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How to fix a broken Union

Is Captain Ink Really Captain Fantastic?

Shape

After watching my beloved Philadelphia Union throw away some more points on Wednesday night against Real Salt Lake, it dawned on me that Piotr Nowak is trying to utilize a 4-2-2-2 formation.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the setup.  It worked to devastating effect for Real Madrid last season in La Liga and had it not been for Los Blancos facing the greatest club team in the history of the world, their record points total would have been more than enough to take the title.  The biggest problem with the Union employing the same tactic is that, well, they’re not Real Madrid.  MLS players need more discipline than that particular free-flowing shape can provide.

On Wednesday, the Union lined up with Harvey, Gonzalez, Califf, and Orozco in the back.  In front of the flat four is the two holding midfielder setup we’ve utilized for nearly the entire season.  Against RSL, it was Coudet and Nakazawa.  Traditionally it’s been Miglioranzi.  In front of the two holders stood Fred and newly acquired Justin Mapp.  And in front of those two the forwards: Danny Mwanga and the two-thirds season MVP, Sebastien LeToux.  The personnel is not necessarily the problem, though I’ll address that in a bit.  The problem, as galling as the green and blue MLS paint on the side of PPL Park, is the lack of natural width.  This has been plaguing the team all season and has been further exacerbated by the untimely injury to Shea Salinas, one of the few pure wingers the team has on its books.

Width

The issue is depth at the wide positions.  If you look at the roster, it’s littered with central-lying players: Coudet, Miglioranzi, Jacobson, Torres, Fred, Okugo, Stahl, Mapp, Noone.  The only out-and-out wingers to speak of are former Pink Cow Nick Zimmerman and the aforementioned and damaged Shea Salinas.  MLS is about traditional soccer: Get to the endline and cross it for scoring chances.  For all the Union’s tidy possession and attractive buildup, it often amounts to very little.

Here’s a telling statistic: No midfielder has more than two goals.  Another: No midfielder (save the sublime Roger Torres) has more than one assist.  Again, this speaks to the lack of width.  It is also an indicator that we lack creativity in the final third and that our midfielders fail to combine with our forwards.

Possession

Passing and possession are also issues.  Sure, we control almost every game we’re in with our passing.  However, the passing is typically sideways or backwards in an effort to maintain possession.  While I commend Nowak for the premium he’s put on possession, if it’s without teeth, no thanks.  There aren’t enough penetrative passes being sought out by our midfield.  This is mostly because our players aren’t being put in positions where they can be successful.  Next time you’re at PPL Park (hopefully Saturday against the Rapids) count how many passes are made in the final third.  Then count how many passes are made going forward.

Jonathan Wilson, the preeminent expert on all things tactical, recently wrote about the importance of shape and its power over possession.  He penned his article in the context of the Internazionale v. Barcelona UEFA Champions League semifinal.  The crux of his argument was that possession without purpose will always be trumped by shape and discipline.  The evidence he used to support this hypothesis was Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan training exercise.  In it, Sacchi would allow ten Milan midfielders and forwards, the likes of Gullit, Ancelotti and others, to attack a mere five Milan defenders, including Baresi and Maldini.  The five were organized into a solid shape.  The ten were not.  The only rule was that once the attackers lost possession, they had to begin again at midfield.  Not a single goal was scored.  The point being- possession means little without purpose.  Piotr Nowak needs to sort this out and quickly.  The Union play attractively, that’s for certain, but have few ideas when it comes to attacking an opponent’s goal.

Ultra reliance on one player

Last season, Manchester United looked toothless without their talisman, Wayne Rooney.  The ultra reliance on Wazza caused many United fans to worry.  The Union’s inaugural season has been lit up by a difference maker of their own- Sebastian Le Toux.  Seba constitutes nearly 80% of the Union’s offensive production.  He has tallied 9 goals and 8 assists for a total of 17 out of the Union’s 22 goals.  Without him, we’d be bottom of the league for sure and already eliminated from playoff contention.  A pure finisher, some inspiration to pair with the perspiration of Le Toux, is what’s in order.  It might be Mwanga.  But we’ll never know with Moreno out there.  The only reason he wasn’t included in Wednesday’s starting XI is because he was away on international duty (an indictment of Venezuelan football if you ask me).  If he’s fit, he starts over Mwanga, McInerney, and anyone else.  And although his 5 assists and solid holdup play haven’t gone unnoticed, the team needs more production than 1 goal in 16 games from its center forward.

Salaries

$282,000 for Fred is too much.  For all his deft little flicks and feigns, he gives the ball away far too much, holds it far too long, and fouls way too much.  An attacking midfielder should not have committed 30 fouls two-thirds of the way through the season. That’s nearly two a game.  300K is unjustifiable considering a return of only 2 goals and 1 assist.  He’s a sometimes exciting, often frustrating, rapidly aging Brazilian.  Let’s continue with the youth revolution and bag Fred.

