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Tactics Talk: Day 1

Photo: Earl Gardner

Despite his team’s increased preseason visibility in 2013, as compared to years passed, a shroud of secrecy still lingers over John Hackworth’s plans in his first full season at the controls of Philadelphia Union. In lieu of our traditional formation posts, this year’s tactical preview comes in the form of a discussion, as we try to look at the pros and cons of different formations and how best to deploy the Union’s current personnel. This feature will run over the next three days, so please feel free to join the conversation in the comments. If you have specific questions, ask them, and we will do our best to get them in the discussion.

Adam Cann: Last season, there was a minor chance the Union would try to run three in the back. There is no question of this happening in 2013. With four across defense, the major tactical questions for the Union will come in the midfield and up top. John Hackworth has been quite enamored with the 4-3-3 formation, despite the fact that it became an isolating 4-5-1 all too often last season.

With McInerney, Casey, and Le Toux available up top, Hackworth may be tempted to put a true 4-3-3 on the pitch. How would you feel about a lineup that placed Casey in the middle with McInerney and Le Toux running off him? Are the only players ever to lead the Union in scoring too similar? And will their desire to get in behind leave Michael Farfan too isolated when he’s looking for a safe outlet from the midfield?

Eli Pearlman-Storch: It certainly would seem that way. A traditional 4-3-3 puts plenty of responsibility on the wide attackers to work their way back into midfield to possess the ball and play defense. One problem with Hackworth’s 4-3-3 systems in 2012 was that they attacked in a 4-3-3 but defended in a 4-5-1. That may sound like nuance, but it’s a mentality problem that affects the Union’s ability to attack. When the ball is lost, the wing players dive bomb back into midfield channels, rather than maintaining high pressure. Once the ball is reacquired, they have to go tearing back up the field to get in position, leaving their midfield channels and making possession hard to come by.

As to your question about similarities, I think the Sebastien Le Toux must learn to accept that his role will involve more wide, midfield work than Jack McInerney. If he insists on constantly pressing high, McInerney will drop underneath, like he did at times when paired with Antoine Hoppenot in 2012, but to little effect.

Sticking to the 4-3-3, what would your desired midfield look like? Would it include a single holding player or a pair? How about Parke and Soumare, are they mobile enough to cover all the ground left behind the advancing Williams and Gabe Farfan?

Adam: Your distinction between pressing high and dropping into the channels is a good one. I used to be a believer in the “cover your bases” strategy of defensive shape, i.e. the idea that it was better to drop into a defensive shape then break out as a group than chasing the ball high up the pitch. Two things have changed my mind. 1) The Union have been consistently terrible about breaking out of defense as a group. And I don’t mean usually terrible or often terrible. I’m talking Roy Halladay throwing at the outside corner type of consistency. Without the ability to knock the ball around the midfield and move forward as a unit, Philly should rely on their forwards to press high, close off the field (make the other team play to one side), and make opponents play long. This strategy cannot be backed by a single attacking midfielder! If you want a team to punt, you have to press high and close off safety valves. If the strikers are chasing defenders, the midfielders have to be high enough to chase their counterparts. Last year’s formation, with two sitting middies, left so much space that Kyle Beckerman cited John Hackworth as a reference to Jurgen Klinsmann.

In short, a high press system is going to require two midfielders to play higher up the pitch unless you use holding midfielders with passing ranges that scare the opposition into holding back numbers. So yeah, Madrid can do it.

Looking at a different issue, Conor Casey doesn’t completely alleviate the Union’s lack of height in the final third. What can the team do tactically to provide more options for wingers in the final third, so that a cross isn’t the first, second and third option for a team that should have the skill to move the ball around the box?

Eli: If Casey and McInerney are on the field, that’s plenty of aerial ability from open play. The Union cannot magically expect to become Houston. Keeping the ball on the deck and allowing guys like Le Toux and McInerney to run through a defense will always be a better option for this as constructed. Hack will hope that Baky Soumare is healthy and in-form enough to win a starting spot alongside Jeff Parke. With Okugo in the midfield and Parke-Soumare available to be brought forward for set pieces, the Union suddenly look a lot less like boys vs. men.

Adam: MLS teams don’t do well when forced to take secondary routes. If you take away what they want to do, few teams can transition to something new. If you close off the middle on RSL, they become much less effective. If you keep the ball off DeRo’s feet, DC stagnates. If you force KC to stay central, their wing strikers will often continue to run the wings as if little has changed. Effective high pressure is the magic bullet that knocks out first options.

