in the second half

The Crew was in control for the majority of the first half, keeping possession, creating chances and building a two-goal lead. In the second half, that came crashing down for a few reasons.

The first reason was Orlando adjusted to Columbus’ emphasis on attacking from wide. Instead of leaving the outside back on his own, the Lions sent another player to double team the wingers on the outside. This meant both players were marked, which made it harder to advance the ball down the wings.

Secondly, OCSC did a better job on offense of controlling the buildup and keeping the ball. The Crew wants teams to fall into the trap of breaking too quickly and giving the ball back right away. In the first half, the visitors didn’t sustain buildup in the attacking half. That changed in the second half. The Lions did a good job of slowing the play down, keeping the ball and then striking when Columbus was vulnerable. If teams can survive the Black & Gold’s quick burst of pressing after losing the ball, they can be dangerous.

Lastly, Orlando took the chances created. The first goal was smart by the Lions. The visitors beat the first flurry of the Crew press and still attacked while the defense was in recovery. That is when Columbus is in the most danger, when the team has to recover from being so high up the pitch. The second goal was smartly taken.

The simple fact is the Black & Gold need to be better defensively. The Crew has to cover better in recovery, and has to clear balls that are put into the penalty box. Two mistakes cost the Black & Gold points on Saturday, and they need to fix it sooner rather than later.

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