Columbus Scouting Report: Wingback to the Future

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

You think your fullbacks get forward? Think they have to take turns doing it? Berhalter laughs at you!

In last week's scouting report I mentioned the increasing tactical variety in MLS, in the context of Montreal's unique through-ball obsession in 2013. We can continue with that theme this week, in the context of Columbus' tactical novelty this season. Under the guidance of new head coach Gregg Berhalter, the Crew are bringing a wrinkle in the form of a pair of true wingbacks.

In Seattle we've become accustomed to attack-minded fullback play, thanks to the scorching speed of DeAndre Yedlin on the right and recently the similar play of Dylan Remick on the left. Yedlin occasionally gets the 'wingback' label due to his ability to recover from fairly advanced positions up the sideline, which lets him push further into the attack. And Seattle's tactical adjustment to him moving forward is to drop the other fullback (usually Leo Gonzalez, but Remick so far this season) to maintain a 3-man defense.

But in Columbus Berhalter is doing something a little different. He's implementing wingbacks tactically, rather than just relying on blazing speed. And he's comfortable pushing both of them forward at the same time to create width. The key to the shift is the adjustment he's making to maintain a 3-man defense, which is to drop defensive midfielder Will Trapp back to the defensive line, effectively becoming a third center back while the wingbacks are away. Here's an example from their home match last weekend against Philadelphia:

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Note the two fullbacks, whom I've marked with red circles. That's onetime center back Josh Williams on the right and new signing Waylon Francis on the left. And both are in very advanced positions maintaining the width of the formation. Both are in fact at least as far forward than attacking midfielder Federico Higuain and behind only lone forward Jairo Arrieta. With Yedlin we're used to him bombing forward with a particular purpose.. if his sideline is defensively abandoned, or if he's overlapping a midfielder on that side. But for the Crew the ostentatiously advanced fullbacks aren't being opportunistic. The ball isn't particularly near either and there's no defensive breakdown they're exploiting. They're pushed up because that's the team shape they want.

Key Players
Federico Higuain Easy call. No team in MLS is more dependent on one player than Columbus is on Higuain. He will roam the midfield and pull the strings.
Wil Trapp Akron product holds the defensive midfield and has great passing vision with the whole field in front of him.
Bernardo Anor Left midfielder attacks the channels with late runs. Scored on a 30-yard bomb in their last match.

With the wingbacks pushed high, the two nominal side midfielders — Hector Jiminez and Bernardo Anor — are able to pinch in to the middle to create a number advantage in the central midfield without sacrificing a presence on the sidelines. This shape actually has hallmarks of the diamond midfield (like the reliable diamond Real Salt Lake plays with) in that the fullbacks are providing width so the midfielders can tuck in — and you can see a clear diamond in this still with Higuain at the top and Tony Tchani at the base. But the diamond is usually a 4-4-2 variant, and regularly pushing both fullbacks up would weaken the defense. Berhalter's adjustment is to go to a single striker and add an additional defensive midfielder. Here, Trapp — indicated with a black circle — who can reinforce the defense while the wingbacks stay high.

That twist aside, the nature of the Crew has not fundamentally changed. They will go as far as Higuain takes them. He is unquestionably their most important attacker, finishing last season with double digit goals and tied for 5th in the league in assists. And as their most important player, he doesn't stand around waiting for the ball. He covers a massive amount of space through the midfield to pick up the ball and create plays.

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Seattle will once again be without Clint Dempsey due to suspension. That opens up the question of whether the Sounders will once again go with the 4-3-3 that earned a victory in Montreal or the 4-4-2 bucket that they opened the season with against Sporting KC (Or something else, I guess). Sigi tends to like to go with what works, so the 4-3-3 probably gets the nod. It also has some potential tactical advantages against the Crew. The wide forwards in the attacking three (say Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper) can get behind the advanced wingbacks and stretch the 3-man defense wider, opening holes in the middle for Obafemi Martins or late runs from the midfield (say from Brad Evans or Gonzalo Pineda). In fact, it might not be a bad game for a first start from rookie winger Sean Okoli, who could do some damage attacking the right side of that defensive line. Another benefit of the 4-3-3 is that the 3-man midfield plus the fullbacks could help keep a numerical advantage against the Crew when their wide mids tuck in. And especially give some freedom to Osvaldo Alonso to follow and pressure Higuain.

The real advantage for Seattle may be that Columbus — outside of their star Argentine — just aren't that good. They've won both games they played this season, but they haven't looked particularly amazing doing it and it was against two non-playoff teams. The Crunchy Power Rankings, though drawing from a very small sample, have them at 15th out of 19 teams. Against Philadelphia at home they first scored on a hilariously unmarked header on a corner and got their second from a somewhat implausible 30 yard shot off a turnover, then had to barely hold on for the last half hour. They carry most of the same players from the team that finished 4th worst last season. MLS has certainly seen its share of worst-to-first stories, so a one-year turnaround isn't out of the question. But it's going to take a lot more than adding wing-backs.

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