$250,000 is WAY, WAY, WAY too much for Danny Califf.  Yes, he’s a fan favorite and hard-nosed, Philly-type player.  But he’s a red card machine and a simply awful one-on-one defender.  He’s been skinned alive far too often this season to warrant a quarter of a million dollars.  We should be able to get two quality MLS centerbacks for that price.

One too many holding midfielders

Pick one, maybe two holding midfielders, and bag the rest.  Coudet and Miglioranzi essentially do the same thing.  Coudet might have slightly better passing range and Migs might have the slight edge in tackling.  However, the difference is negligible.  Again, opt for youth here.  Coudet is three years Migs’ senior.  And they’re both more than a decade older than Okugo.  Coudet requires being paired with a younger, fitter man to do the tackling and hard running (think Scholes and Fletcher).  Okugo wouldn’t and would allow someone like Roger Torres the freedom to go forward and create for Le Toux and Mwanga.

Starting XI

Goalkeeper: Chris Seitz. Sure, he had some howlers but also some unbelievable saves.  He is a future USMNT goalkeeper.

Defenders: Orozco, Arrieta, Gonzalez, Harvey. Orozco Fiscal is dangerous going forward; Arrieta and Gonzalez are no-fuss defenders with loads of experience and far more technically gifted than Califf; Harvey, aside from Le Toux, is the U’s most consistent performer.

Midfielders: Mapp, Coudet, Torres, Salinas. Mapp likes to play out on the right as an inside-out winger; Coudet has impressed with incisive passing; Torres is the most skillful player on the roster and one of few who can create something out of nothing; Salinas is a speedy winger who can threaten from the flanks.

Forwards: Le Toux, Mwanga. There hasn’t been a better per minute player than Danny Mwanga this season — 6 goals (including a game-winning and a game-tying effort) and 3 assists in 8 starts.  As far as Le Toux, on current form, there simply isn’t a more valuable player to their team.

The recipe is simple: If you want any chance whatsoever of making the playoffs you need to bench Captain Ink, Fragile Freddie, and Allie Anonymous ASAP.  Do that and who knows what could happen?  After all, this is Major League Soccer: You’re never really out of it.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome post. Only major disagreement is on Califf, who I think you’re too hard on. Yep, he got owned by Espindola on the goal in the RSL game, and Lenhart made him pay for briefly losing his mark against Columbus. Up till then, he’d been playing terrific ball since coming back from the early season red card against Toronto.

  2. Califf has one red card this year and three in his MLS regular season career. Not sure about his Danish stats. Call him a red card machine may be a bit harsh. Not to sound like an apologist, but Califf has played with three or four different partners this season which can be tough. Looks like he will finally have a long term partner with Gonzalez and would be good to see how it affects his game. Having said all that, Danny is not a great one on one guy.

    I love Torres, but I’m not sure if his physical development is at a place where he can start. He will be a starter for sure someday, be he needs more strength on the ball. Coudet is great as well, but at 35, I worry about how much we can really get out of him and for how long.

    I don’t understand why Mapp comes off before Fred. Mapp gives them something they do not have, at least with Selinas out of the line up. Can’t wait til Mapp and Sleinas are on the field together.

    Great points…

  3. Great post man. A lot of good points on the team, but I would argue that the Unions possession based attacking play is something that needs to be preserved for the good of the MLS. The way the Union have played this year is something that has not been seen in the MLS before and if they can work out their defensive issues would be a major step in showing American’s and the world how far the sport has come in the US. It would be the first time, in my mind anyway, that an MLS team has won and played well because of their fluidity and passing game rather than the typical physical prowess that American teams are usually characterized as. The other thing is I can not tolerate people giving Harvey all this credit as a consistent performer. Sure he has been consistent, but I would characterize it as consistently sub par. Apart from his lone goal he has offered nothing going forward. Crosses and passes are horrid and yet he still pushes forward and gets caught out of position over and over again. The best example is the Columbus game but their are many others where his being out of position or poor in one on one has stuck his other defenders and Seitz in terrible positions. San Jose is another example. Harvey should not be in the line up. I dont know what to think about the Califf idea because he is atrocious in one on one, but Orozco has been even more stupid than Califf this season in terms of red cards and handballs… He has looked better on the right though and I would argue keep him their and pick up a true left back rather than the sorry excuse for a defender that is Harvey. We need a left back who can get forward but also has the pace to get back, which is why Salinas looked so good in the back. Harvey has not made as many of the outlandish stupid mistakes that have defined the Union defense, except against San Jose. His season has been characterized by relatively few moments of brilliance surrounded by numerous small, but costly mistakes.

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