Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Columbus Crew 1-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: 215pix

Three-back systems are en vogue right now. And rightly so: Center backs are taking on more distributive duties, and fullbacks were already asked to cover entire flanks, so when jamming the center became commonplace, managers looked wide for relief.

Columbus Crew is relatively new to the three-back game, but Gregg Berhalter’s reliance on advanced fullbacks and central defenders with passing range meant he had the basic tools on hand from the start of the season. Adding Kekuta Manneh gave Berhalter a second winger comfortable playing inside, and with Federico Higuain injured the 3-4-3 provides a good fit for the current roster.

After the match, Jim Curtin said, “They came out in a 3-4-3. We actually had their lineup and were prepared for them to play that way with [Federico] Higuain being out.”

Indeed, there were early signs that the Union had a good plan of attack. In the seventh minute, Philly drew Justin Meram high defensively, and when Jukka Raitala, the left wingback, stepped to Ray Gaddis, Josh Yaro bypassed him. Marcus Epps had smartly moved high into the space behind Raitala, pitting him against Lalas Abubakar, who was drawn out of the center to cover. As a result, Columbus retreated and left Haris Medunjanin in space. Great!

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Moments later, Philly pinned Justin Meram deep by moving Ale Bedoya into the right channel and pushing Ray Gaddis upfield. This meant Meram could not step to Yaro, and the Union had a 3v2 in the first line with Medunjanin again granted time to slip a pass through the lines to Jay Simpson. (The pass at the end is not necessarily a bad one, but made at the wrong moment from Najem. When the wingback has rejoined the back line, Najem needs to find Bedoya in space.)

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These plays demonstrate that a three-back system is not inherently more effective than the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 deployed by Philly. Although a three-back shape can provide numerical advantages in wide areas with wingbacks blitzing upfield after turnovers, it can leave center backs chasing out to cover jinky wingers in space. These matchups are sometimes called qualitative advantages because the situation very much favors the skillset of one of the players involved. Marcus Epps was far from the best he’s shown on Saturday, but getting him and Ilsinho into 1v1s with center backs is a good thing for the Union to do against Columbus’ shape.

Yet, the Union did not continue to attack behind the wingbacks. At times, in fact, they seemed to forget this was where the space would be.

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In the 16th minute, Najem again played an errant pass into a corner, but this time his decision-making was good and the run was not up to snuff. Ilsinho checked in short despite having plenty of space up the left wing to take.

This, unfortunately, characterized the Union approach for the rest of the match — until at least the 58th minute when Jay Simpson finally tested the back line deep.

As the Union ceased looking to play behind the wingbacks, they lost momentum, and, eventually, the strategic battle in the game.

The shape of Columbus — defense

A 3-4-3, like most shapes, is rarely what it appears on paper. When the Crew lost the ball, they quickly retreated into a 5-man back line with two midfielders protecting the center and narrow wingers ahead of them looking to force play central or, at most, allow only wide passes that could quickly be closed down. To that end, they often matched up in a 3v3 shape up top when Philly dropped Medunjanin deep to start play, and they chased the ball back to John McCarthy, who connected 3 out of 9 passes in the first half and 2 out of 9 in the second half. Of those completed passes, few made it to a friendly foot after Epps nodded them on.

The Union then ended up trying to play around the front three by pulling their fullbacks deep for simple passes. Ray Gaddis in particular spent a lot of time on the ball in the first half, and he completed a plethora of short passes into the center. The Crew would quickly move the wingback forward to Gaddis, pull an inside winger deeper to back-pressure the ball carrier, and slide their midfield two across to cover. This meant Philly could exit the space, but often only by going backward and giving the Crew time to rotate. When Jim Curtin spoke after the match about having little “possession with purpose,” these are the plays he was describing.

The shape of Columbus — offense

After the first fifteen minutes of the match, Columbus began controlling the width of the pitch. From then on it seemed as though the Union were merely hanging on. Even though the Crew rarely generated shots, they were so untroubled by Philly’s attack that they could afford to be patient and wait for spaces to open as the visitors tired.

Notably, the Crew have always prized width and movement off the ball under Gregg Berhalter, and the club’s current incarnation is no different. Central to the Crew’s attack was utilizing their attacking mids/central wingers to draw Philly central and attack up the flank. Both Kekuta Manneh and Justin Meram sought to draw the Union fullbacks inside to provide space for the wingbacks to advance. These movement patterns are difficult to monitor, particularly without C.J. Sapong narrowing the pitch.

