Crew tactical review: Black & Gold take control of the Galaxy

The Columbus Crew bounced back from consecutive disappointing results at home in MLS play on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Western Conference side LA Galaxy at Field. The Black & Gold were dangerous from the start, controlling the ball from front to back with very few attacking chances for the visitors.

Columbus found its breakthrough from midfielder Lucas Zelarayan and added another goal before halftime from newcomer Malte Amundsen. From there, the home side did not look back, closing out the game with a shutout in front of a sellout crowd.

Like other matches this season, the Crew did much of the same when it came to style of play, but also made some tactical tweaks. Let’s dive into those changes.

Alexandru Matan playing right wing back

When the lineups came out before Wednesday’s game, many fans thought the same thing: There were only four defenders listed. Would the Black & Gold switch to a back four for the first time this season? Is this to combat what LA will try to do? Is the change in formation due to personnel rotation?

True to form, head coach Wilfried Nancy’s tactical choice rendered none of those questions relevant. Columbus lined up in a back five, with Matan on the right side of the defense, Steven Moreira, Phillip Quinton and Gustavo Vallecilla as the three center backs and Amundsen at left wing back.

The Romanian isn’t the prototypical wing back, but he did not have to be. Nancy wanted to make the Galaxy pay down the flanks, and with Zelarayan and forwards Cucho Hernandez and Christian Ramirez all starting, the Columbus manager put Matan in a position where he could do damage.

Under former head coach Caleb Porter, Matan was considered more of a wide player, but Nancy has typically opted to play him on the inside as a No. 10. Regardless of where he plays, Matan is always difficult to defend with the ball, which is why Nancy wanted him on the pitch even if it was at right wing back.

Contrary to how other wing backs play, the Romanian didn’t have the same defensive duties. While he did track back into the defensive structure if the visitors had possession, Matan often remained high up the pitch, more like a typical winger position.

When Matan was not able to recover when the Galaxy attacked, Moreira slid over into his position and central midfielder Aidan Morris dropped in deeper to help defend. This gave Matan more freedom to play higher and not be worried about being caught out. Morris also helped out offensively, dropping in as a half-pivot in the midfield to help push Matan up even higher into attacking spaces.

The Crew backline also adjusted when the group pressed after losing possession. Matan often stayed high to help press and the backline would shift into a back four, with Moreira taking up the right back position.

Matan playing right wing back probably isn’t something that Black & Gold fans will see on a regular basis, but it shows that Nancy is willing to be flexible with where his players play.

Columbus’ buildup strategy

It’s no secret that the Crew loves to keep the ball. Nancy stated in the preseason that he wanted players that could be comfortable on the ball. This was apparent on Wednesday, but they didn’t keep the ball without purpose.

The Black & Gold love to pass the ball around the backline, which sometimes draws the ire of fans who want the team to go forward. This possession is not passive though. It’s a chess match.

In the game against LA, the backline tried to get the ball switched to one of the wing backs or outside center backs to advance forward. This is where the soccer IQ comes into play. If the Galaxy was able to shift the formation over to the side the ball was on, Columbus simply recycled the ball quickly back to Quinton to go the other way. From there, the Crew tried to find the quick switch to the opposite wing back.

There’s an old coaching adage, “The ball moves faster than the players.” In this case, that saying rings true because before the visitors could shift back across to cover the other wing, the ball was already there.

This same pattern happened time and time again over the course of 90 minutes, and LA did not adjust. So, the Black & Gold just kept possessing and switching the field until they caught the Galaxy out of position and could attack.

Don’t be fooled, Columbus isn’t just keeping the ball for the point of keeping it (except to kill off the game). The Crew has a plan for the opponent and picks the right moments to strike.

The attacking trio’s game plan

A front three of Zelarayan, Hernandez and Ramirez can be rather problematic for opposing teams. Each player brings something different to the field, but are all on the same page in terms of how they want to attack.

Ramirez is a classic No. 9, while Hernandez played up top alongside him but also roamed the field trying to get involved in pockets of free space. Zelarayan played his typical attacking midfielder role, still with the freedom to move off Ramirez and Hernandez.

When the Black & Gold attacked down the wings, the front three sprang to life in a coordinated pattern. Either Hernandez or Ramirez went to the ball as a short option of support, hoping to pull his defender out of position and open space for others to occupy. Then, the other striker made a diagonal run into the space that was just vacated, trying to get into that secondary passing window.

The third option, typically Zelarayan, trailed the runners and acted as deeper support. If he got the ball in space, he could run at defenders or look to pick out a pass.

This is the beauty of playing with two strikers. It is hard for opposing defenses to track and mark both of them successfully all the time, especially if they are players the caliber of Hernandez and Ramirez. To top it all off, the opponent still has to worry about where Zelarayan is at all times. He becomes an instant danger as soon as he steps within 30 yards of the goal.

This is the dilemma Nancy wants to impose on other teams. Want to take away Hernandez? Fine, he has two other players who can torture the defense in a plethora of ways. And vice versa.

The reality is, with a front three that talented, the Black & Gold shouldn’t have issues scoring goals. Defenses can’t be entirely sharp for 90 minutes when this group mixes up runs, roams and attacks in a coordinated fashion.

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