D.C. United – Columbus Crew: Wild Match Goes D.C. United’s Way Thanks To 3-4-3 formation (3-1)
D.C. United and Columbus Crew, meeting for the second time in as many weeks, played out a wild and thoroughly entertaining match at Audi Field. Bolstered by the support of VAR and their new-found 3-4-3 formation, D.C were able to win again and continue their charge to the top of the table.
Tactical analysis and match report by Carl Carpenter.
D.C. United have shown that they are undoubtedly one of the strongest outfits in the MLS this season, let alone in the Eastern Conference. D.C are building off of a strong end to the 2018 campaign, in which thanks to the signing of Wayne Rooney, the playoffs were reached, against all odds. Regardless of this success, manager Ben Olsen has received some heavy criticism due to a perceived lack of a “plan B” when things don’t go D.C.’s way.
Having lost longtime coach Gregg Berhalter to the US National team position, Columbus Crew are in a less advantageous position than their peers. 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. As well, these teams met as recently as a week ago and Columbus was unable to get the better of a heavily rotated D.C. United team.
While manager Ben Olsen has more often than not gone with a 4-2-3-1 formation with his D.C. United side, he opted to stick with the 3-4-3 shape which saw them get all three points in Columbus last weekend. However, contrary to last weekend, there was a more conventional look to the side in terms of personnel with Russell Canouse, one of the standout players in the side, returning to the starting lineup. The front three of Luciano Acosta, Wayne Rooney, and Paul Arriola is among the most dangerous in the league. Defensively as well, tons of responsibility would be placed on them in terms of pressing high up front and preventing Columbus Crew into getting into a rhythm with the ball.
Columbus manager Caleb Porter and the Crew stuck with what they had done all season: a classic 4-2-3-1 formation. The U.S. National team forward Gyasi Zardes led the line and was supported by playmaker Federico Higuaín. The double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. of Wil Trapp and Artur – while not especially dynamic or truthfully athletic – provided the Crew with a solid base to maintain possession and allow the wide players in Pedro Santos and Robinho (the one change to last week’s starting eleven) to get forward and contribute in attack. Porter’s offensive organization is built around heavy possession, and the Columbus Crew tend to avoid all forms of direct play and long balls unless extremely necessary.
Crew’s shape when in possession and DC United’s shape to combat it, highlighting how the front three denied service centrally.
Slow start, fast end to first half
Contrary to last week’s match, where Columbus made much of the early running, it was D.C. United who looked to monopolize possession this time around. Other than providing more security without possession, playing with three center-backs allowed D.C. United to stretch out when building up with the ball, and bypassing Crew in the press. Columbus are by no means a high pressing side, setting up their lines around the halfway line, but D.C. more often than not were able to find their wing-backs (Lucas Rodríguez on the left and Leonardo Jara on the right) to get around their lines.
Per usual, in possession, Columbus stuck to focusing much of their play through the center of the pitch, but were much less secure with the ball than their opponents. The aforementioned front three of D.C. did a great job of denying passes out of the back into the feet of Wil Trapp and Artur, when one of them looked to come short and receive. Thanks to this, possession was coughed up much more often than Crew normally do. Regardless of this, the first twenty minutes or so was largely uneventful and without big breakthroughs on either side.
This would all change after the opening phase, however. In the 21st minute, a poor ball from Jara into the center circle – aided by some referee interference – led to a turnover in which Pedro Santos drove directly at D.C. United’s defense and lashed the ball past goalkeeper Bill Hamid at his near post. Somewhat remarkably though, the goal was waved off after a long period of video review for a decision which remains rather ambiguous.
Amidst the chaos, D.C. United would take advantage. A free kick led to a scramble in the penalty area, inside forward Acosta was first to the loose ball and lashed home, and instead of trailing, D.C. were now leading after 27 minutes.