In the 20th minute, the Crew began spreading the field effectively. Both Marcus Epps and Adam Najem drifted inside but failed to press the ball. Additionally, neither Bedoya nor Epps shadowed Meram’s central run, so Ray Gaddis followed the winger inside and left the touchline uncovered. It took two passes for the Crew to create chaos in back.

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With Philly unable to attack with width, Columbus increasingly found that Raitala and Harrison Afful (and Hector Jimenez after halftime) could leave the Union’s wingers behind and establish possession deep in the visitors’ half.

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Whereas the Crew used to press fullbacks up the pitch to create crossing opportunities or empty the center for a playmaker, the 3-4-3 offers positions that can lead to better quality chances. Indeed, when asked about trading chance quantity for quality after the match, Kekuta Manneh highlighted that all three of the front players had a high quality chance in the match. “I think it’s working to our advantage. We played it against Colorado and did not get a result. I think it’s working for us, we’re getting quality chances. I had one myself, Justin had one, Ola had one.”

Those high quality chances tend to come from trading crosses for opportunities to attack the box (which makes Jim Curtin’s post-match statement that the team needs to create more crosses a bit worrying, though after a match that produced two shots — neither on frame — it’s hard to go anywhere but up in terms of chance creation).

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The Crew’s goal was a prototypical example of creating a high quality chance by controlling the wide area of the pitch. Hector Jimenez pushed up on the right when Ilsinho moved inside. Giliano Wijnaldum stepped forward with Medunjanin and Elliott both in support but understandably hesitant to abandon the center. With Ilsinho dropping back, this gave the Union a numerical advantage but kept them at a positional disadvantage once Meram slipped out to the touchline ahead of Jimenez.

Such a situation is no guarantee of success, but once Jimenez found Artur and Ilsinho gave the midfielder space to turn, Philly was immediately in trouble. Note that Elliott remained hesitant to step to Meram throughout the ensuing play because Manneh was threatening to sneak behind him. Off the wing, often thought of as a less dangerous area of the pitch, Columbus had created a 3v2 advantage in the Union box. That is rarely good.

Attacking the Crew

These teams meet again in a few days. Can the Union come good at home?

Yes, absolutely.

For as much as Columbus wrestled away control of space — and the ball — from Philly, they were notably poor in execution. Additionally, the Union can identify clear soft spots in the Crew’s defensive setup that can be attacked in at least two ways.

First, the Union can do a better job recognizing and attacking the space behind Columbus’ wing backs in transition. Many times, Philly’s first ball off a turnover was sideways or backwards and gave Columbus time to recover their shape.

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Even when the Union did play it backwards, though, they still had opportunities to run at the home side’s back three and passed them up. Below, Marcus Epps has space in front of him following a turnover. He’s slow to put himself on the touchline to receive a pass, and when Gaddis looks up neither Epps nor Simpson is looking to run behind Lalas Abubakar even though the Crew defender has to cover both of them.

This echoes the play above in which Ilsinho checks short rather than identifying the space on the wing behind Afful, leaving Najem’s pass to roll harmlessly toward the corner.

The second tactic Philly can use involves more attacking movement from the center backs. Throughout the 2017 season, Jim Curtin has evolved his tactics to provide more defensive cover at the expense of attacking intent. The fullbacks rarely go forward together (and, in recent weeks, hardly at all) and the center backs tend to drop deep to find space to pass. These changes have certainly paid off defensively, but at this point the Union need to be able to vary their approach during the course of a match.

Columbus’ defensive approach early involved matching their front three against Philly’s central defenders and Medunjanin. The Union responded by using the hole behind the Crew’s front players. Columbus began leaving their attacking mids — particularly Meram — deeper to cut out long passes from the center backs. When the Union moved the ball to their left, Jonathan Mensah had the freedom to step out of the back three to press Ilsinho, which meant the Union could not create numerical advantages on that side.

Philly could have responded by dropping Ilsinho all the way into the first line of buildup, forcing either Mensah to step extremely high or hand off the Brazilian to Manneh. The issue, then, is that Ilsinho is not the player the Union would prefer to have on the ball behind the half line.

The other option is to have the center backs be more aggressive stepping forward with the ball. Below, Elliott and Yaro both have opportunities to step forward with the ball, drawing in the attacking mids and passing through them.

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As the Crew sat deeper, Elliott did take his space and found that it was fruitful.

