Analysis / Union

All of the shots: Are the Union a bad attacking team… or what?

Editor’s note: As full disclosure, Adam will be departing PSP to take a job with Philadelphia Union later this spring. 

In the 2018 season opener, Philadelphia Union went up a man in the 24th minute and defeated New England Revolution at home 2-0. Since then, the club has scored one goal. This is what the experts call not good (or what Taylor Twellman might call, “SIMPLY NOT GOOD ENOUGH I MEAN WHAT ARE WE EVEN DOING!”).

There are a few possible explanations for this scoring drought.

  1. It could be that the Union are playing an extremely defensive system to protect their historically youthful back four and, as a result, are not generating scoring opportunities.
  2. The Union could be creating a lot of chances, but mostly low percentage chances from either bad positions or bad situations (i.e., with a defender in front, or only from crosses).
  3. Philly could be experiencing what the riverboat gamblers (probably? maybe?) call an ugly run over the rapids of bad luck.
Strategic explanation

So what would it look like if the Union were sitting deep and protecting their young-and-getting-younger defense?

One useful reference point could be the 2017 Vancouver Whitecaps, a bunker-and-bust-out team if ever MLS had one. The Caps only attempted about 80 passes per match in the attacking third last season, the lowest number in the league. The Union, who played deeper as the season progressed, were one of only four teams in 2017 to attempt fewer than 90 passes per match in the attacking third. If Philly was intent on sitting deep this season, you would also expect them to be giving up far more shots than they attempt. The 2017 Caps gave up about 3.8 more shots than they took, and the 2018 iteration of Carl Robinson’s team is giving up 4.5 more shots than they take.

The 2018 Union, though, are currently sitting on the other end of the shots-ratio spectrum, averaging nearly seven more shots per match than their opponent. Furthermore, Philly is near the bottom of the league in clearances per match this season (14.8), suggesting they aren’t spending long periods of time in their own end fending off attacks.

These numbers are imperfect indicators, but watching the Union this season makes it strikingly clear that Jim Curtin’s men are not set up to weather a storm while looking for chances to break. Philly utilizes a high press that often extends all the way to the opposition goalkeeper. They create turnovers in the opposition half and play a high defensive line designed to minimize space for the opponent, pretty much the exact opposite of the Whitecaps’ approach. In fact, only 22% of play has occurred in the Union’s defensive third this season — the lowest number in MLS.

Moreover, Philly has taken 89 shots, for an average of 17.8 shots per game. That’s more shots than Sly Stallone takes to the chin in the average Rocky movie. In fact, it’s so many shots that it’s almost certainly not sustainable: Only one team since 2011 has averaged 16 or more shots per match over the course of a MLS season, and it was 2017 Real Salt Lake.

So we know that the problem is not a defensive system that limits opponents but also keeps the Union playing far from goal.

Shot quality explanation

The second possible explanation is that it is not an overly defensive system that is holding Philly back, but a system that produces shots of bad quality. If that is the case, we might expect to see a lot of shots from outside the box or from acute angles.

So let’s dig into the Union’s shot selection this season.

Shot location

According to WhoScored, only the Union and Toronto FC are averaging greater than seven shots outside of the box per match. That’s not a great number, and both clubs have been struggling to score (though Toronto’s woes are only in domestic play — they’ve netted enough in the CONCACAF Champions League to make the finals).

However, Philly is also one of only four MLS teams to average greater than 10 shots inside the box per match. So the Union are settling for a lot of shots outside of the box, but they are also creating a ton of chances inside of it too.

Shot source: Crosses

Perhaps the issue is that the chances Philly creates in the box only come from crosses. In the past, Curtin has been open to using a cross-heavy system, but he emphasized a specific type of cross: Low and to the near post. That’s exactly what Corey Burke delivered against New England to — finally — get CJ Sapong on the board.

This year, the Union have generated 34 shots off crosses or corner kicks. Not all these chances came directly off the ball into the box, but they all came before the ball was fully cleared or otherwise put out of play.

All three Union goals have come off crosses. Notably, though, all three have come off of short crosses: Fontana’s opener came from a short Bedoya cross off the right endline, Sapong’s goal from Burke in a similar place, and Bedoya’s goal came from Picault’s aerial dink from just off the goalmouth to the left.

