In Major League Soccer’s match week two, a disappointing draw between hosts Seattle Sounders and the visiting Columbus Crew was mirrored in the lackluster attendance figure of a city hit hard by the devastating COVID-19. With Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announcing a state of emergency a week before the game, King County residents were reluctant to support their team in their usual fashion which resulted in the lowest attendance figure since the team’s inaugural 2009 season.

After Columbus scored in the 33rd minute on their only shot of the first half, the Sounders made several second-half changes and clawed their way to a 1-1 draw. This tactical analysis will delve into what those changes were and why they worked.

Team news

Brian Schmetzer made three personnel changes from their opening week win against the Chicago Fire; Yeimar Gomez made the jump from the substitutes bench to a centre-back partnership with Xavier Arreaga, while Jordan Morris and Gustav Svensson rejoined the starting 11. Svensson, in his customary holding midfield role, was coupled with Joao Paolo and had Cristian Roldan as an advanced central midfielder above them. Morris and Miguel Ibarra flanked the prolific Raul Ruidiaz to round out the attack.

Following their victory away to New York City FC the week before, Caleb Porter dropped winter signing Vito Wormgoor for Aboubacar Keita in the center of defense but selected an unchanged midfield three of Artur, Darlington Nagbe, and Lucas Zelayaran. Luis Espinoza and Pedro Santos played as wide midfielders while goal scorer Gyasi Zardes started as his team’s centre-forward.

Defensive setups

The Sounders and Crew each set out in a similar 4-4-2 defensive shapes in both high and mid-blocks, which transformed into different variations of a back five at times when they were defending in their final third. Ruidiaz was joined with attacking midfielder Roldan to form the first line of pressure for Seattle, while Zelarayan pushed forward to aid Zardes in a block of two pressing the opposition’s backline. Although defending in a midfield block of four ostensibly leaves a three-versus-two in central areas, both teams found success in denying the opposition central midfielders the ball in dangerous areas in several ways.

Columbus’ defensive plan

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Zardes doing two jobs: pressuring the player in possession and cutting off a forward passing lane.

Here, Zardes’ narrow starting position and delayed pressure forces Gomez into the wide channel while creating a cover shadow that removes the option to find Svensson in space behind Columbus’ first line of defense. By doing so, Zardes is able to turn Seattle’s three-versus-two advantage in the middle into a more manageable two-versus-two. Nagbe and Artur then tended to man-mark the remaining two central midfielders by following their movements towards the ball and only passing off their lateral or vertical movement once a fellow Crew player would be in a closer position to then pick up the attacker.

Left midfielder Santos has also stayed narrower in the hopes of cutting off any pass into Seattle’s right midfielder or striker and allows Gomez to pass to the right-back Kelvin Leerdam in order to initiate a pressing trigger. Using the centre-back to full-back pass was a key moment for Columbus and their ability to win the ball back in the first half and forced a shift in tactics from Seattle that we’ll touch on later.

If Seattle was ever able to find an attacker between Columbus’ defense and midfield, the Crew relied on the pressuring defender to delay play long enough for their midfielders to collapse and provide backpressure, creating numbers around the ball in order to win it back or reduce the space for Seattle midfielders looking for layoffs.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
After finding Ruidiaz in a pocket of space, Keita’s pressure has forced him into the dropping Nagbe and Artur who have the goal-side positional advantage against Seattle’s midfielders owing to their man-marking.

Seattle’s defensive plan

After playing as a holding midfielder in Seattle’s disappointing two-game CCL campaign and a right winger in their season opener against Chicago, Roldan advanced to an attacking midfielder role due to the inclusion of now-fit Svensson. Although his natural tendency in-possession was to drift around link the back four and two holding midfielders with the attacking three, his positioning was more disciplined in defense.

Seattle used the top of the centre-circle as their line of confrontation with Roldan joining Ruidiaz to create a front two in a mid and low block. Depending on which side the ball was on, they took turns pressing the centre-back in possession and marking the ball-near holding midfielder of Columbus.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Roldan marking Columbus’ ball-near midfielder Nagbe, forcing a lateral pass.

By angling their pressure towards the nearest sideline and marking the nearest central midfielder, their main goal was to force play wide, else allow play to be switched through the opposite centre-back to afford Seattle’s midfield four enough time to shift laterally.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Seattle’s horizontal compactness denying central passing lanes.

Although the play has been switched to Artur dropping into the left half-space, the four seconds it took allowed Seattle’s midfield block to shift and deny penetrating central passes. By choosing to defend zonally in the midfield rather than man-mark, Seattle was able to stay compact and keep Columbus’ attacking play wide, yet the resulting slower pressure on the ball carrier allowed the Crew to advance play fairly easily into their midfield and attacking thirds.

Attacking solutions

With both managers opting from the outset a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 in possession and a 4-4-2 out of it, the decision to be made in their respective attacking phases came down to the positioning and movements of their central midfielders and striker. As each team had a full-back and winger in both wide channels, any attacking play would have to come through small-sided combinations between the two or from supporting movements by a central midfielder or striker. The issue of any supporting movements from middle areas is the potential of giving up a numerical balance in the center of the field.