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Above, Elliott steps forward to receive Medunjanin’s pass, meaning he is both moving toward goal and across the pitch when he collects the ball. This puts more pressure on the rotating defense and allows Ilsinho — offside though he is — to slide through a crack. Additionally, it forces Hector Jimenez to decide whether to protect the middle or stay close to Wijnaldum. Forcing defenders into split-second decisions is the name of the game in soccer, and the Union do not do it nearly enough.

Stretch it out

Bubbling beneath the surface of most of the Union’s problems was the absence of Fafa Picault, or more specifically, what Picault represents: Speed and depth.

Without their zippy winger, the Union had the same problem that plagued them last season: No ability to push the Crew’s defensive line deep and create space in the midfield. Television can be deceiving since the whole formation is rarely shown and directors have a strong penchant for close-ups, but it certainly appeared that Jay Simpson’s first real attempt to get behind the Columbus line occurred in the 58th minute. Without pushing the line back, which other teams do to the Union all too effectively, Philly was unable to create space in the center.


When a team secures a mere two shots, one of them blocked and the other from far outside the box, it is difficult to assess exactly what their attacking strategy was supposed to be. It is safe to assume the Union had one, though, and simply did not execute.

However, it is also safe to assume that whatever the strategy was, Jay Simpson did not know it or did not follow it well. Time and again, the man brought in to bolster the offense showed little awareness of his surroundings and found himself clogging the center instead of creating spaces.

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Simpson often checked into space, drew a defender, then…simply remained. When he pulled center backs high, he did not then look to exploit the space behind them. Above, you can see him draw Abubakar high then end up closing off Epps’ advance. In the second clip in this article, Simpson and Najem move into the same zone and Simpson has no awareness of his surroundings when Medunjanin picks him out.

Below, Simpson’s run gives no indication where he wants the ball during one of the few situations in which a Union player had a chance to pick out a cross.

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Going forward, how does Jim Curtin use Jay Simpson? His flashes of effectiveness have often occurred against lower-tier competition (and in a Toronto match marred by swirling winds). He can hold the ball up, but on a team without an advanced creative presence, that means simply bringing players uncomfortable in tight spaces into play…in tight spaces.

Simpson, ironically, may be approximately what the club said he was: A player that needs chances to score. And, given his height, not crosses. On a team that does not have a single key pass in their last two opening halves of play, he may need to move down the pecking order behind Charlie Davies.

Yaro needs minutes, but not MLS minutes

Nobody can watch Josh Yaro on the ball and argue that he has no future in a sport desperate for technical center backs.

Unfortunately, watching Josh Yaro off the ball leads one, almost inexorably, to the conclusion that this is a player that needs far more time to develop his awareness and positional sense. This is certainly not a knock on Yaro, but more of a call to do what is best for the player. Yaro could absolutely continue to play sporadically and lean heavily on his stellar athleticism to bail him out when, for example, a striker recognizes a play developing 2-3 steps before he does.

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And he could attempt to learn from experience to monitor runs across the line in order to step forward and cut out long passes (a skill often driven by confidence, and one Jack Elliott possesses in spades).

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But to reach his potential, Yaro needs to play and develop a stronger tactical sense, so he showcases his exceptional skillset in positive situations going forward.

In the end, the Union put forth an inexcusably pitiful showing, regardless of squad rotation, rest, or anything else. They collected two shots and neither was even close to threatening Zack Steffen’s goal.

More troubling, they failed to exploit Columbus’ weaknesses, pointing to either a lack of preparation or a lack of execution. On Wednesday, a far different level of focus must be evident from the outset if the Union want to save their season and make a run at the playoffs.


  1. So do they bring in reinforcements during the transfer window or do they just ride out the season, play the kids and completely retool around them when Alberg, Ilshino and a couple other players come off the books.

    • I think it’s clear they need at least one reinforcement in the front line if only to improve the consistency of the attack. You just don’t know what you’re going to get from one game to the next out of Ilsinho or Alberg. I can see an argument that Simpson needs more time to adjust to the league, even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to it. But consistency up front is key, and even their best attacking players this season – CJ and Fafa – are streaky (CJ) or not great at possession soccer (Fafa).

      • I think the Union should just sit tight at the transfer window unless it’s to trade of their defenders. The team isn’t going anywhere and will need to take some big swings in the offseason. Simpson may not be what anyone hoped he would be but has he been given a fair shake? Maybe people think he has been given a fair run. Start him in some HOME matches with the lineup you play when CJ is the striker and see what happens. It’s not like CJ has done much of anything in the run of play since May 6th (3 PK goals since then, 0 from open play).