The rest of the Union’s crosses and corners have led to:

  • Five shots outside of the box
  • Seven shots between the penalty spot and the top of the box
  • 16 shots between the six yard box and the penalty spot
  • Six shots from below the six yard box

Of the crosses that have not become goals, only seven have worked the goalie, and three of those came when the Union were already a man up against New England. The other four saves came from

  • A soft Bedoya header against Columbus
  • A potentially softer header from Sapong against Colorado
  • A high looping header from Sapong against the Rapids that dropped harmlessly into Tim Howard’s arms
  • Fafa Picault’s strong headed chance that Andrew Tarbell palmed away for San Jose

Eight shots off crosses and corners have been blocked, three have been hit wide left, five have been knocked wide right, and seven have been hit over the goal.

That means, in sum, Philly has scored three goals, forced seven saves, seen eight shots blocked, and just flat out missed the frame 15 times. Finally, one shot off a cross is difficult to categorize because it was less a shot than an attempt by Sapong to flick a ball back into play near the endline.

Shot sources: Passes and recoveries

Twenty-one Union shots have been set up by passes from a teammate in open play. Nine of those shots have forced saves, and another seven — like David Accam’s disappointing drag wide against Orlando — have simply missed the mark. The rest were blocked.

Fourteen shots have come from loose ball recoveries. Theoretically, the Union should be generating chances from passes and recoveries using their high pressure. Yet, nine of these shots off recoveries have been blocked, and only three have forced a save.

The eye test

This points to the glaring issue that stands out watching the Union: They have difficulty creating separation in the attacking third. Accam’s chance against Orlando, along with Picault’s up the right off a fine pass from Borek Dockal, stand out because it is so rare that the Union find an opening to shoot below the 18-yard box. Only 14 of the Union’s 49 shots from inside the box have forced a save, which means that with the three goals added in only 17 of 49 shots in the box have reached the goal frame. I don’t have data from other clubs to compare that to, so it is presented without comment.

Overall, the Union generate a lot of shots, and they generate shots from good positions. But they don’t seem to find enough space for themselves or create enough shots from passes, which have the highest chance of making it through to goal this season. This could be the result of a bad strategy by the coaching staff, an adjustment period as everybody gets on the same page with Borek Dockal, or a broader combination of factors.

Additionally, the Union are putting a historically low amount of shots on target. Only eight teams since 2011 have put less than 30% of shots on target, and four of those are 2018 clubs with an extremely low sample size. The Union are at 29.2%. Annoyingly, new kids on the block LAFC are also below 30% shots on target but have scored with half of the shots they have put on frame. (Atlanta United is doing even better, scoring with 54% of the shots they put on frame.)

There is another way the Union’s finishing this year is historic in a bad way.

Finishing

Since 2011, the average finishing percentage in MLS is 10.59. That means that just over 10% of shots became goals. No club has ever completed a season with a finishing percentage below 5.25%. (Oh, hai 2013 DC United!) Even late stage Chivas was at 6.05% in 2012.

Philadelphia Union are currently finishing 3.37% of their shots. Seattle and Toronto, two clubs that have started the season slowly after dedicating resources to CONCACAF Champions League, are at 3.57% and 5.00% finishing respectively.

So… the good news is that the Union’s finishing is currently so bad that it would be nearly impossible for it to remain anywhere near this horrendous over the course of the season. It should be seen as good news that the top five finishing percentages in MLS since 2011 are held by 2018 clubs — both the leaders and the Union will very likely regress toward the mean at some point.

Bad luck explanation

This brings us to the last possible explanation: bad luck.

Let’s be clear about what bad luck entails. Chalking things up to bad luck does not mean excusing bad finishing or suggesting that the Union’s current struggles are not in some way a function of coaching or roster development.

Instead, it just means putting those claims in perspective. Whatever blame is placed upon the coaching, it is hard for that to, on its own, account for the numbers the Union are producing.

Philly is averaging 1.83 expected goals per match this season, which is third best in MLS. Even if you take out the New England thrashing, the Union average 1.41 expected goals per match, which is on par with NYCFC. The Union’s TSR — total shots ratio, which is (Shots For/(Shots For+Shots Against)), and a fairly good predictor of points (though expected goals is better) — is higher than any team since 2011 at 0.64. This means Philly is not just creating a lot of shots; they are doing so while not allowing a ton of shots by the opposition. Since 2011, no team with a TSR over 0.6 has missed the playoffs. The fact that the Union are producing these numbers with a historically young defense is not something that should be ignored or dismissed.