With both managers opting from the outset a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 in possession and a 4-4-2 out of it, the decision to be made in their respective attacking phases came down to their positioning and movements of their central midfielders and striker. As each team had a FB and winger in both wide channels, any attacking play would have to come through small-sided combinations between the two or from supporting movements by a 6,10, or 9. The issue of any supporting movements from middle areas is the potential of giving up a numerical balance in the center of the field.
The two main areas of contention: two-versus-two in wide areas and three-versus-three in the midfield. Runs made by a central midfielder or striker into the wide channel forces the defending team to decide to mark tightly and keep numerical balance out wide or take advantage of positional superiority in the middle.

Throughout the match and this analysis, a game of cat and mouse was played between the two sides in where they felt it best to attack the other.

Columbus’ attacking ideas

In the first half, Columbus chose to create overloaded situations using these supporting movements from midfielders, with their goal being to break the first two lines of pressure from Seattle and immediately find a quick diagonal ball into Zardes in dangerous areas. Zardes consistently positioned himself on the ball-far centre-back in relation to playing and alternated between blindside runs behind the ball-near centre-back or runs checking to the ball. By placing himself in these spots Zardes is able to maximize the amount of marking switches that the Arreaga and Gomez made in order to keep their shape, increasing the likelihood of an untracked run.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Columbus creating a four-versus-three to get behind Seattle’s midfield block. Morris dropping in the direction of the red arrow could have prevented an entry pass being played in Zardes.

Columbus’ four-versus-three in the wide channel here is generated by the advancement of Keita and Artur in addition to the full-back/winger combination of Harrison Afful and Espinoza. Keita’s positioning forces Ruidiaz to either apply pressure and affect the ball or leave a four-versus-two against his teammates, while Artur has asked a similar question of Svensson and Joao Paulo who have left him in favour of their zonal marking scheme to keep a two-versus-one in the middle of the park. The issue for Seattle here is Jordan Morris’ position- caught between two minds of his usual marking assignment of Afful and the new variable of Artur now in his defending zone. With these numbers, Seattle can generate either a two-versus-two against Artur and Espinoza and leave a two-versus-one of Ruidiaz defending Keita and Afful, or do what they’ve done here and left a two-versus-one against Joevin Jones, which resulted in an attempted wrapped entry pass to Zardes.

A series of the situations described above resulted in Zardes tapping in the game’s opener in the 33rd minute. Although this was the Crew’s first and only shot of the first half, it might be harsh to say it came against the run of play considering the dangerous crossing areas Columbus was able to enter over the preceding 31 minutes.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Svensson tracks Zelarayan wide as Leerdam and Ibarra are fixed by Valenzuela and Santos, creating a gap between Seattle’s holding midfielders; Roldan passes off Artur, forcing Joao Paulo to decide whether to step and cover Svensson or stay with Artur.

Contrary to Columbus’ wide overload described earlier, Zelarayan’s supporting movement into the left channel has been tracked by Svensson to keep numbers balanced for his right midfielder and full-back. The issue becomes the distance between Seattle’s two holding midfielders and Roldan’s decision to pass Artur off to Joao Paulo (highlighted), tasked with screening passes into Zardes and defending the dangerous space at the top of the box now that Svensson has left him alone. Zelarayan, here with the ball, uses his dribbling ability to attack the space between Svensson and Joao Paulo.

While man-marking defenses can be manipulated with off-ball movement to create horizontal space between blocks, penetrating runs or passes between zonal marking teammates is effective in generating these gaps.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Individual defending mistakes lead to subsequent players rushing to cover, allowing spaces that resulted in Zardes’ opener.

Zelarayan’s penetration past Svensson’s pressure started a cascade of cover defending that led to the Crew’s opener. By skipping past the Swede, Zelarayan has forced Joao. Paulo to step to the ball that opened up a quick pass to an isolated Artur, instigating a press from Arreaga. After a calm first touch Artur slots a pass in between Joevin Jones and Morris who hasn’t dropped to find Espinoza in a dangerous area inside the corner of the 18. A wrapped ball by Espinoza in between the backline and goalkeeper to the back-post finds Zardes’ blindside run behind Gomez for a simple finish.

Seattle’s attacking ideas

After having minimal success advancing the ball through the midfield and losing possession near their right sideline on multiple occasions, one of Svensson or Joao Paulo (Usually the former, but Joao Paulo in this scenario) began to drop either between the centre-backs or in the half-space to either side of them, thereby making a three-versus-two vs Columbus’ forwards. With Zardes shifting his cover shadow to cut off Gomez playing backwards into a two-versus-one vs Zelarayan, Gomez was better equipped to dribble past the first line of pressure and affect the midfield line.

As Columbus chose to mark the remaining two central midfielders tightly in these areas, it gave Roldan and Svensson a choice: stay high to fix Nagbe and Artur so Gomez can engage the midfielders or check to the ball and create space for an aerial ball into Ruidiaz, Morris, or Ibarra.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
As man-marking made passes into central midfielders riskier, Seattle’s midfield three created space with their movement for Ruidiaz further up the field.