Eli: When it comes to a secondary strategy, I feel like we’ve already kind of hit on it. The overarching game plan is (and should be) to keep the ball on the deck. If and when that fails against certain opponents, then using Casey as the battering ram becomes your next option. MLS is chock-a-block with big, powerful center backs that can be exposed for pace. That is where the wisdom in trying to get Torres and Mike Farfan on the pitch simultaneously lies. McInerney is an excellent off-the-ball runner, and so is Le Toux. Le Toux’s offside count in 2011 and McInerney’s in 2012 can be far more easily attributed to slow distribution from midfield than poor running lines from the forwards.

Here’s one for you, is there any reason Roger Torres can’t be a big-time contributor this season? Obviously he’s been great in the preseason. Two years on from 2011, with greater fitness and maturity, it seems hard to peg him as “not a 90 minute player” anymore. Si?!?

Adam: Roger Torres belongs on the field. Whether he gets a full 90 to start the year is debatable. Obviously, everybody who has been watching how he changes the flow of the game in preseason wants to see Roger Torres putting the Union’s speedy wingers through in league play. The major issue remains the same for Torres: Where does he fit in? Michael Farfan is the default playmaker, Amobi Okugo earned a spot on the field with his play last season, and Brian Carroll was just named captain.

While we can all cross our fingers that Hackworth is flexible enough to change his midfield depending on the opponent, Torres will likely have to earn his time the way Antoine Hoppenot did last year: By playing 20, then 30, then 45 minutes per match.

We are looking at a team emerging from transition. Under Peter Nowak, the Union were tactically reactive. With Torres and Farfan, they have the opportunity to force teams to react to them.

Let’s look to the back four: Where should the Union’s fullbacks be? As 2012 wore on, they were relied on for width going forward. Will that continue, or will Williams and Garfan be able to join the attack as support for the wide players instead of providing that width themselves?

Eli: Before we jump to the back four, do you have confidence that Hackworth won’t be just as tactically reactive as his predecessor? The Union rushed out of the gates for Hackworth in what felt like a euphoric sense of relief. But once the dust settled, Hackworth was back to playing a very deep sitting formation with two holding midfielders and a bunch of other players that really didn’t fit together. The lack of fit is certainly not his fault, it was his inheritance, but until he consistently gets numbers forward, proactively trying to win games, I still consider him to be a conservative, reactive manager.

As to your question, width will remain the fullbacks main concern. Whether it is a 3 or 4 or 5 man midfield, the likelihood suggests that there will be two holding players. Add that to the fact that most of the Union’s wide players have been placed there out of necessity rather than preferable positioning, and you get a very narrow attack. None of the Union’s six strikers can be truthfully considered a wing-style forward, so whether its Williams, Gabe Farfan, Gaddis, Anding or Kassel, the Union’s fullbacks are going to have their work cut out to burn tracks up and down the touchlines.

Agreed? How about what happens when those fullbacks attack? The coaching staff seems to preach a philosophy where the center backs split wide to cover extra territory and Carroll drops in between them, forming a three man group to hold down the fort while the fullbacks are off pillaging. Is that really the best way to cover up at the back?

EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s a good start for day 1. If you have questions to add, please do so below. Then look for them on Thursday and/or Friday.


  1. With a true 4-3-3, I don’t think Carrol can handle the middle on his own. At times we saw him last year being asked to cover a tremendous amount of the pitch without success (not his fault). Also, with a 3-3 formation you don’t have Marf or Torres in the middle of the field which is where one of them should be (which one is above my pay grade)…

    • The Black Hand says:

      Carroll operating alone in the midfield would leave a gaping black hole, in the middle of the pitch, on the offensive side of the ball. Our midfield was dominated by the opposition, last year, in terms of possession. Carroll has to have assistance in the middle or he will only pass the ball back, forcing our back line to play long balls to no one. If we are going to go with Carroll (unfortunately we will) Hackworth has to be realistic about his capabilities and choose his starting personnel accordingly.

  2. I think I would like to see a 4-5-1 back four of williams-parke-soumare-garfan the midfield will be carrol-okugo as holding and letoux-torres-marfan with casey as striker. Marfan has had a lot of success when he gets to the endline and finds passes back to the top of the box. As a Chelsea fan I’ve seen this formation. For years and it can work well. I know comparing chelsea to the Union is wrong but the play styles of many of the of the players are very similar. And this is a hail mary but has carroll ever played center back???? Just a thought.

