Columbus Crew SC faces Atlanta United FC for the second time this season on Saturday. This weekend’s looming matchup at MAPFRE Stadium is the expansion side’s first ever foray into Ohio’s capital city. The Black and Gold first took on the Five Stripes in Atlanta on June 17th, falling 3-1 for their third straight loss across all competitions.
The club righted the ship last week with a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Impact in their first home game since May 31st. Attacking winger Kekuta Manneh came on in the second half and made as immediate an impact as you’re going to see. After replacing Justin Meram, he broke a 1-1 deadlock in spectacular fashion, providing a goal and an assist a mere three minutes after coming on.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Atlanta in front of an anticipated home sellout, Crew SC is firing on all cylinders near the opposition’s goal. The Black and Gold have 29 goals thus far in 2017, a total bested by just six MLS teams. The attacking trio of Meram, Federico Higuain and Ola Kamara have a combined 40 goals and assists. That leads MLS among the top three goal/assist makers on each team.
The same can’t be said defensively. Only Real Salt Lake (38) and Minnesota United (41) are letting in more goals. Crew SC’s struggles against teams that press high up the field are particularly concerning. And Atlanta is certainly that kind of team.
Breaking Atlanta United High Pressure a Key Component to Success for Columbus Crew SC
Tata Martino’s Mantra
When Atlanta United hired Gerardo “Tata” Martino as manager, it provided a pretty clear indication as to the style of play the club would implement. Martino, whose resume includes stints at FC Barcelona and the Argentinian national team, is a well-known disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa school of soccer tactics. At its core is an energized, up tempo brand of the game in which a particular characteristic of note is taking advantage of opportunities in transition.
Part of how they achieve this is through a technique known as gegen-pressing. This involves immediately trying to win the ball back after giving it away to the opposition in their defensive half of the field. The idea is to force a mistake either directly via a 1-v-1 challenge or indirectly through poor distribution. When successful, the pressing team is at a distinct advantage since they have the ball near the opposing goal and are likely running at a disorganized back line.
Atlanta isn’t the only club in MLS that employs this system. The New York Red Bulls have finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference two years running with a high press under head coach Jesse Marsch. And in his first year at the helm in Houston, Wilmer Cabrera is implementing this tactical philosophy to great effect. The Dynamo are in the midst of a spectacular turnaround after multiple seasons of irrelevance in the West.
Crew SC’s Continued Struggles Dealing With High Pressure
How does this all tie in with Crew SC? Well, to put it bluntly, when facing teams who press high up the field in 2017, Columbus has been dreadful. The first example came just a minute after kickoff in Crew SC’s week two match down in Texas against the Dynamo.
This is exhibit A on how not to cycle the ball around near your own goal when facing high pressure. Three Dynamo players are in the vicinity of the penalty box, with Erick Torres in “Jaws” mode forcing a back pass out of Wil Trapp. He then turns his attention to Zack Steffen who hastily flubs the ball towards the feet of Romell Quioto. Four touches later, Steffen was picking the ball out of the back of his net.
Those issues resurfaced twice in Atlanta two weeks ago. Combined with a multitude of missed chances on the other side of the field, the inability to break the Atlanta United high pressure resulted in Columbus dropped points. Once again, lax distribution played a part.
Yes, Josh Williams lost the ball to Yamil Asad way too easily on this play. But Jukka Raitala’s decision to play a square ball towards him with two players converging and few if any outlets came back to haunt Crew SC a third of the way through the first half. In this case, the high pressure accomplished both its objectives en route to a Hector Villalba goal: a poor pass and a dispossession.
The same scenario played out late in the game and pretty much spelled the end of Crew SC’s chances at getting a result.
After Crew SC’s left back made a sketchy pass which eventually led to the first goal, this time it was the team’s right back which precipitated Atlanta’s third. Notice how there are four opposing players in the vicinity of Harrison Afful’s diagonal ball to Mohammed Abu. Now in Afful’s defense, Abu lost the ball to Kevin Kratz pretty cheaply. And Josef Martinez’s finish is as good as you’re going to see. But Afful’s initial ball played right into the hands of Atlanta’s game plan.
How to Counter High Pressure
Part of what makes Columbus so vulnerable to Atlanta United’s tactical methodology is merely a function of their identity under manager Gregg Berhalter. Teams who like to build out of the back are arguably the most susceptible to high pressure. What helps to counter its effectiveness is adjusting the way you play on a game-by-game basis.
It certainly goes against the team’s current on-field ethos, but playing more direct is a possible means towards neutralizing teams like Atlanta. Instead of gradually cycling the ball from defense to attack, get it there as quick as possible with long balls from deep spots on the pitch.
This may be the game to use Nicolai Naess and Jonathan Mensah as the center back partnership. The two of them lead Crew SC field players in accurate long balls per 90. When you add Trapp to the equation, that trio averages a combined 13.3 successful long passes over a given 90 minute span.
The faster and more efficiently Crew SC’s attacking stalwarts receive the ball, the better. After all, Justin Meram is clearly Major League Soccer’s best take-on man in 2017 with his 42 successful dribbles leading the league. It’s much better when players of his caliber have players isolated 1-v-1 in transition than when teams have a chance to set their defensive shape.
The 2017 Crew SC is at a crossroads. They currently sit fifth in the Eastern Conference, a mere point behind Atlanta United. Orlando City SC, currently in fourth, established some distance between them and Columbus with a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Friday. Even with a win or draw at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, the Black and Gold will stay put in the standings.
But with Atlanta trailing Crew SC by just a point, a loss puts them just above the red line in sixth. Their ability to prevent such a calamitous occurrence will indelibly hinge on doing something they’ve struggled to manage all season: break the high press.