Crew Tactical Review: Hell becomes real for the Black & Gold in Cincinnati

The Columbus Crew fell to in-state rivals FC Cincinnati on Saturday, dropping a 3-2 result in this season’s first edition of the Hell Is Real Derby. The Black & Gold went down two goals in the first half before a Lucas Zelarayan volley put them only one behind going into halftime. Columbus tied the game up later in the second half courtesy of a Malte Amundsen header. The comeback would not be enough to see the Crew through though, because Cincinnati capitalized on a mistake by goalkeeper Patrick Schulte to add the third goal.

It was a match that didn’t feel good for Black & Gold fans at TQL Stadium or watching on Apple TV. Losing a rivalry match is never a positive, but there were good things that happened in the game.

Let’s dive into the tactical side of how this game played out.

Changing defensive structure on offense and defense

The Crew lined up in the team’s typical five-back formation but changed that structure depending on when the Black & Gold were on offense or defense.

On defense, Columbus played similarly to how the team has much of the year. The wing backs tracked back to form the five-back line and the midfielders provided a second layer of defense in front of the goal. Typically, one attacking player stayed up the field to help counter attack.

The offensive side of the ball is where the formation started to shift and Columbus’ game plan became clearer. After going down earlier, the Crew switched to a back four defensive structure when in possession. This meant wing back Mohamed Farsi pushed up the field and played as a winger, and Steven Moreira moved wider into a fullback position. Phillip Quinton and Gustavo Vallecilla remained as center backs, but now there were only two instead of three with Amundsen at the left back spot where he could still push forward.

This switch had to do with the Black & Gold’s offensive game plan, which was to overload the right side on offense. Farsi pushed up as a right winger and the attacking players cheated toward that side to have a numbers advantage.

Central midfielder Darlington Nagbe is the most notable example of this tactic. Throughout the match, Nagbe popped up wide on the right side of the field while getting back to fill in in the middle.

The hope was that the Crew could beat Cincinnati’s high press and combine in that area to break out. The option was still there to switch the field to Amundsen, but the ball was typically advanced up the right flank.

Columbus had success, but the home side’s press was too much at times to deal with, which led to the early errors and the eventual third goal.

Second half adjustments

The Crew got burned in the first 30 minutes by Cincinnati’s pressure. The home side’s intensity in the press coupled with Columbus’ lack of urgency landed the Black & Gold in a 2-0 hole early on.

Luckily, the Crew grabbed a goal before halftime and went into the locker room ready to adjust. While head coach Wilfried Nancy didn’t make huge adjustments to the game plan, the small changes gave the Black & Gold a foothold in the game coming out for the second 45 minutes.

The first change was at the back. Columbus still attacked in a back four, but Moreira pinched inside more and Quinton dropped deeper. This gave Vallecilla and Moreira an easier option to switch the ball through Quinton, rather than having the center back cut off by a pressing Cincinnati attacker.

Another change was pushing Nagbe higher up the pitch. At times, Nagbe played almost like an attacking midfielder, which causes more problems for opposing defenses given his skill. Nagbe still cheated towards the right side to overload, but was up higher in attacking spaces than earlier in the match.

This also freed up fellow central midfielder Aidan Morris in the middle of the pitch to get the ball and keep possession. More space gave Morris more time to take touches and build out of the back and away from the home side’s back press.

Lastly, Cincinnati got tired. This isn’t much of an adjustment, but it played a role in the way the game finished. Pressing with the intensity that of the Orange and Blue for the first half is impossible to sustain for 90 minutes. When the press died down the Crew had the opportunity to control the game.

How Cincinnati made it hard for the Crew

Obviously, one of the biggest problems for Columbus was the press, as discussed. The tenacity with which Cincinnati put pressure on the visitors was something the Crew had not seen from many teams this season. The home side sent almost all of its attackers and midfielders forward and man marked the Black & Gold. This left a gap between Cincinnati’s defense and midfield, one the team was willing to allow because of the rewards of the press.

FC Cincy also did not stop pressuring once a player was beaten off the dribble. Numerous times, the Crew was dispossessed by players recovering to the play and back pressing in the blind spots. Columbus’ lack of intensity and urgency to go forward at times didn’t help.

The other thing Cincinnati did was finish the chances created. Whenever the home side stole the ball high up the pitch, the players created a dangerous opportunity.

This also came in the form of causing mistakes from players on the Black & Gold. Vallecilla and Quinton looked extremely uncomfortable at times and were caught in possession multiple times leading to Cincinnati’s chances. Three big chances recorded for the Orange and Blue and three goals scored.

All three goals Cincinnati scored were preventable, but they are learning experiences for this young Columbus team. Nancy has stated he doesn’t distinguish between young and old players but did admit after this game that there was a gap in minutes between his side and the home team. The only way to change that gap at the moment is more experience and to learn from mistakes.

One thought on “Crew Tactical Review: Hell becomes real for the Black & Gold in Cincinnati

  1. I like a lot of what I see from Nancy’s system, but he clearly needs more pieces to make it work. I feel good with the quality depth of our front line and central midfield.

    We are woefully short on the wings, although Amundsen looks like a big get. Losing Sands for the season was a gut-punch. He was my MVP for the first part of the season. Getting Diaz back will also be a help.

    Center backs are a big issue. Quinton may be a solid CB, but not in this system. Whenever he is running towards goal he is a mistake waiting to happen. Degenek’s size can give him similar issues, but he is more experienced and handles it better. We desperately need more help at CB.

    Shulte’s error in the derby hurt, but it is the kind of goal that you will give up a couple times a year when playing from the back, and is an accepted risk.


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