The Eastern Conference of the MLS returned this weekend as Columbus Crew took on Philadelphia Union at the MAPFRE Stadium, Columbus. With the playoffs on the horizon, it was Columbus Crew who got a massive three points against the league-leading Philadelphia Union as Artur and former Liverpool forward, Krisztián Németh powered the Crew to a comeback 2-1 victory.
Before this matchup, Columbus returned to their home turf after a largely fruitless two-game stretch on the road. The fact they have won just once in their last seven games does not bode well with head coach Caleb Porter as they need a win to build the momentum and fight in the top four for upcoming weeks. Philadelphia came into this match with a three-game winning streak and were unbeaten in their last six games. The Union were in pole position to win the trophy, allowing them to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference if they get an away victory in this match.
In this tactical analysis piece, we will analyse on how Philadelphia organised their attacks and created quality chances, along with how Columbus defended against those attacks. This analysis will also focus on how the introduction of Díaz and Németh played an instrumental role to secure the victory for the home side.
Before we delve into the analysis, we will look at both teams’ formations and starting line-ups in this game.
Caleb Porter’s Columbus side fielded their strongest line-up in seven games with 4-4-1-1 as their starting formation. Eloy Room was chosen as a goalkeeper, with the back four of Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Aboubacar Keita, and Milton Valenzuela. Darlington Nagbe and Artur both deployed as a double-pivot in front of the defence line with Lucas Zelarayán playing more advanced than them. Derrick Etienne and Pedro Santos played at right and left flanks respectively while Gyasi Zardes completed the team as a forward for the Crew. This was the first time the trio of Zelarayán, Nagbe and Zardes played together since two months ago as they added an extra spark into their gameplan.
Philadelphia Union’s head coach, Jim Curtin started his team with a formation of 4-3-1-2 or 4-1-2-1-2 narrow diamond. Joe Bendik replaced Andre Blake between the sticks because of Blake fractured his hand. The Union’s back four consisted of Olivier Mbaizo, Jakob Glesnes, Mark McKenzie, and Kai Wagner. Their midfield consisted of Jack Elliott, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro, and Brenden Aaronson, who is reported to join the UEFA Champions League side of RB Salzburg in January 2021. Kacper Przbylko and Sergio Santos completed the starting line-up as the centre-forward duo for the visitors.
Philadelphia’s attacking tactics
Curtin’s men are very well-known for their dangerous attacks and influential positional play in the final third. Against Columbus, we saw it again with their threatening attacks and quality chances in the box. The statistics showed that the Union had 3.90 xG (expected goals) with 1.28 xG in the first half and 2.62 xG in the second half. Their total of attacks per minute was 0.56 compared to Columbus’ 0.26. Hence, for this section, we will look into detail on how Philadelphia built their attacking tactics and how they created so many quality chances throughout the match.
First, we need to understand Philadelphia’s structure when they were in possession. They tended to form a 2-3-3-2 structure with two centre-midfielders joining the attacking midfielder to support their strikers. Both full-backs moved upwards to form a second line with the holding midfielder. The purpose of the full-backs moving upwards was to provide the options in case their holding midfielder got marked closely by the opponents.
In the above analysis, we see the initial part of Philadelphia’s attacking phase through their build-up from the back. Mbaizo and Wagner stayed out wide to provide passing options at the wider space. Elliott, Philadelphia’s holding midfielder, was inside of the centre circle. With this structure, the centre-back had three options to pass the ball safely. In case Elliott was getting pressure from one of Columbus’ midfielders, he could pass the ball to one of the full-backs without losing it inside their own third.
However, their structure will be different once they succeed in bringing the ball into the opposition third. Their structure transitioned from previous 2-3-3-2 into 2-3-5 or 2-3-2-3 depending on how they built their attacks from. If they attacked through flanks, Monteiro and Bendoya will move outside from the centre into the wider space to support an attack from there. If the attacks came through the middle channel, both midfielders will support the three forwards by placing themselves behind the three forwards as we can see in the image below.
The above image was taken right after Aaronson won the ball in the middle third. Then, he passed it to Sergio Santos for him to carry the ball into Zone 14. Aaronson and Przybylko followed his run to provide themselves as the final options. Notice that Monteiro also joined them to provide as a cover for the forwards in case they lose the ball in that area. Additionally, he also provided another option if all forwards are closed down by the opposition defence.
Another crucial piece for these attacking structures to work was Aaronson’s role as a roaming playmaker in Philadelphia’s attacking phase. Whenever his teammate brought the ball into the 18-yard box, he made a run to join with his strikers in the box. Then, he and the centre-forwards would interchange among themselves to confuse and disrupt Columbus’ defensive line. This confusion of the opposition’s defence would lead their teammates to find a space in the box without getting noticed by the defenders.
The confusion can be seen in the above analysis. Two of Columbus’ players were marking Aaronson due to Aaronson’s intelligence in positioning himself. While he tricked two players into marking him, Bendoya ran behind his marker before Mbaizo crossed into the box. This confusion also allowed Santos to exploit at the far post as he was not marked by Columbus players. This scenario proved that Aaronson’s ability to create space for his teammates through confusion was one of the attacking tactics that were used by the Union’s head coach to create quality chances.
