Before Djimi Traore’s red card, this game was, as Ross Fletcher put it, "one for the neutral". It was an end-to-end, all-out attacking spectacle. The two teams’ game-plans played major roles in determining the style of the game. Both teams wanted to attack quickly, so a significant portion of the game was played in transition, before the defenses had time to organize. Columbus looked to build out of the back and use their wingbacks in very attacking roles, which helped them create dangerous moments on their offensive end, but left them susceptible to Seattle counter attacks. Additionally, the Sounders took a small risk by defending in fewer numbers in order to increase their potency on the break.
Sounders’ Defensive Shape
With the Sounders in the 4-3-3 formation, they did not use the common "two banks of four" that many recognize as the standard shape for a defensive block. Instead, Sigi only used seven in defense, with the back four forming the deepest line and the three central midfielders making up the second "line". With only three players, it was difficult for the center mids to cover the width of the field. Instead of trying to do so and exposing large gaps, the Sounders’ center mids stayed compact in the middle of the pitch. To cover, DeAndre Yedlin and Dylan Remick often stepped out of the back four to get tight to the Columbus wingbacks. For the most part, this strategy was effective, though it did expose the backline a couple of times.
Counterattacking is the Priority
Perhaps the most prominent difference between this 4-3-3 and the one we saw against Montreal was in the defensive duties of the forwards. Against Montreal, they were tasked with keeping pressure on the center mids and tracking the fullbacks. In this game, however, Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper let the wingbacks move forward untracked, and instead looked to exploit the vacated space on the counterattack. The build-up to the goal is probably the best example of this:
Josh Williams, who is on the ball to start the play, and Waylon Francis, who you can barely see at the bottom of the gif, have taken up attacking positions and Neagle and Cooper do not track them. Instead, Cooper is loitering in the space vacated by Williams. Williams loses it in a bad spot, and the ball falls to Neagle. The Sounders have a three-on-three break, which turns into a two-on-one when Neagle gets past Trapp and Obafemi and Gonzalez are taken out of the play.
With three players staying in high positions and the Crew fullbacks bombing forward, Seattle consistently created dangerous opportunities through the counterattack.
The Crew made things worse for themselves in transition by giving the ball away in dangerous positions. Tony Tchani and Will Trapp in particular were guilty of multiple poor giveaways that led to Seattle chances on the counter. In the below gif, Tchani gives the ball away, leading to chance for Neagle.
The fact that this also happened frequently in their last match against Philadelphia suggests that this might be more of a systematic error rather than random individual mistakes. Columbus has shown that they want to play out of the back, even if it involves taking some risks. Gregg Berhalter displayed this bold attitude when he said "we want teams to pressure us so we can play out of that pressure".
One of the most interesting tactical points in this game was the movement of Frederico Higuain. Much has been made of his propensity to drift deep or wide in search of time and space on the ball. In this match, he drifted deep as usual, but often for another purpose: to create space for himself. He repeatedly dropped deep, pulling the Seattle center mid up the pitch with him, and then would run in behind, into the space created by this maneuver.
Though Higuain does not get onto the ball in the above gif, you can see the danger that could have been created with such a talented player in that much space between the lines. This move works so well because of how dangerous Higuain is on the ball, as defending players need to push up on him to deny him the time and space to pick a perfect pass. Additionally, his timing when making these runs is excellent.
Columbus’ most dangerous chance of the first half brought a couple tactical points together nicely:
The play starts with Remick coming out of the backline to close down Williams, a consequence of only having seven in defense. Traore and Pineda slide over to cover for him, and Higuain exploits the gap in the backline with another excellent run in behind Azira.
Traore Red Card
Needless to say, a major tactical shift occurred in the 58th minute when Traore was sent off. Sigi subbed on Jalil Anibaba for Cooper to replace Traore at centerback. The Sounders defensive structure remained very similar, as they still defended with seven, though they dropped their lines back and defended a bit deeper now. Obafemi and Neagle remained high up the pitch, hoping to create some magic on the counterattack. In the 68th minute, Neagle dropped into the hole behind Oba and the Sounders switched to more of a 4-3-1-1. The Sounders changed to a more defensively stable shape in the 86th minute with the introduction of Leo Gonzalez, switching to a 4-4-1 and two banks of four defensively. For the most part, the Sounders did well defensively and Columbus struggled to break them down.
The game was fairly even up until the red card, with the Sounders perhaps slightly better off in terms of chances created. The attacking mentality of both teams created an end-to-end, exciting match. Columbus’ attacking style created several dangerous moments for them, while Seattle looked threatening on the break. Execution in the final third continues to be a problem for the Sounders, and is the main reason for several dropped points.