Season Previews / Tactical Analysis

Tactical preview: Accam for the attack, but is the defense good enough to make you stay?

This offseason, Earnie Stewart’s Philadelphia Union stepped forth from the shadows in all its… cautious optimism?

After missing the playoffs, Stewart spent funny money to bring in proven MLS attacking commodity David Accam. He further bolstered the front four with Czech playmaker Borek Dockal this week, ending a confusing, yearlong quest to either grow another Tranquillo Barnetta in the secret dungeons of the Power Training Complex or find somebody that can bring organization and purpose to transitions and attacking third possession.

Dockal, Accam, and homegrown, teenage defender Auston Trusty are the biggest personnel additions to the Union lineup. Perhaps equally important will be the development of Philly’s tactical and strategic efficiency and consistency. At times last season (see the Chicago and Atlanta matches down the stretch), Philly resorted to an almost trolling level of defensive passivity that was the soccer equivalent of Kevin’s strategy from Home Alone. Unlike many Eastern Conference clubs (oh hai Orlando, NYC, NYRB, Atlanta, Montreal, and Columbus), Philly did not look south for young, talented, and often expensive reinforcements. The result is a lot of potential wrapped in uncertainty, all teetering on top of the gigantic, ever-growing mound of questions about head coach Jim Curtin’s ability to institute a system that can make a team more than the sum of its parts for an entire season.

Curtin, along with his rejiggered coaching staff, must implement a tactical system that can overcome the financial advantages enjoyed by, well, almost everybody else. It’s doable, and it will be fun if it works. It might be fun if it fails, too — an exciting, high pressing squad that occasionally falls on its face exuberantly could be the foundation of future success. It could also turn into the dour, identity-free slog still marinating in ill will just below the surface of fans’ collective consciousness.

So what will we see this season, or what will we hope to see?

The defense

In his Union preview for American Soccer Analysis, Jared Young pointed out that Philly had an exceptional defensive run in the middle of last season*: A 23-game stretch in which they held opponents to 1.1 goals per game. This is encouraging, but there are reasons to be pessimistic. First, the Union’s Expected Goals Against (xGA) during that 23-game span remained in line with their season-long numbers: 1.30 xGA during that run, 1.33 xGA overall. Additionally, the Union’s attack suffered during that stretch, accumulating only 1.16 Expected Goals For per match.

And there are some signs that Philly’s problems were rooted in their inability to compete when the score was even. The Union sported the third lowest xG-For in the league when the score was even, and their xG-Against (1.55) was similar to teams that were pouring in goals on the other end: Houston (0.59), Real Salt Lake (0.59), and New York City (0.71). Supporting this notion of a flimsy even-state defense, only Orlando allowed a greater percentage of opponent shots on target (43.1%)  than the Union (39.7%). Perhaps opponents just had their scopes dialed in against Philly, but perhaps the boys in blue simply put less pressure on shooters, and/or allowed more shots from good locations than the rest of the league.

This season, the Union will look to build on a strong preseason to create turnovers with high pressure. In Sapong, Accam, and Picault, the Union can disrupt buildup play by quickly closing down the ball. The attacking midfielder will then be counted on to stalk the outlet man, and Bedoya will be able to read play from deep and move forward from midfield to provide support.

In a perfect world, Philly starts with a tight formation, close to the opponent’s goal. C.J. Sapong looks to split the center backs and cut the field in half, and either a loose pass to a fullback or a ball into a midfielder facing his own net triggers the press, with the ball closed down as other Union players on the near side get closer to their men. 

Sounds good! But it’s not easy. If the ball isn’t closed down quickly, the press can be easily broken by a cross-field ball. Additionally, it’s key for Philly to create traps by coordinating movements to force the ball into specific players and areas. If the Union are not organized with their pressing, they will become stretched — as they often did last season — and leave their young center backs exposed. The Union’s misery will be compounded — again, as it was last year — by forcing their front six into long recovery sprints that will drain Philly’s much-needed energy.

In preseason, the Union’s pressure was focused on the wings. Balls into the fullback or winger areas were closed down immediately, and Anthony Fontana galloped in behind to prevent the ball from switching fields. One key aspect of MLS that works in the Union’s favor is that there are not many goalies comfortable with the ball at their feet. Forcing the ball to the keeper often leads to a clearance — and not necessarily an accurate one. The Union can thrive off long aimless clearances because they grant time to the receiving player, and Philly can quickly find their Bosnian marksman, push fullbacks up the field, and space out the opposition.

