While it may be early days in the Major League Soccer season, D.C. United have shown that they are undoubtedly one of the strongest outfits in the league, let alone the Eastern Conference. Building off of a brilliant end to the 2018 campaign, in which a late-season surge (partly due to the signing of Wayne Rooney) saw them qualify for the playoffs having gone their last ten matches unbeaten. Regardless of this success though, manager Ben Olsen has received some heavy criticism from supporters due to a perceived lack of a “plan B,” and the Black and Red‘s record in Columbus is less than stellar in the past ten years.
Columbus Crew, on the other hand, are in a less advantageous position than their peers. Having lost longtime coach Gregg Berhalter to the US National team position, the club has begun a new era under former Timbers manager Caleb Porter. While the season had started positively, recent matches have shown that there is still much that can be done with Columbus Crew to re-establish themselves as one of the class outfits in MLS.
For D.C United, manager Ben Olsen opted to make significant tactical changes in the team’s structure, something which supporters likely were thankful to see. Traditionally, the team has lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but away to Columbus, the shape was a 3-4-3. Without possession of the ball, this would give Olsen’s men the ability to be more solid (the shape looking like a 3-5-2 at times) thanks to Donovan Pines, Steve Birnbaum, and Frédéric Brillant in the back three but also exploit the talents of Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola up front.
Columbus Crew stuck with what they had done all season: a classic 4-2-3-1. The U.S. National team forward Gyasi Zardes led the line and was supported by playmaker Federico Higuain. The double pivot of Wil Trapp and Artur, while not especially dynamic, provided the Crew with a solid base to maintain possession and allow the wide players in Pedro Santos and Justin Meram to get forward and contribute in attack. Porter’s offensive organization is built around heavy possession, and while Zardes is more than capable of holding his own physically, Columbus Crew tend to avoid all forms of direct play unless they are trailing matches late.
D.C. United Vary Up Defensive Pressure Styles
Considering the usual modus operandi for both sides, it was not a surprise that Ben Olsen’s men looked to pressure the Crew from the off, attempting to disrupt the home side’s possession. Last season, the capital club was one of the best sides in MLS at high pressing in the opposition’s half, winning the ball, and creating chances immediately.
From the opening kickoff on Wednesday, the front three of Rooney, Acosta and Arriola were well advanced into Columbus Crew’s half and slid across the pitch during the buildup phase to deny easy entry balls into the feet of Trapp and Artur. Because of this, the Crew were forced to try and go around the press. The wingbacks of D.C., because of predictable this was, were able to aggressively step out and apply immediate duress to the Crew player (usually the fullbacks) in order to win back possession.
While this was often effective in forcing the Crew to have possession in areas they were comfortable with, D.C. did not spend the entire match attempting to disrupt the Crew. For many stages of the match, the Black And Reds sat deeper and looked to go direct to goal and counter from much deeper positions. During these periods, the team shape closely resembled a 3-5-2 or even a 3-6-1 (Rooney being the apex of the team.)
In the second half, this strategy was most evident as Columbus Crew monopolized the ball at will: it seemed only a matter of time before they would break Bill Hamid and United’s defensive resistance. The away side, however, flooded the penalty area with numbers and held firm to deny Crew’s attempts at combination play or strikes from distance. The play of the aforementioned Bill Hamid was key as well.
Through this tactical variation, D.C. United was able to generate attacking scenarios in both instances through the counter. The goal that United scored (which proved to be the winner) was a direct result of high pressure up the pitch, forcing Crew centre-back Jonathan Mensah to play an aimless ball down the channels. D.C. recovered possession and after some brief combination play earned a freekick which Rooney dispatched with aplomb.
Columbus Crew Unable To Adapt And Generate Offensive Output
As mentioned previously, Caleb Porter’s teams (going all the way back to his time in Portland) have always been based around the domination of the ball, and generation of goalscoring chances through combination play in the final third. However, in recent weeks the biggest question for Crew SC supporters has been simple: Where are the goals going to come from? Despite territorial superiority throughout the match, the team’s inability to translate this into goals was evident.
Frustrated by their inability to break down D.C.’s defensive set-up in whatever iteration it took (high pressing or deeper and compact), Crew resorted to crossing the ball substantially more than they are traditionally comfortable with. In this match, Caleb Porter’s men crossed the ball a remarkable 44 times, resulting in 54 clearances for the opposition. In MLS since 2013, the team that had the most crosses in a game only won 28% of their matches (game-state should be noted in this) and Crew did nothing to change this statistic on Wednesday.
Alongside the obvious issue that putting loads of (unfocused) crosses into the penalty area caused for their chances, the inability of Trapp, Artur, and Higuain to generate high-value opportunities compounded these issues. The possession-oriented style they employ puts much of the onus on these players to move the ball in areas of most danger: the final third. However, thanks to D.C.’s compact shape and constant hassling and harrying in the press, passes were rushed or forced into areas where Ben Olsen’s men were comfortable.
While Gyasi Zardes is almost never involved in open-play attacking play outside the penalty area, his lack of touches in the penalty area (5 in total), was galling and representative of Columbus Crew’s football: The first two-thirds of the pitch they looked confident, the final third is where things did not come together. Those who might seek to defend Porter’s decisions in the match might point to the fact that he did, in fact, throw Patrick Mullins in late on (evidence of a tactical change). Their inability to find the forwards in dangerous positions, and Mullins tendency to drop off deep to receive possession changed little.
While manager Ben Olsen has come up intense scrutiny (despite recent success) in his time as D.C. United coach due to the quality of football and sticking to the same strategy every match. However, on Wednesday night it was Ben Olsen who was able to adapt his side and show pragmatism while Caleb Porter and the Crew came unstuck.
Since the arrival of Wayne Rooney to Washington D.C., the club have generally played an up-tempo pressing system to combat opponents. Against Columbus Crew, they instead employed a new formation and were much more pragmatic in their approach. Columbus Crew, used to be the protagonists in matches, could not break through their opponents and showed that creating and finishing goal-scoring chances continues to be a struggle. While they did test goalkeeper Bill Hamid often, their reliance on crossing and stale possession highlights many of the issues that Caleb Porter and his team need to account for.