Again, it is entirely possible that Jim Curtin and his staff have devised a system that produces extremely good underlying numbers but somehow whiffs on whatever the key mechanism is that turns those numbers into goals. Certainly the attack has been fairly ugly to watch this season, and Borek Dockal has had a sputtering start to his MLS career. The Czech string-puller has shown vision when given time, but he has not been a revelation in tight spaces, nor has he conspired to create consistent looks behind the opposition defense. The Union’s off-the-ball movement has also looked reactionary and players have been slow to recognize and fill spaces as they are created.

This is what has been so uncomfortable about the start of the season: The Union don’t look good going forward, but the numbers say they should improve. Philly has, though, looked strong defensively — and the numbers support that conclusion — but it’s entirely fair to expect inconsistency going forward when a defense is Three Kids and a Rosenberry.

So this is what we are left with: Right now it appears as though most advanced metrics we have for measuring soccer success point to a big role for bad luck in the current results, though, once more, that does not excuse any  issues with coaching, roster development, or player skill, all of which have been critiqued extensively on PSP.

Will the Union start scoring more goals soon? It’s pretty doggone likely. Finishing at a sub-5% clip is so far outside of the norm that it borders on absurdity. However, the Union’s ugly history means bad luck is an explanation that, quite fairly, will not sit well with fans.

And these numbers elevate short-term questions like “Should the lineup change?” and “Should the shape change?” to a more existential level.

Should you trust the data, which imply things will turn a corner soon?

Or should you trust the results?

33 Comments

  1. “so you’re telling me there’s a chance”

  2. Amazing post. This is some quality content.

    It’s interesting how looking at most of the stats, the Union seem to be doing really well. If we were able to squeeze a win or two out of this bad run, we might even be cautiously optimistic that we finally turned a corner.

    • Atomic Spartan says:

      Agreed Adam, always the best analysis anywhere.
      .
      But while we’re talking about the U’s potential for “turning a corner,” let’s look at some of those corners – kicks, that is:

      Game 1: U6, Revs5
      Game 2: U2, Crew3
      Game 3: U6, Rapids4
      Game 4: U7, Quakes3
      Game 5: U14, Lions3

      See a trend? Any scoring from all those corners? Do we have a plan?
      .
      Corner kicks are supposed to be relatively high percentage opportunities. But not, thus far, for the U.

      • Actually, corner kicks are fairly low percentage opportunities, although it seems that it should be otherwise. Not long ago Bayern lost in the euro cup final even though they had something like 28 corners in the match without a goal from them.Also, inswingers are less effective than outswingers when it comes to types of corners taken.

      • I think the chance of scoring a goal off a corner was only something like 5%.

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        Dr.k is correct. According to research taken from EPL stats , Corner Kicks from direct crosses score only 2-3% of the time.
        .
        Things get a little more interesting if you try different approaches. For instance, outswingers score more often than inswingers. Headers off corners are 25% less likely to score than shots taken from the same position. And scoring from “Corner Kick Situations” occurs a little more frequently than direct CK assaults.
        .
        That said, the U have now tried 35 CK’s without a goal. So either they are overdue, or they need to try something else.

      • So of those 35 corners, I’ve got 11 that resulted in shots. Four shots off Dockal corners, three off Medunjanin corners, one off a corner where Accam did a few little swervy dribbles and shot, and three off recoveries before a corner was cleared.

        The results of those shots are: One save, five blocked shots, two over the bar, two wide right, and one wide left.

        Shooters: Sapong (5), Accam (1), Bedoya (2), Medunjanin (2), Rosenberry (1)

        Type of shot: 6 headers, 4 left-footed, 1 right-footed.

      • OK , you brains out there. Why are outswingers more effective than inswingers? The next one is tough . What MUST an inswinger do in order for it to increase its efficiency significantly.

  3. You should Trusty the process.

  4. Matt Thornton says:

    Great content as always, Adam. Fact of the matter is the Union were handed a cupcake schedule to start the season with 4/5 at home and have squandered it, and now go Dallas, Toronto, and CBus on the road for 3 of their next 4. It’d be generous to suggest they get more than 1 pt (maybe Toronto has CCL hangover?) out of that, and indications out of DC are that we should get 3 points at home. That means 9 games, ~8-9 points, which is atrocious.

