Running low on striker options, Columbus Crew fail to see success with "false nine" formation

OBETZ, Ohio – Since arriving in Columbus, Crew head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter has been mostly consistent with his strategy on game days. His 4-2-3-1 with playmaker Federico Higuain behind the lone striker has been a constant, though pieces have changed around him.

But with a depleted forward corps, Berhalter tried something new in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City, a euro-style “false nine” with Higuain as the only forward on paper.

It didn’t work.

“What we wanted to do was use our wide guys a little bit higher and draw [Higuain] more in the middle and create an advantage in the middle,” Berhalter said after the match. “Through the lack of movement we weren’t successful in doing that. When you’re standing you aren’t successful in creating space.”

Instead, the Crew showed much more spark in the second half when rookie Adam Bedell was introduced as a traditional forward, when the team went back to a more direct approach.

“I didn’t think that was successful and we needed to change things up so we brought Adam in,” Berhalter said. “I think he had a good effect in the game. There was a lot more urgency in the second
half and I was much more pleased with the performance in the second half than in the first.”

A day later, Berhalter is even more certain that the plan wasn’t executed as he hoped, though Kansas City’s high press didn’t help.

“The intention was to have the wingers higher and have [Higuain] drop in more,” he said after Crew training Thursday. “I didn’t think it worked that well. It looked like more of a counter situation. To credit [Kansas City], they did a good job of pressing us and not even letting us develop that. I still think that with more movement in the midfield, we would have been able to activate it more.”

Berhalter admitted that when normal starter Jairo Arrieta went down in last Saturday’s loss to the New York Red Bulls, the coaching staff had to think on their feet for the midweek game.

“We came up with it before the game and we were talking about it,” he said. “We play on Saturday, you get suspensions, you get injuries, you’ve got to adjust on the fly. So by no means was it a perfect
model. I think we could go further with this, especially when you have guys like Ethan [Finlay] who can stretch their back line.”

Will the false nine attempt return reworked at some point? Berhalter isn’t sure, but he likes having different formations in his arsenal.

“I think there are a couple of things,” he said. “When we played three in the back against Chicago, these are things that we want to develop in the team to have that flexibility.”

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