Analysis / Union

Postgame analysis: Montreal Impact 0-2 Philadelphia Union

Well, that was a long time coming.

Philadelphia Union’s 2-0 road win over Montreal on Saturday means that none of us have to write that the team hasn’t won a road game in a year.

But it also provided some interesting divergences from the Union’s season-long trends beyond just, well, winning. The Union played well start to finish, and compared to most of their games this season, against Montreal the Union:

  1. Attacked more frequently down the left side of the field,
  2. Demonstrated wider spacing among players,
  3. Crossed less, and
  4. Finished their chances.

You could chalk that up to a variety of factors, but seeing as we’re sitting outside the locker room, it’s hard to say what caused it. It could be due to:

  • Different personnel on the field,
  • Coach’s strategy,
  • A bad opponent,
  • Red cards,
  • Sometimes the ball just hits the net,
  • A combination of these.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these points.

Two-sided game: The Union came down the left

The Union have been an extraordinarily right-sided team this year. In every game this season, they have attacked more often down the right flank than either the center or left, usually bringing over 40 percent of attacks down the right.

The percentage of the Union attacks per side
OpponentResultLeftCenterRight
New England2-0 win27%31%41%
Columbus0-0 draw262747
at Colorado3-0 loss352836
San Jose1-1 draw323037
Orlando2-0 loss283142
at Dallas2-0 loss312940
D.C. United3-2 win262648
at Toronto3-0 loss243046
at Columbus1-0 loss312248
at Montreal2-0 win362638

Some have pointed to Borek Dockal’s tendency to drift right as a key factor in this, but if so, it’s not the only one, because the team was heavily right-sided before he was starting. Some other possible factors:

  • Right back Keegan Rosenberry plays a much larger role in the Union’s possession game than any Union left back.
  • Right center back Jack Elliott is the Union’s best passing center back and often begins the Union’s forward passing.
  • Haris Medunjanin has increasingly been splitting the center backs by dropping deep to collect the ball. With Alejandro Bedoya typically drifting right along with Dockal, that leaves unutilized space in the left center midfield.

On Saturday, the Union were much more balanced, bringing several good attacks down the left side. Both goals were created from the left.

A few things drove (or resulted from) that.

  1. Ray Gaddis played his best and most confident attacking game in years — on the left side, of all places. His left-footed cross created the first goal.
  2. Jack Elliott did not play, meaning the Union’s two best back line passers weren’t both on the right side.
  3. Dockal got into the attacking third in the channel between the right back and right center back — i.e. on the left.
  4. Cory Burke tilted toward the right side and showed more movement off and with the ball than C.J. Sapong, who has typically been a central hold-up player this year.
  5. Fafa Picault stayed wide left, except when he flipped sides with Marcus Epps, and then Epps stayed wide left. His attacks toward goal often came deeper toward the endline than David Accam has typically offered.
  6. Haris Medunjanin was more advanced than he has been much of this year.

And that brings us to the spacing.

Union average positions vs. Montreal. (Image: WhoScored.com)

Spacing: The Union spread out

For one of the few times this season, the Union starters’ average positions on the field looked how you would expect, based on their formation.

Against Montreal, their fullbacks advanced about the same average extent upfield, providing width and possession on both sides.

Meanwhile, Haris Medunjanin played, on average, more advanced than Alejandro Bedoya, in contrast with much of the season.

Compare that with their recent matches.

Union average positions vs. Columbus. (Image: WhoScored.com)

Union average positions vs. Toronto. (Image: WhoScored.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Union average positions vs. Dallas. (Image: WhoScored.com)

Union average positions vs. DC United. (Image: WhoScored.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Union average positions vs. Orlando. (Image: WhoScored.com)

Union average positions vs. San Jose. (Image: WhoScored.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cutting down on the crosses

The Union average 17.7 crosses per game this season, which ranks them 10th in the league. Over the last few years, the Union have been a team that forces crosses when they run out of ideas, which has been often, albeit less so in the last week and a half.

On Saturday, they sent in just seven crosses, their smallest figure on the year.