When Philly did not trigger pressure against the opponent’s back line, they settled into an organized block in the middle third, with Sapong still hoping to split the pitch and the attacking midfielder shadowing lanes into the center. Ideally, the Union will use this shape to force a pass to the wing, where a Union fullback can quickly close down the ball and the midfield can rotate over to cut off any easy passing lanes. This was probably the Union’s most effective defensive setup in preseason, and they used it to create high turnovers on the edges so they could spring a winger into space. Philly’s top three wing players — Accam, Picault, and Epps — all thrive in isolation. Philly needs to consolidate their pressure by creating quick counterattacks that find those wingers in space and allow them to either beat their man or draw a second defender to open holes for the attacking midfielder.

One bit of movement to watch for from Borek Dockal is how he looks to play when Philly’s wingers are isolated out wide. In preseason, Anthony Fontana would often provide short support, leaving the center for Sapong, the far winger, or a late run from Ale Bedoya. A few times, though, Fontana would come short then look for an angled ball behind the opposition back line so he could get to the endline and zip a low cross into the box. Both Fontana and Adam Najem were deferential in the final third, but Dockal won’t be. This could lead to him staying further from the ball and looking to find space around the top of the box. This way, when the wing beats his man, Dockal will be available and have his big right leg ready for liftoff.

Supporting the Union’s high press requires bravery from Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty. Philly’s center backs have traditionally played on their back foot, dropping toward goal before the midfield pressure is broken. As a result, opposing teams could find attackers in the Red Sea that parted behind Bedoya and Medunjanin. Jim Curtin partially mitigated this issue last season by inverting his midfield triangle to fill that gap, but this came at the cost of an attacking midfielder, and the high press became less effective. This season, Elliott and Trusty need to nail that most difficult of decisions: When to step and when to drop. Particularly with the Union using fullbacks to trap on the wings, the positional orientations of the center backs will be a huge tactical story to watch as the season unfolds.

Can it go wrong?

Of course. The Union want to protect the center of the pitch, so if opposing teams are able to access the center from their buildup play, Philly will get pushed back and find it more difficult to counterattack. Additionally, when opposing teams can keep an extra man in the half-spaces to create triangles, the Union will need to rotate their shape quickly to match numbers without letting the opposition hit a diagonal and isolate the opposing fullback. This was one area that looked like it needed work in preseason, with Trusty rotating too far and leaving the opposite half of the pitch exposed. The clearest way to understand this is to think back to the Chicago and Atlanta matches at the end of last season. Chicago dropped Dax McCarty deep and struggled mightily to penetrate through the center, finding more success when they could beat Chris Pontius’ pressure and play wide then attack the Union’s shape as it rotated to the right. 

In contrast, Atlanta had far more success entering the Union’s central block. And once they did, Philly’s defense had to react quickly. Things often went wrong. If the center backs dropped, it opened a gap behind the midfield. When the wingers pinched in to help, it left the flanks exposed. Furthermore, placing bodies in the center played on the opposing instincts of Medunjanin and Bedoya. The big Bosnian, ever-cognizant of his limitations, preferred to adopt a covering zone posture that prevented dangerous balls through the lines. Bedoya, on the other hand, tended to get tighter to men in his zone, and the result was not dissimilar to what happens when I start out to make an omelette: everything ends up scrambled and covered in frustration.

With the ball 

There will be two versions of the attacking Union: The blunt force counterattack that should materialize following a turnover and the wide, field-stretching offense that is designed to create the spaces the playmakers require.

On the counter 

Philadelphia Union created opportunities off their pressure last season, but they did not necessarily create chances. That, in a nutshell, is the impetus for the search and acquisition of an attacking midfielder. Ilsinho’s wondrous ability to beat defenders on the dribble was less useful for open field transitions, and the Brazilian never mastered the admittedly difficult art of drawing defenders in before dropping weighted dimes into the space they leave behind. Although Ilsinho has certainly received his share of criticism on this page, the bare truth is that he was always a winger doing his best to adapt to a new position (and the doing his best part is important and true).

But turning transitions into chances is harder than it seems. Imagine putting bait on the end of a fishing line, then trying to bring fish close while holding the line in one hand and a spear in the other. Not only do you have to control the bait, but then you need to throw the spear — and not too hard or too soft — at the exact moment the fish go for the bait. This is the read the player on the ball must make in transition, and if those that succeed at a high rate command big fees. The Union are hoping Borek Dockal can create in that way this season.

To spark those transition moments, though, the Union need to make smart passes out of turnover situations then attack with speed. This is doable, because Philly has good distributors in the center and speed on the flanks. The key, as usual, is quickly finding space. The Union can do this by rapidly switching fields — something Jim Curtin emphasized in preseason — or by immediately looking to release players forward (the Red Bull way).