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I disagree with your thought, Jason. If the Union pick up someone now, we’ll (hopefully) see the Bedoya effect where they were mediocre to start with but then are much bigger contributors after a training camp with the team.
        On the other hand, if they wait until the off season, we’re more likely to see the Haris effect where they start off strong but then hit a wall mid-season as they realize that they’ve been going for a year with no break.
        Better to get the growing pains out now than to wait until next year.

      • Andy,
        This is why we need squad rotation. If we have depth, as we were told before the season then new players that come in next January/February shouldn’t have to play every minute of every match and should still be fresh at this point in the season.

  2. So many of these analyses seem to fall along the same arc: Union start the game on the front foot, with what looks like a sound strategy. After about fifteen minutes, the opponent makes adjustments. The Union have no answer to those adjustments and end up ‘hanging on’ until the inevitable loss.
    It’s really hard to have faith in Curtin when we repeatedly see Plan A run into a rough patch, and there is no Plan B.

    • Since day 1 Curtin has been unable to change to Plan B. That is his biggest coaching deficiency that he has not been able to correct. So frustrating to see this over and over again.

      • Yeah, but as has happened before, we quit what was working in the middle of a half for no reason. I don’t think there was any adjustment other than our wings not taking the space back there, which is frustrating.

  3. Adam Schorr says:

    God, this is just so f***ing frustrating. Where to even begin?
    “Jim Curtin’s post-match statement that the team needs to create more crosses [is] a bit worrying”
    It’s worrying because there never seems to be a plan on what to do with crosses. I have actually advocated moving to a system with Pontius, an aerial ace, playing the #10 and Fafa and Epps on the wings. Play it to speed out wide, get Sapong and Pontius in the box, and try to use your guys who win aerial balls to win aerial balls in front of goal. When Simpson and Najem are your center options though, creating more crosses seems futile, right?
    “Jim Curtin has evolved his tactics to provide more defensive cover at the expense of attacking intent. The fullbacks rarely go forward together (and, in recent weeks, hardly at all) and the center backs tend to drop deep to find space to pass. These changes have certainly paid off defensively, but at this point the Union need to be able to vary their approach during the course of a match.”
    It’s weird, it’s like the defender who has no experience coaching coaches basic fundamental defensive principles but can’t do anything else. Almost like he should be an assistant coach. Weird!
    “Bubbling beneath the surface of most of the Union’s problems was the absence of Fafa Picault, or more specifically, what Picault represents: Speed and depth.”
    It’s worth pointing out Fafa’s impact. The Union have 3 points from 8 games in which Fafa played less than 30 minutes and score half a goal a game less in those games. Fafa’s speed and off-ball movement is the offense most of the time. Much like Le Toux before him, it’s not necessarily that he’s good, but that he puts himself in positions to succeed so often that he will eventually succeed.
    “When a team secures a mere two shots, one of them blocked and the other from far outside the box, it is difficult to assess exactly what their attacking strategy was supposed to be. It is safe to assume the Union had one, though.”
    Is it? I’ve been watching this team all year and honestly have no clue what their offensive strategy is beyond trying to create turnovers high up the pitch. If there is a coherent strategy to the Union’s offense, we are 20 games in and it has not manifested.
    “Going forward, how does Jim Curtin use Jay Simpson?”
    Jim Curtin should give Jay Simpson all the opportunities a 4th division striker deserves. Like a chance to prove at Bethlehem that he’s good enough for the big league squad. That’s where Simpson belongs. It was an incomprehensible signing at the time and he has done absolutely nothing to show anything. “He’s a good finisher” doesn’t matter if he never puts himself in position to finish, and quite frankly, he has shown terrible off-ball movement and no real finishing skills. Just cut your losses. And maybe ask Earnie what he saw in this 4th division striker to make him think there was anything there.
    “Unfortunately, watching Josh Yaro off the ball leads one, almost inexorably, to the conclusion that this is a player that needs far more time to develop his awareness and positional sense.”
    I pointed out before the season that people penciling in Yaro were jumping the gun, given his poor performance last season. Maybe he’ll develop into the starting CB people want him to be, but he’s not there yet.
    Can you tell I’m frustrated? I’m frustrated.

    • Are you frustrated 😉

    • Earnie’s pickups have been much better this year than last year, but man he’s wiffed badly on both strikers he’s brought in so far.