Union crosses per game
OpponentResultCrosses
New England2-0 win23
Columbus0-0 draw16
at Colorado3-0 loss18
San Jose1-1 draw28
Orlando2-0 loss31
at Dallas2-0 loss13
D.C. United3-2 win21
at Toronto3-0 loss8
at Columbus1-0 loss12
at Montreal2-0 win7

Part of that was because the Union just had more ideas and opportunities elsewhere.

Another part of it was that they went down to 10 men and had no targets to latch onto a cross, so there was no point in attempting one. The team’s last cross was a successful Rosenberry cross in the 58th minute, about 30 seconds before Burke was sent off with his red card.

There’s a potential takeaway here though.

When you rely on crosses less often, they can become more effective, because the opposition doesn’t just sit back and wait on them. You pick your spots rather than treat it as a default tactic. The Union went 3 for 7 on crosses, including Gaddis’s perfect left-footed assist on Burke’s goal.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Montreal’s Jukka Raitala has no business playing left center back and was only deployed there due to injuries on what is, even when healthy, an awful back line.

Montreal’s awful back line

That brings us to a final key takeaway:

Montreal’s defense is awful.

No MLS team has surrendered as many as Montreal’s 26 goals, nearly three per game. Montreal has the league’s worst goal differential (-12). Only one team has earned more red cards than Montreal’s three, and only one has more yellows than Montreal’s 23.

Their best defender Saturday was Rod Fanni, age 36. Their second best was Daniel Lovitz, who got sent off, and who is done no favors by Ignacio Piatti’s lack of defense in front of him. Combined with the aforementioned Raitala, typically a left back, and right back Michael Petrasso, whose play has been eventful all season, it’s just a mess. Only a good defensive midfielder in Samuel Piette and a solid goalkeeper in Evan Bush keep matters from being even worse.

Also keep this in mind:

Montreal isn’t the only team in MLS being held back by a disproportionately bad back line. The Los Angeles Galaxy are loaded in midfield and attack, while their back line may not have a single MLS-quality starter. Orlando also has defensive issues that will get exposed by good teams.

Center back is a spot where the Union actually have value to offer on the trade market. Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez are both due for a change of scenery. Marquez is a proven MLS starter when healthy. If Yaro can ever stay healthy, maybe he could be one too. It’s long past time to deal one of them.

Last notes

Some final thoughts:

  • Burke’s movement: Burke may be a target forward, like Sapong, but he plays the position quite differently. He sees and reacts to space differently, and he has demonstrated better skill in creating his own shot — at least in this one game. Let’s see if he gets any more starts at center forward once he returns from suspension.
  • The wingers were solid: Again, maybe it was a bad opponent, but Fafa Picault looked dangerous all game, while Marcus Epps was quieter but effective, with three key passes.
  • McKenzie proves his worth: Mark McKenzie had looked pretty uneven in his prior MLS showings, but he came to play on Saturday. Against a Montreal side that brought 49% of its attacks down his side, the teenager put in an excellent shift. Forget what the stats show. McKenzie didn’t need stats the way he was marking guys and closing off space, including helping Rosenberry and company shut down Piatti. Further, McKenzie was tidy with his passing, as Montreal chose to press his partner but not him. To me, he was the player of the game.
  • Trusty was just as good: McKenzie’s partner in defense, Auston Trusty, was just as good, not only in defense, but with the ball. Notably, he completed three of seven long passes, which stood out largely because it contrasted with the line drive bricks he had been sending upfield most of the season.
  • Montreal’s attack: Because one thing to keep in mind is that Montreal’s attack, when it clicks, is pretty good. Piatti is one of the league’s best attackers. Anthony Jackson-Hamel’s goals per minute rate ranks among the league’s top five over the course of his career. Raheem Edwards, Saphir Taider, Alejandro Silva — these are talented players just waiting to click, and the Union’s solid defending prevented that.
  • Sometimes, the ball goes in the net: In the end, if you do that more than the other guys, that’s all that matters.