  3. The problem as I see it is having adequate attacking midfield prowess to collect the ball from the back and feed the strikers. Marfan can do this, but I don’t think he can do it on his own, and even if he does continue to grow into the role, it will be too easy for teams to focus on him and shut down the Union attack.

    Many of us thought the logical solution was to get brother Gabe up there too. But it seems that’s off the table for the time being. With Torres looking like he’s taken a step up, he’s the logical choice there (assuming he can play at least 75 minutes).

    If we assume that Marfan and Carroll are in the midfield by default, then the third midfielder absolutely has to be an attacking type. BC is a great D-mid for a 4-man diamond. But if we do a triangular midfield with Marfan up top and BC+Okugo behind, then I think we will have real trouble advancing the ball, and will end up playing a lot of Route 1, just like last year.

  4. I see 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 lineups.
    I dont see M. Farfan and Torres starting together.
    I also dont see Jack, Casey and Le Toux starting up top.
    I could see a 4-3-3 with Daniel, Casey or Jack and Le Toux start.
    I see a norm of a two DMid set of Carroll and Okugo or if Soumare is a bust, Lahoud.

  5. Gordon Strachan says:

    Late last season we seemed to predominately play a 4-2-3-1. Couple problems were that our wings are not true attacking wings (especially Daniel) and that Jack isn’t the prototype build for the lone striker up top in this formation. Wouldn’t mind seeing this formation some more this year with Torres as the CAM and Casey up top. Playing the double pivot would also easily get Okugo and Carroll on the pitch together.

    Other formations I’m looking for: 4-1-3-2 and 4-4-1-1.

    Interesting comments about Hack being a reactive manager. We should certainly have our own style and especially at home be willing to assert our game on our opponents. On the flip side in the KC USOC game last year our limited ability to show different looks made us a bit of a one trick pony and I think we were unable to react to KC’s more successful game plan, which hurt us.

  6. Gordon Strachan says:

    Late last season we seemed to predominately play a 4-2-3-1. Couple problems were that our wings are not true attacking wings (especially Daniel) and that Jack isn’t the prototype build for the lone striker up top in this formation. Wouldn’t mind seeing this formation some more this year with Torres as the CAM and Casey up top. Playing the double pivot would also easily get Okugo and Carroll on the pitch together.

    Interesting comments about Hack being a reactive manager. We should certainly have our own style and especially at home be willing to assert our game on our opponents. On the flip side in the KC USOC game last year our limited ability to show different looks made us a bit of a one trick pony and I think we were unable to react to KC’s more successful game plan, which hurt us.

  7. Gotta go with the 4-3-3 again, which I know will never happen:
    Marfan – Okugo – Torres
    Jack – Casey – Le Toux
    We completely lack any real wide players, and even then our wide forwards whenever we played a 4-3-3 never played with width anyway. In this formation, atleast those two players (Jack/LT) will actually be effective as they should be better at cutting inside being strikers and all.

  8. Philly Cheese says:

    I am not sure we are going to get the goal scoring needed from Casey and Le Toux, but with commitment to bring them in, it seems likely we will go with that duo for quite a while before looking at alternatives. Carroll is “steady” but I am afraid his captain position limits looking at what a Torres, Marfan, Okugo midfield might bring to providing service to forwards and goal scoring opportunities. Preseason production from our starting forwards of zero goals is not going to generate many points.

  9. The problem with basically ALL of the formations and personnel given here is that really none of them have the best players on the team in the game, and those players where they will maximize their abilities the best.
    Lets start by saying these players are basically guaranteed in the starting 11 to begin the year: Macmath, Williams, Parke, Garfan, Okugo, Marfan, Carroll, Casey, Letoux. That’s 9 players, leaving 2 spots open, and the formation Hackworth chooses (or you think works best) will dictate which players fill in.
    My hope is that Hackworth will at the very least choose the BEST players, and not simply insert a Cruz/Daniel/Lahoud for no reason.
    I would say the BEST options of who is left would be Torres, JacMac, Soumare, Gaddis, Hoppenot THEN the 3 midfielders. My point here is that I would MUCH RATHER see Torres inserted at Midfield or JacMac in a 3 forward formation, or even Gaddis inserted and Garfan moved into Mid – than see the dead legs of Daniel or dead touch of Cruz or Lahoud.
    Preferred Lineup (4-4-2)
    Williams, Soumare, Parke, Garfan
    Marfan, Okugo, Torres, Letoux
    Casey, JacMac
    I know Letoux is not a midfielder, but he certainly has the speed and work ethic to get back on Def, and will slide forward as needed.
    (Unfortunate) Predicted Lineup (4-4-2)
    Williams, Parke, Okugo, Garfan
    Cruz, Carroll, Marfan, Daniel
    Casey, Letoux