In buildup 

A notable facet of the Union’s buildup play in preseason was the excellent spacing they were able to generate against Montreal and Chicago. With Medunjanin dropping between the center backs and the fullbacks pushing into midfield, the Union created a giant bucket in which Bedoya and Fontana could roam, drawing defenders into the middle and looking to exploit the wings by allowing the center backs to slip ahead of Medunjanin, draw a defender, then play vertically to a wing player or wide to the fullback.

This worked particularly well on the left, where Fabinho and David Accam developed a strong partnership that allowed them to remain unpredictable in their movement. As the ball advanced up one flank, the opposite side winger tended to tuck inside and leave the wide area for the fullback. As a result, the Union often had the option of recycling play after going up the left and finding Medunjanin or a center back deep in the channel so they could whinge a diagonal across the pitch and create a dangerous situation on the right side. One of the most important skills Auston Trusty brings on the offensive side of the ball is his ability to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically. Specifically, Trusty’s fine left foot means he can open his body to find Fabinho or quickly rip off a long pass. This is something that Pep Guardiola likely valued in Aymeric Laporte, and it is something Jack Elliott could not do when he played on the left last season.

Another advantage of the Union’s organized spacing is that it should allow David Accam to use his guile to pick and choose where he wants to receive the ball. With Bedoya and the attacking midfielder rotating through the center and quickly switching the point of attack, Accam can read C.J. Sapong’s movement and find the spaces he wants the rock.

And this, creating freedom for David Accam, is the secret ingredient that can turn the Union into a truly dangerous attacking side. Accam is the best attacker Jim Curtin has ever had on his roster: He can draw attention with speed like Picault, with final third passing like… well, nobody else, and with movement like Bedoya. He has the ability to make everyone else better simply by granting the rest of the team the time and space to play up to their capabilities.

And that’s it. The rest is execution. Philadelphia Union are undeniably a better team than they were a year ago. And the risk they carry, while higher than most other clubs in the east, does not carry the same long-term consequences: If Trusty faceplants, Elliott regresses, Sapong’s body finally gives in to the pounding MLS refs take perverse joy in allowing — the Union will struggle. But unlike others in the Eastern Conference, those risks should not hamper the club’s ability to search for different solutions next season.

So — and this is weird to type — Philadelphia Union could be a fun team to watch.

But the path to success is correspondingly narrower than the clubs that spent heavily to acquire high ceiling talent. So — now this is feels more familiar — Jim Curtin must find a way to ensure that players execute the system and don’t panic at the first setback. Because Chicago has the proof that David Accam is no guarantee of success, and if the blue and gold play like individuals, Chester could be a lonely place to play this year.

*All stats from the spectacular ASA interactive tables

11 Comments

  1. Fine work!!! Much appreciated!

  2. I have 2 big hopes for this year:
    .
    1. The kids play a decent amount and mostly look good and improve as the year goes on.
    .
    2. We play attractive attacking soccer. I’s much rather watch games that are 4-3 than boring 1-0 bunker and boot games. Want people to really start watching the Union, score a bunch of goals and never be afraid, home or away.

  3. Honest question: How did Epps look in preseason and how are we valuing him against Herbers?

    • Epps looked either good or very good all preseason long. I think he’s first winger off the bench if we need an offensive spark although Herbers will probably be brought in to help kill off a game we are winning. Ilsinho will also be in the mix once he’s healthy.

      • Yeah sort of depends what the game calls for I think. There is some flexibility in the roster on the wings.
        .
        Accam, Fafa, Epps, and Ayuk have speed and elusiveness. But Herbers is more of a target winger (like Pontius was) and Ilsinho is…Ilsinho….and a good option to help break down a team that is sitting back and defending deep (for example, if the Union are playing up a man or a team coming to Chester on short rest).

  4. There will be track meets, and it will be entertaining one way or another.
    .
    They’ve come a long way from Jack McInerney, Connor Casey, and “sparkplug” Danny Cruz.

  5. “So — and this is weird to type — Philadelphia Union could be a fun team to watch.”
    if i have to admit to any optimism it’s this.

  6. For a non technical fan you made this very easy reading . Thx

    • Adam Cann says:

      Seriously – thank you so much. That’s always the number one goal, to make it helpful and get feedback on what everyone else sees in the game. Thanks again.

  7. News Now: Picault Out for 3 Games starting today – March 3 – vs. NE. Cause was for offensive language in FL friendly.

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