12 Comments

  1. Interesting look at the way the U have attacked this season. Burke is even more of an argument as far as I’m concerned for a 4-4-2 with CJ rotating with another forward like Burke. Burke is a bit raw, but has a lot more pace than CJ. Together, they’d pose a real threat to most MLS backlines, I think.

    Liverpool lined up in a 4-4-2 on Sunday and would switch their attack between the right and left with overlapping fullback play, overwhelming the deep-lying Brighton defense with as many as 5 attackers, while Henderson played deep as a #6. It would be great to see the Union even try it. I’d love to see:

    —————-Burke – CJ—————-
    Accam — Jones — — Dockal — Bedoya
    Fabi/Real — Trusty — Elliot — Rosenberry

    Jones would play deep as the # 6. Every other midfielder attacks with help of a supporting fullback. I know our FO tells us are players can’t comprehend any system other than the 4-2-3-1….

    • CJ should be a sub. He’s been terrible this year. Completely kills all offense. Let him sub for a while until he gets back in form. I’m not against 4-4-2, but really all this amounts to is replacing Medunjanin with Jones, which I agree with. I’d also sit Sapong though for either Ilsinho or Fafa.

      • I might be stubborn, but I don’t think CJ’s poor play is entirely his fault. I still think he can get a job done if the situation is right. Union attack is too predictable. CJ is too easy to close down. Defenses know the pass is coming to him and he’s often double and triple teamed. I think if he were paired up with another striker it would ask more questions of defenses.

      • All we know is that Sapong has had golden opportunities all created by other players in almost every game that he has failed to finish. He doesn’t draw fouls, he doesn’t get involved in much build up, he doesn’t move the CBs out of the middle (either horizontally or vertically), he doesn’t beat anyone on the dribble. I mean even his press isn’t anything special.
        .
        I like CJ a lot, but the team looked totally different when he wasn’t out there. He needs to sit for a while because he’s dropped us points in multiple games and hasn’t gained us any.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Well, the problem you always have with two guys like Sapong and Burke is that, even though they have their differences, they’re both generally target forwards. So there’s a good chance they’d end up filling the same spaces. Not saying it can’t work, but you’re often better off pairing one of them with a different type of striker, usually one who’s quicker, smaller and, going to different spaces on the field.

      Also, Pete makes a very good point.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I don’t think there is any way I could agree more that the Union needs to play a 4-4-2. Which means it won’t happen.

      • Agreed. Would love to see either fafa or Accam up top with Burke and a midfield of Ilson, Dockal and Bedoya, with Jones holding.

  2. Nice write-up, Dan.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Very good stuff, Dan.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Against Montreal in a home game last year, the Union went up,3-0 in the first half, and then Nacho Piatti put his team on his back, and they earned a draw.
    .
    I wouldn’t say Piatti disappeared, because he had some chances where he missed more than the Union defended him, but he did not score..
    .
    Cory Burke knows how to shoulder charge legally. And on the day he made vertical runs that Montreal honored instead of trapping for offside.
    .
    He does not know restraint when defending. In 2016 in the heat to the last game of the season, he gave up a penalty early trying to immediately make up for his giveaway just outside his defensive box while defending a corner. The resulting draw cost the Steel a chance to stay in that year’s playoff hunt.
    .
    That having been said and Dan Walsh’s underlying point about Montreal’s quality being fully acknowledged, Burke deserves to start when he becomes eligible. Sapong took a knee to the point of the hip and could only hobble. That will take some time to heal.
    .
    I would expect Jay Simpson gets the start next time out by default.

  5. Thought Burke caused Montreal all kinds of problems from start to finish (well, his finish time).

    But it must be said that he will come up against much better back-lines than Montreal’s.

    Jury still out on the big lad therefore, but his was a good performance, Saturday.

    Wish Montreal had a striker that could put himself about like Burke!

    PV

  6. Nice piece, Dan. I’m still trying to figure out where the hell this Haris Medunjanin has been all season, because he looked like 2017 Haris this past Saturday, and he hadn’t looked anything like that in any other match this season.

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