    • The Black Hand says:

      I like your preferred lineup. A diamond 4-4-2. I agree with your projected starting XI, though I could see McInerney in for Casey. I just hope we don’t see Hackworth going with the ineffective lineup for too long. We can’t put ourselves out of competition after the first 8 weeks…again.

      • I love the idea of playing Gaddis in the back. My preference would see him & Williams flank Okugo-Parke, then Marfan and Garfan lining up in front of Carroll, with the 3 strikers in front.

    • Gordon Strachan says:

      Congratulations Carroll, you’re our new team captain! Now go sit on the bench.

    • Yeah, I’m a fan of your preferred lineup too. I’m more than a little bummed that we continue to be a team that guarantees spots. These are professionals and they should be able to handle the best lineup being played.

  10. I am 100% in agreement that Torres needs to be on the pitch, but I also agree that he’s not yet a 90-minute player. That being said, I’d LOVE to see him come in around the hour mark (at the latest), park himself in the center of the pitch, move Marfan out wide and terrorize a back line and D-Mid which McInerney and Le Toux will have hopefully run into the ground. The one thing I anticipate if he starts Seba-Casey-Jack up front is that the outer two will run the defense ragged, so Hoppenot and Torres can come on late in the game and literally run circles around an exhausted back 5.

    • i’d rather see torres start. if he proves not to be this “90 minute” player then sub him off at the point that he starts lagging. i’d be much happier going into the 70th minute with a lead and then defending than i would needing to chase a game

  11. I would like to see a 4-4-2. Macmath- Williams- parke- bakey- Gaddis- Marfan- Carroll- Torres- Garfan- le2- jack Mac . Gaddis because I think he is to good and it gets Garfan in the midfield, farfan boys wide in the midfield because as every one says we need wide play and we have two good wingers in them, and torres because again he is to good to be siting on the bench. I know it’s a pipe dream and hey what do I know?

  12. “None of the Union’s six strikers can be truthfully considered a wing-style forward.” This is the issue. It seems like the Union want to play a style of footy that doesnt fit the strengths of its players.
    Putting Jack and Le Toux on the wings will lead to a frustrated Jack and James will start questioning Le Toux’s signing.
    The Union in the offseason never addressed it lack of wide midfielders. We got plenty of Central mids both defensive and offensive but only Daniel and Cruz have real MLS experience out wide. M. Farfan can be played out wide and I prefer him out wide but Torres at this point remains overrated and unproven as a starter in the MLS. M. Farfan remains the best choice at CAMid.
    Its really frustrating to me as a fan to see a 2013 Union team seem so much like the 2012 team.
    Against SKC, this would be my lineup:
    Williams, Soumare, Parke, G. Farfan, Carroll, Okugo, Le Toux, M. Farfan, Daniel, Casey in a 4-2-3-1

  13. I think Hack will go with the 4-3-3 (maybe not against SKC, but in general)

    Williams, Soumare, Parke, Garfan. If healthy I do not see why Williams, Soumare, and Parke would not always be 3 out of 4 of the defenders unless they turn out not to perform as well as Hack seem to thing they will when he built this team.

    Marfan, Torres, Carroll. I think Marfan and Carroll are locks for extended play and I think they earned that. Torres is getting a gold star on the off-season for most improved and that will give him more time to prove himself as a starter and hopefully a 90 minute player. I have things I like and dislike about Cruz and Okugo but I would expected one of them to fill the 4th Mid spot if Hack goes to a 4-4-2 or be subs on the 4-3-3.

    Le Toux, Jack Mac, Casey. I will be surprised it Le Toux and Casey will play well together but I hope they will. If running the 4-4-2 I would drop Casey out of the starting 11 and have him come in late with Hopp if we are trailing.

    McMath; Williams,Soumare, Parke, Garfan; Marfan,Carroll, Torres; Le Toux, Jack Mac, Casey.

    McMath; Williams,Soumare, Parke, Garfan;
    Marfan, Carroll, Torres, Cruz; Le Toux, Jack Mac

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