With Federico Higuain sidelined over the last several weeks due to hernia surgery, Columbus Crew SC has had to fill the playmaking void.
There have been a few different guys filling Pipa’s position on the field, but the biggest playmaking punch has come from 6-foot-4 defensive midfielder Tony Tchani. The hulking Cameroonian is no stranger to dangerous passes, collecting six assists in each of the two previous season, but his skills have been brought to the forefront during Higuain’s absence.
In addition to creating other chances that haven’t led to goals, Tchani has registered an assist in three of the last four games. On July 3 in Kansas City, Tchani rode off a physical challenge, spun, and split the defense with a perfectly weighted through ball to spring Ola Kamara for a breakaway goal. On July 9 at New England, it was a perfect chip into a diagonal run in the box by Kamara for a goal. On Saturday, it was another perfectly-placed through ball to spring Harrison Afful behind the defense. Afful then crossed the ball to Kamara, who tucked the ball into the net.
“I received the ball and I was looking to go back, but they didn’t really shift,” Tchani said. “I saw Harrison down the line and I saw the left back not connecting to Harrison, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to fake like I am going back and then I am just going to make that pass.’ I didn’t know if Harrison was on the same page but I am happy that he was as well.”
“That’s what we work on every training—me, Wil Trapp, Tony, Pipa,” said fellow midfield Mohamed Saeid. “We try to get it wide for the wide guys to get a good cross in. It doesn’t always work, but most of the times when it does work, it always leads to goal scoring chances, so it’s important that Tony keeps going and it’s important that the midfield keeps going.”
The three assists in four games isn’t even the most prolific outburst of Tchani’s career. He dished out four assists in three games late in the 2014 season, so this is not merely a change of emphasis due to Higuain’s injury. For Tchani, it’s all about being of one mind with his teammates.
“It’s something I’ve always been doing,” Tchani said of his incisive through balls. “I take my chances to see if it will work or doesn’t work, but I am happy that those guys are on the same page with me. If you make those passes and they don’t react or don’t move, it makes the guy making that pass look stupid, you know? People will be like, ‘What the heck was he doing?’ But if you make that pass and he is on the same page with you, it makes you look good. I’m happy that those guys are on the same page and can read me.”
Crew SC Sorting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter noted that Tchani’s positioning is important to the offense and that the team struggled in the first half when Tchani wasn’t in position to join the attacking flow. “We need to get Tony in those spots where he can make those passes because his timing is exceptional, the execution is really good, and it leads to goal-scoring.”
Three of the last four games, the scoresheet has backed up Berhalter’s assertion. Especially until Pipa returns, Tchani’s knack for finding seams and exploiting them with perfectly weighted passes will remain paramount. That level of recent assist production from a defensive midfielder could be considered a luxury, but for Crew SC right now, it’s a necessity. And like each of those marvelous through balls, Tony Tchani is delivering.
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