    • @Matt – Yeah, this is a great point. Additionally, Dallas is another team that looks due for an eventual offensive breakout.

    • That’s the real issue here. This was the time to build up some points before the tougher part of the schedule starts. If this is what we do against nonplayoff teams missing players with a home field advantage what’s going to happen when we face the serious contenders and start playing on the road?

  5. According to the Guardiola style, a key to getting really good chances is to try to get attackers into the half channels as he calls them, between the central defenders and the fullbacks. You can achieve that thru structured , not random, running. Each movement onto the half channel is predicated on who has the ball and on what side of the field it is. The ball and run are co-ordinated so that the defender has less chance of blocking the shot. Thus, attempts on goal may not be a very meaningfull statistic in and of itself. The type of attempt is very important and successful ones often do not come randomly, at least in his system. He also likes deep lying midfielders to run thru those channels occasionally, if the defenses are packed. Something the Union never seems to do.

    • @Drk – Totally true. The Union definitely don’t take as many chances with the deep lying midfielders as a Pep team, and they don’t have those movements as coordinated or automatized (though few do, which is why it’s so dang pretty to see when Pep gets into Years 2 and 3 and everything is clicking!).

      I completely agree that those automated movements when the ball moves to certain positions would help create the separation the Union lack. One of the things former Barca players talk about (I’ve seen Xavi and Thierry Henry both mention it) is the emphasis there of trusting your teammates to play the system even if it doesn’t always seem like that means moving into the positions you’d expect (like the far side winger staying allllll the way wide until the ball is into the final third. Curtin talked about timing those far side movements in his presser last week, but that hasn’t hit the field yet with any regularity.

      • Doesn’t hurt when you have the resources of Barca/Bayern/City either.
        .
        Chief Tattoo Officer aside, of course.

      • Hey Adam, Pep has one more year on his contract. It is known that he is thinking of a National team next, and we know he really likes NYC and is intrigued by the mentality of the players here. (He used to watch games at central park). How about you tell him he gets whatever money he wants to run the program and teach his system to bring the USA to the top level in 4 years?

  6. Maybe it’s just bad luck, the Union will progress to the mean, and all these shots will start going in. Or, maybe the offense is so poorly coached that they’re all shooting when they should pass, and passing when they should shoot.

  7. Confidence? Bravery? I don’t know what it was, but my overwhelming feeling watching the team Friday night was that they were just…soft. They didn’t seem to have that killer instinct whether it was a 50/50 challenge, or stepping in front of a defender to finish a cross. I too am hoping that the lack of finishing is just a statistical anomaly and we will rise to the mean shortly, but I’m also worried about MATT THORNTON’s very keen observation above. Perhaps we’re just generating a lot of half chances because the competition hasn’t been very strong. That’s scary. We’ll see.
    .
    Adam – amazing analysis as always.

    • I agree the team doesn’t look like it has a killer instinct. I would call it indifference. When LeToux was here, his endless running and energy and scoring on breakaways caused everyone to play with an urgency and belief that they were going to score another goal and win/tie the game. When Barnetta was here, he was passionate and pushing the game and you could see his determination rub off on his teammates. I don’t see that currently. I still see too many back passes and not enough forward runs for a team that is trailing at home…
      .
      I miss LeToux and Barnetta. And Roger Torres. And Fred.
      .
      And while I don’t miss Danny Cruz, at least he showed some emotion and energy to try to DO SOMETHING.

  8. el Pachyderm says:

    An ugly run over the rapids of bad luck, describe the mean, median or mode. It’s the norm. At this point we can no longer blame ‘luck.’
    .
    It’s an inexcusable excuse IMO.

    • i agree. the results week in, week out are the same. bad luck is an injury, red card, own goal or a deflection. i don’t consider a sample size of this season to show anything other than poor organization and implementation of talent

  9. Michael Fisher says:

    great article man

  10. Outstanding analysis, Adam.

    Personally, I’m from the Nate Silver school, and I believe in the power of numbers. And these numbers tell me that the Union are going to start scoring soon.

    Now, the problem is that our defense has, overall, been playing better than Three-Kids-And-A-Rosenberry has any right to be playing. So I would predict that as our offense moves towards its expected mean, our defense may do so as well. So I’m not sure that we’ll be climbling the standings. But maybe I’ll be wrong.