      • Jay Simpson has played 90 minutes 1 time this year (Saturday) and it was with a midfielder made up of 3 guys (Ilson,Epps,Najem) who started 0 games in their respective positions this year. Can someone explain to me how he’s been given a fair shot when he hasn’t played 400 minutes yet this season? So much for squad rotation.

      • He hasn’t been given a fair shot at all.

      • Agree Simpson hasn’t had a fair shot. In defense of the signing, I think it was a good gamble (though the price is still a bit high) to take.

        Problem, too, is I don’t have a ton of confidence that Curtin is capable of getting the most out of guys like Simpson. He could almost use an attacking coach — a soccer version of the offensive coordinator in NFL — to plan something coherent in the attacking third. This team seems to have gotten worse at scoring goals on chances every season since Jim took over.

    • Jay Simpson has not shown much, but neither has he been given much opportunity. And starting with a patchwork squad, lacking in all chemistry, is not exactly the place to start. I am not particularly high on him, but neither do I think the firing squad is justified. (I reserve that for Alberg.)

      • Adam Schorr says:

        What has he done to *earn* an opportunity? He has been bad in every opportunity he’s gotten. If Charlie Davies can spend time in USL, so can Simpson. Make him earn it. Make him prove it. He got paid like a star despite never being more than mediocre. Make him prove he’s more than mediocre. Don’t assume it.

      • Adam Schorr, I agree 100%. He hasn’t played much but when he has played I’ve seen very little that looks promising. And the whole ‘good finisher’ thing does not seem true to me. Seems like most of his shots are slow rollers right to the keeper.

      • Our starting striker CJ Sapong has scored 2 PK goals and had 7 Shots on goal in his last 10 matches! Over 900 minutes of action played and that’s what he’s done. That is why I would like Simpson to get a run of matches. Maybe he is serviceable for this team. Maybe he’ll stink but give him some minutes with the actual starters to find out.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Definitive erudite… “create more crosses” is a four alarm fire IMO.

  4. I agree the crosses comment was disheartening, but the team is astoundingly , structurally tactically poor in many ways. “The Najem Right” clip shows the opposite. Najem is wrong to pass the ball because when you are in possession,it is always your responsibility to make the correct pass, not to where you think it should go but where the player is at that moment. If it is not there, just maintain the ball. The “Union pin Napal” clip shows a terrble floating ball deep in the corner rather than the more effective pass to Bedoya to keep the attack balanced. These looping , useless crosses as shown in the “Where does Simpson” clip are tooth grindingly frustrating And may be the reason why playing a few games for the Steel will never prepare you for the tactical choas that exist at the Union once you get there. Another thing is if you look at the spacing of the players, it is shockingly bad . compare it to the elite teams and see what you must aspire to. To become good, copy the best.

  5. It has taken me awhile to want to comment about the Union. I’ve watched other MLS teams perform compared to ours. This team will always be hovering around the bottom of the league until it is sold and reorganized from top to bottom. The academy is fine as is Bethlehem Steele. The current ownership, sporting director and coach’s reluctance/inability to compete at the highest level for talent is frustrating, embarrassing, down right maddening. It’s unfair to this fan base. We worked so hard and waited so long for an MLS franchise. There is no way in the world the current ownership would be granted a franchise today. This franchise needs financially motivated, competent and competitive ownership. We deserve better.

    • Agree on ownership and Curtin; not on Earnie. Sure, he missed on Simpson as far as I can tell but he seems, to me, to know what he is doing.
      Cheapa__ Sugarman, unfortunately, gave Earnie a knife for a gun fight as the phrase goes. Look either Sugarman doesn’t have the cash (a distinct possibility given that real estate developers are always leveraged on cash and using other people’s money) or he just won’t spend his money because he thinks his investment has been made. Dunno, don’t care. #Sugarmanout.
      Curtin might be a lovely guy but he is not a good coach, particularly on offense. That seems clear to me. No cogent theory… seems like roll the ball out there and, you know guys, kick it.

      • We scored in the upper half of goals last year and during the first half we were right at the top. Amazing what happen when you actually have a 10. Add Barnetta to this team and I bet we have about 10 more goals.

      • For those who need a reminder, below is Jim Curtin’s head coaching record to date (MLS regular season only, includes time as interim head coach in ’14). It does not make me optimistic about the Union’s future under his leadership.
        2014: 7 wins, 5 losses, 6 draws
        2015: 10 wins, 17 losses, 7 draws
        2016: 11 wins, 14 losses, 9 draws
        2017: 6 wins, 9 losses, 5 draws

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