New England Revolution
- Turner / 2. Farrell, 19. Mlinar, 3. Anibaba / 15.Bye, 11. Rowe, 6. Caldwell, 27. Caicedo, 8. Tierney / 70. Penilla, 10. Bunbury
- Steffen / 25. Afful, 4. Jonathan, 17. Abubakar, 19. Valenzuela / 6. Trapp, 7. Artur / 28. Hansen, 10. Higuain, 26. Argudo / 11. Zardes
New England’s strategy failed to achieve its goal. Worse, it allowed Columbus to dictate the possession and the tempo of the game.
The tactical exchange between New England and Columbus in the first half
The Revolution wanted to maintain a man-to-man coverage at all time; they used a 3-5-2 to match Columbus’ 4-2-3-1. The three center backs man-marked Gyasi Zardes and the two inverted wingers while the three central midfielders followed Federico Higuain and Columbus’ double pivot. The wingbacks and the strikers took care of Columbus’ four defenders. Brad Friedel wanted to take advantage of his team’s superior physicality. The Revolution could play to their strength if they could play more 50-50 duels and hit Columbus at the transition between the defensive and the offensive phases.
This strategy should also mask their technical weakness. The Revolution couldn’t develop their attack from the build-up. Even with six players in the center, they failed to control the possession. Their center backs and the deepest midfielder didn’t create enough triangular passing angle between each other. Most of the passes were horizontal and failed to penetrate Columbus’s defense. They couldn’t access the zone14. Their chance from the build-up came only when they could switch between the flanks and isolate Brandon Bye, Chris Tierney or Cristian Penilla in a 1 vs. 1 situation against Columbus’ defender.
Therefore, the Revolution needed to prey on the transition to attack before the Crew could set up their defense.
But New England’s insistence on the man-to-man coverage prevented it from having any stable defensive structure. Artur and Wil Trapp often pulled Kelyn Rowe and Scott Caldwell away from the midfield when they dropped between the center backs. Bye and Tierney positioned deep into Columbus’ half because they needed to pressure Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful. The Revolution became stretched vertically, and the Crew could find a lot of space in the midfield. Because they man-marked everyone except Zack Steffen, Columbus’ players could pass to the keeper and find the breathing room when they encountered too much pressure. Steffen always had the time to control the ball, waited and found an area where his team could attack.
He sent many long balls and targeted Zardes, the Crew’s most physical striker, in the midfield. Zardes didn’t win all of the aerial duels, but he was strong enough to prevent New England from dominating the long ball. With so much space in New England’s second line of the defense, the Crew could often create a dangerous opportunity when they controlled the loose ball. Using the long pass also bypassed the Revolution’s high confrontation line and prevented them from re-initiating an attack in the dangerous area.
The Crew also found a lot of success on the flank; New England’s 3-5-2 only had one player guarding each side. The space between him and the center back was susceptible to the penetration. The Crew always hit the left side because of their asymmetric build-up; Afful played as an inverted fullback and operated in the middle to maintain the possession. Valenzuela had the regular fullback’s responsibility to attack the flank. Therefore, the Crew had more pass targets on the left side. They could create a combination or an overload to penetrate New England’s defense.
In the first half, the game proceeded in a repeating pattern: When the Crew built up from the back, New England’s players would immediately close down everyone. The ball handler couldn’t penetrate the confrontation line and passed back to Steffen. The Revolution did not pressure the keeper. They marked every other Columbus’ player and waited for Steffen to pass the ball. Steffen would stay at the edge of the box, wait for a gap to open in the midfield and send a long ball forward. If his teammates managed to control the ball, they could immediately attack the host. But if New England’s players regained the possession, they would hit back with a counter-attack. The Revolution created more opportunities in the early part of the first half. But as the Crew grew more comfortable with New England’s tactics, they had better control of the possession and minimized being caught in the transition.
The tactical exchange between New England and Columbus in the second half
Friedel made two tactical changes in the second half to prevent Columbus from attacking those gaps in the midfield. He wanted to eliminate all those long passes that could bypass New England’s initial confrontation line and cause so many problems in the first half; New England’s central midfielders and wing backs didn’t always follow their targets all the way to the penalty box. They paid more attention to guard the space in the midfield. In contrast, Penilla and Teal Bunbury positioned higher. They didn’t just close down Jonathan Mensah and Lalas Abubakar in the build-up, they also wanted to push back Steffen from the edge of the box when he controlled the ball. They made it harder for him to send those long passes:
Friedel’s strategy worked; in the second half, Steffen was often forced to stay inside the box when he controlled the ball. The Crew didn’t have a long of success with Steffen’s long ball in the center. Most of his passes landed on the edge of the left flank.
Friedel’s fix solved one problem but created another one; now that Artur, Trapp, and Afful had more freedom when the Crew built up. They couldn’t access the area behind New England’s midfielders, but they could control the ball in front of them. They could now take advantage of the space between the New England’s strikers and midfielders. Moreover, The Revolution eliminated those dangerous long balls, so now Columbus’ players needed to attack the flank with short passes. They didn’t create as many chances as they did in the first half, but they also controlled the ball for a long time. They played fewer penetrative passes in the middle and prevented New England from regaining the possession and hitting them during the transitions. Friedel’s fix had an unexpected outcome: not only it minimized Columbus from attacking his team, but it also eliminated most of New England’s chances.
New England’s problem in this game was its reluctance to use the cover shadow to compensate for a momentary loss of the man-to-man coverage. Failing to do so meant they couldn’t apply enough pressure to the ball handler. They wanted to prey on the transition, but they didn’t force enough transition.
Although the Crew could only score from a corner, they controlled the tempo for most of the match, and they deserved to take home three points.