On most occasions, Seattle’s right centre-back chose to do the latter, with Ruidiaz, in particular, showcasing his ability to receive a difficult ball in the air with pressure from behind, secure possession, and find a midfielder or winger for a layoff. What made Ruidiaz successful is that his first or second touch was rarely back towards his own goal, but at an angle to increase the space between himself and his marking defender. His lateral movement made the defender change direction himself and question whether or not to follow him into a wider position, which increased the amount of space given to him before being passed off or picked up by a midfielder. The Peruvian international’s one-versus-one ability in these situations constructed most of Seattle’s spells of possession in their final third, but Columbus’ ability to collapse the midfield block and the positional discipline of their full-backs restricted the types of chances Seattle was able to develop.

On most occasions Seattle’s right center-back chose to do the latter, with Ruidiaz in particular showcasing his ability to receive a difficult ball in the air with pressure from behind, secure possession, and find a midfielder or winger for a layoff. What made Ruidiaz successful is that his 1st or 2nd touch was rarely back towards his own goal, but at angle to increase the space between himself and his marking defender. His lateral movement made the defender change direction himself and question whether or not to follow him into a wider position, which increased the amount of space given to him before being passed off or picked up by a midfielder. His 1v1 ability in these situations constructed most of Seattle’s spells of possession in their final 3rd, but Columbus’ ability to collapse the midfield block and the positional discipline of their fullbacks restricted the types of chances Seattle was able to develop.
The game’s first half shot-map; All of Seattle’s (Orange) opportunities were low-percentage chances from outside the box, with four out of their seven shots being blocked before reaching the target.

Seattle’s attacking adjustments

A couple of changes in tactics by Schmetzer allowed Seattle to dominate the run of play for the first 10 minutes of the second half, even scoring a well-constructed Ibarra goal that was disallowed after a Video Assistant Referee review.

First off, Seattle began to rely primarily on their full-backs to provide their width in the midfield and attacking thirds while in possession, allowing Seattle to do several things well. Free from the sideline, Ibarra and Morris tucked into their respective half-spaces to both provide consistent support for their holding midfielders and create overloads around the man-marking midfield block of Columbus. The additional height in central areas allowed Ruidiaz to begin to drop to find the ball in possession without being isolated, dragging either Keita or his centre-back partner Jonathan Mensah into midfield. Finally, the increased numbers in attacking areas pinned back Afful and the halftime substitute at left-back Chris Cadden, and allowed Seattle to counter-press lost balls in numbers-up situations.

Secondly, Morris and Ibarra swapped sides after recognizing Columbus’ switch at left-back, with Morris using his pace and dribbling ability to bypass Cadden. In fact, Morris won both of his offensive duels against Cadden in the second half after only winning one of his four attempted duels in the first half and created the disallowed goal after dribbling past Cadden and playing a reverse ball into Ibarra.

Finally, Joao Paulo was able to dictate possession in Seattle’s middle and attacking third, playing forward passes into his playmaking teammates that progressed play and forced Columbus deeper into their own half.

MLS 2020: Seattle Sounders vs Columbus Crew - tactical analysis tactics
Joao Paulo’s passing maps shows his increased impact- he completed nine more passes in the second half compared to the first.

Seattle responds

Following the Sounders’ increased influence in the game and Columbus’ inability to retain possession outside of their defensive half, Ruidiaz’s 79th-minute penalty was well deserved. Using their tactical changes seamlessly, a signature driving run by Jones (who was moved up to left midfield after Nouhou came on for Ibarra) freed Joao Paulo to play a sweeping ball wide right to Leerdam that took out Columbus’ front six. A cutback to another second-half sub Harry Shipp and cross from the right half-space à la Liverpool players Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson led to the handball that was called a penalty. Although Ruidiaz’s driven shot was a good height for the goalkeeper to parry away, Columbus keeper Eloy Room was adjudged to have left his line early and the kick was retaken. With VAR coming back to help Seattle in karmic fashion, Ruidiaz left no mistake by powering the penalty to Room’s right.

Conclusion

Throughout the first half of this 1-1 draw in the early days of the 2020 MLS season, both teams battled over how best to deal with their opponent’s 4-4-2 defensive shape; Columbus chose to vacate space in the middle to create wide overloads against Seattle’s zonal marking system, while the Sounders began to manipulate the Crew’s man-marking central midfield pair of erstwhile Celtic target Nagbe and Artur so that Ruidiaz could be found with lofted balls in between the midfield and defensive block.

Columbus’ efficiency with their one chance of the first half contrasted sharply with Seattle’s ineffective shooting from outside the box, however, small tweaks at the half by Schmetzer allowed his men to assert their control over Porter’s team by recording an equalizer and earning an overall Expected Goal value of 2.1 to Columbus’ 1.2. Morris’ progressive play from the right wing combined with Joao Paulo and goal scorer Ruidiaz’ increased influence in possession allowed the home side to use their central overloads to change the point of attack for their chances and pin back the visitors in their own half for most of the second-half proceedings. Taking into consideration both teams’ lack of a consistent 90 minutes, a 1-1 draw was the fair result.