    I didn’t see the Orlando game, but damn, this team sure as hell LOOKS better on the pitch than any previous Union squad…

  11. “They have difficulty creating separation in the attacking third.”
    .
    I don’t take data apart well. It has “felt” to me from direct observation that so far Dockal expects his wingers and strikers to be able to do that.
    .
    Accam has a bit of “shake and bake” to him, Fafa has the intensity and the speed but not the poise to be accurate at the end of the emotional intensity. C.J., for all his strengths does not create separation on his own when his defender is alert, well positioned, and ready for him.
    .
    There are only two players in the organization who can take on prepared defender or defenders with the ball at their feet and have a reasonable chance of beating them, Ilsinho and Santi Moar down with the Steel. Marcus Epps May get there one day.
    .
    The Union’s training system can produce improved separation, It has improved that quality in Cory Burke over the last two seasons, improved not transformed into Ronaldhino of course.

  12. Full appreciation to Chris Sherman whose explanation of regression last season makes Adam’s analysis above comprehensible for a history person.

  13. Kip Leitner says:

    I’m going to do a Taylor Twellman on this situation.
    –> The Union plays like the U.S. Men’s National Team — expecting that multitudes of minor mistakes against competent opposition will result in wins. I’ll be blunt, I watched 6 games in Chester last year, and this year looks mostly the same. Where it looks different, it is because of different players.
    It is doubtful that U.S. players, including Union players, will ever be able to understand and play soccer in an elegant, technically sound manner without injection of a wholesale mindset change about HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED.
    –> The Minimum:
    * Stop ball watching and start watching AND MARKING opponents
    * Start moving at HIGH SPEED off the ball. Get open. Switch Positions. So many times Union has no one to pass the ball to. This is because of lack of support from other players close to the ball. The support players need to GET OPEN. They don’t understand how to do this. They are not being taught correctly how to GET OPEN. This is a Curtin thing. He’s a defender, I doubt he understands attacking strategy very well.
    * Don’t DALLY ON THE BALL. Move the ball QUICKLY. Union moves the ball way too slow. Defenses have little problem with Union.
    * Play like if you lose your team will be relegated and your pay will go down. The non-relegation in MLS means players are basically secure in salary/income, so do all types of stupid things players do when not punished for silly trivial offenses — they badger the referee, they hurt their team by taking silly yellow (and RED) cards.
    * Get extravagent. Union plays too much “in control.” To win you must occasionally try extravagent things, overload the offensive third when scoring opportunities are good.
    * Increase funding. This is tough. Our player pool, aside from Accam, doesn’t have big speed. Speed can hide alot of these challenges, so in a way, the reason all these challenges exist is because Union lacks team speed because of team budget.

    Bottom line, because of collection of average skilled players, only way to win against teams with greater funding is to increase level of technical execution of game. There is no other way, and it is difficult to improve on-field player strategy when everyone’s soccer brain was trained in their formative years without attention to the many technical details (all those “little things”) that improve performance. Those things have to be automatic, and they’re not, so it puts a drag on higher level execution.

  14. If you can’t get separation and shoot knowing it is going to be blocked, is it a “chance”?
    .
    If you blast half of your shots into the river end, is it a “chance”?
    .
    Is it bad luck that shanked it into 135, or a lack of finishing talent?
    .
    Also, the New England “thrashing” was a game that had two scramble and deflected goals up a man for an hour.
    .
    The data doesn’t support the eye test that this team is completely disjointed in the attack. A combination of a hold up striker in a one striker offense (WHO IS HE HOLDING IT FOR?!?!) and a coach with negative tactics. Maybe Bedoya ballers one in. Or Fafa outjumps his marker and gets a header (I believe this more likely than his touch on a breakaway). Or CJ with on of his got a toe on it 3 yards out golazos. Is it an offense? Is it strategic? It sure don’t look that way. What we see every week- the oppo sits back, let’s us kick about in our half, waits out the inevitable mistake, counterattacks the counterattacking team, overwhelms a young back line.
    .
    Vision. Philosophy. Plan. Misfire.

  15. I think there is a fourth possible explanation. The players taking the shots are less skilled than typical MLS attackers. Hence, fewer of their shots result in goals. In particular, Sapong and Picault.

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