Columbus’ strategy during the defensive phase
As stated in the previous section, Porter implemented a 4-4-2 formation during the defensive phase. Up against Philadelphia’s 2-3-2-3 attacking structure, they knew they need to close down and not to give space in the middle channel as their opponents were strong in playmaking ability through the middle.
The Crew defended with a basic 4-4-2 structure but with a narrow shape as they wanted to block out any passing through the middle. They stood close to each other to force their opposition to start their build-up at the flanks.
However, issues arose when Philadelphia started their attacking through the flanks. Columbus left huge areas at the flanks for the Union to exploit with. As Columbus grew into the match, Porter decided to make a slight adjustment in his defensive strategies. He still kept the same structure of defence with a compact block at the middle, but he urged for his players to start pressing when the opponents played through the flanks.
In the above analysis, we can see Columbus’ pressing tactics in action. When the ball was played at the visitor’s right flank, five Columbus’ players ran quickly into that space to close down the players and engaged with the opponents to win the ball back. In this case, we see Aaronson carried the ball at the right flank while Keita was trying to steal the ball from his foot. Even if Aaronson can pass the ball onto Bedoya’s feet, the other Columbus’ men already closed down his teammate. The only option for Aaronson was to get tackled by Keita and win a foul.
This pressing tactic proved beneficial for the Black & Gold team as they successfully prevented Philadelphia from doing maximum damages from the flanks. They also won the ball quickly and held the possession more than their counterpart in the final 45 minutes. The graph below shows the differences in pressing intensity between the first half and the second half.
From the graph above, we can observe the pressing intensity applied by Columbus Crew (black line) was different between first half and second half. In the first half, they remained in the middle to set up a compact block. Their PPDA (passes allowed per defensive actions) was 24.5, with the lowest PPDA was 49.0 in between 16 to 30 minutes. It means they allowed 25 passes between Philadelphia players before they won the ball into their possession.
However, their PPDA changed into 10.5 in the second half as they wanted to minimize the risk of Philadelphia’s potential attacks. They also wanted to control the possession during the second half. Statistic proved that they controlled 56% possession of the ball compared to 44% for Philadelphia.
The above graph shows Columbus’ ground duels throughout the match. They had a higher number of ground duels in the last 45 minutes compared to the first 45 minutes. Additionally, most of the battle happened in the wider space instead of in the middle. While in the first half, most of the ground duels happened in the middle channel as they wanted to block any potential attacks coming from the middle channel.
With creating a compact block in the middle and starting to press when the opposition played at the flanks, these strategies implemented by Caleb Porter proved a success as they can hold their leading even though Philadelphia attacked more than them.
Crucial introduction of Díaz and Németh
As the match went on, the score was stuck on 1-1 for both sides before Porter made two crucial changes in his line-up. He introduced Luis Díaz Espinosa to replace the already tired Etienne at the right-wing in 68th minute. He also introduced 31-years old Krisztián Németh to replace Zardes as the attacking midfielder in 82nd minute.
These introductions proved valuable for the home side as both substitutes contributed to the winning goal in the last 10 minutes. The introduction of both players was not only helping them to achieve a victory, but they also contributed to their team with their enthusiasm to win the ball back.
First, we look into Díaz’s contribution to the team in the last 22 minutes. The objective of his introduction to the game was to utilise his strength and decision-making ability to protect and put pressure at Columbus’ right flanks. Based on the ground duels graph in the previous section, we can see there were more unsuccessful duels at the right flank compared to the left flank. In this situation, Díaz can use his strength and skills to win the ball in this area.
In the image above, the Philadelphia midfielder just received the ball from the centre. Before the midfielder received it, Díaz was stood in the shaded area. While the opponent still focusing on the ball, he did not notice that Díaz already ran to put pressure on him. With Díaz’s speed and upper body strength, he caught his opponent unaware of his running, and he won the ball without conceded a free-kick.
Díaz also utilised his acceleration and speed to start a counter-attack after his teammates won the ball in their own third. Throughout the match, the Crew had only one chance created from counter-attack situation, and it started from Díaz.
This image was taken after Díaz’s teammate intercepted the ball in Columbus’s own third. After Díaz received the pass from his teammate, he started his running into the final third with a quick pace. Two Philadelphia players were trying to close down on him, but with his speed, he had time to cross the ball to another super-sub, Németh.
As we can see from the above image, when Díaz ran from his own third, Németh also started to run into the 18-yard box. Philadelphia defender followed him closely but his eye already stuck to the ball. So, Németh made a slick movement behind the defender and ran to the far post. Díaz saw Németh’s movement, and he crossed the ball into where Németh positioned himself after running. Combined with Díaz’s pace and Németh’s tricky movement, Columbus Crew got a second goal and winning this match.
To conclude this analysis, it was a great moment for Caleb Porter and his squad as they successfully implemented his tactics to secure three points against the league leader. His creativity and intuition to make the adjustments to his tactics proved beneficial. However, this does not mean that Jim Curtin’s boys played badly as they created 3.90 xG in this match. Another top performance from Eloy Room had prevented Philadelphia to secure a victory in this match.
With the win, Columbus collect 38 points with 11 wins, 5 draws, and 5 losses. They are in third place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of Orlando City. The Black & Gold’s busy week starts with a game against Orlando City in a match rescheduled due to Columbus had a positive coronavirus test. On the other hand, Philadelphia still keep the first place in the East with 44 points, and they will finish their regular season with a match against New England Revolution on 8th November.