Shortly after going up, Olsen made the conscious decision to drop off deeper than they had done previously to try and catch Columbus on the break. The exact strategy that worked in this fixture last weekend. The back three of Frédéric Brillant, Will Pines, and Steve Birnbaum also stayed very narrow into their penalty area and did everything possible to deny service into Zardes up front. Seeing as Zardes was always heavily outnumbered in the attack, the Crew were unable to make inroads in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Because of this, Crew’s passing patterns were without any cut or thrust and largely involved sideways passes attempting to move and disrupt D.C. United’s shape.
If Caleb Porter was left frustrated as a result of the first VAR decision early, he would be fuming after another incident in the penalty area (Wil Trapp stopping a pass with his arm) was given as a penalty to D.C. United. Wayne Rooney stepped up and converted past Zac Steffen in goal and immediately afterwards, the referee blew for half-time.
Halftime | @LuchoAcosta94 scores his third of the season & @WayneRooney finishes a penalty in stoppage time to take a 2-0 lead into the locker room at the half. #DCU | #DCvCLB pic.twitter.com/L7qVaBblly
— D.C. United (@dcunited) May 5, 2019
D.C. keep Columbus at arm’s length and see out result
Columbus responded to their disappointing first half positively, and it was clear from the start where the changes in regards to strategy lay. For one, While Caleb Porter has often times received criticism for his commitment to passing football, the decision to be more open to finding the feet or head of Zardes up front with direct passes gave Columbus more versatility in chance creation. Earning free kicks or linking up with Higuaín – who came short to pick-up second balls and create – D.C. were forced to defend in other ways they had not done previously.
The tempo of Columbus Crew’s passing was also much better, and this allowed them to further create danger when they won possession. While in the first half they seemed somewhat passive in progressing the ball forward, getting runners forward and their fullbacks to overlap When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. allowed them disorganize D.C. United more often. This was best exemplified in the 52nd, minute when Columbus won the ball off of a D.C. attack, switched play quickly, and found Zardes at the back post who’s effort was well saved by Bill Hamid. While on paper these changes were simplistic in nature, they took Columbus Crew’s play a level up compared to the first half.
It must be said that D.C. United responded to these changes from Columbus in great fashion, too. Last week’s victory away in the corresponding fixture was one of ruggedness and extreme pragmatism, and while they did attempt to counter the Crew (buoyed by the two-goal lead) the hallmarks of defensive security remained.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) May 5, 2019
Looking at individual performances, right back Leonardo Jara epitomized this blend from D.C. United. When D.C. was defending he was rugged in the tackle and did not allow the Crew players to overlap and create threats on his side, and with the ball he was sparkling to create chances in the final third. In the 61st minute, he showed this threat as his back-heel assist set up Paul Arriola to secure all three points.
The Crew were somewhat shell-shocked by the nature of D.C. United’s goals and did the only thing they could possibly do to restore some pride; continuing their blend of passing football and direct passes to Zardes. As was the case in the game last week though, Ben Olsen’s men stayed compact and looked to pounce on any moments of insecurity from their opposition. While Columbus did score late on off a corner thanks to a massive mistake from Bill Hamid, it was too little too late for them to generate further goal-scoring scenarios.
Since the arrival of Wayne Rooney, D.C. United have generally played an up-tempo pressing system to combat opponents. Against Columbus Crew, in their second meeting of the campaign, they employed a new formation to yet again come up top against their Eastern Conference foes. A combination of this high-pressing system and switching to more secure means whenever possible. The new 3-4-3 formation they have begun to play gets the best out of two crucial areas of the team: the back three and the goal-scoring talents of Rooney, Acosta and Arriola up front.
For Columbus, questions must be asked yet again. Caleb Porter’s staunch commitment to passing football did change for the better in the second half, and this increased danger they created should make the Crew question their strategy: whether or not their “idealistic” take on football will work in the long term.
Columbus have a number of dangerous players in attacking positions, and yet they have struggled massively to score goals in recent weeks. While it may be good on the eye to watch, should they forgo some of this beauty in order to get the best out of these attacking players? It would seem so. Whether that means bringing in new players during the transfer window or altering their shape (moving away from the ever-present 4-2-3-1 formation under Porter) remains to be seen, but changes must be made going forward.
Match plots will be added to this article later.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 6, 2019