Preseason

PSP talks to Jim Curtin: Strength in the center

Photo: Paul Rudderow

This is part 4 in a series of posts based on PSP’s talk with Union head coach Jim Curtin. Find part 1 herepart 2 here, and part 3 here.

Vincent Nogueira scored five goals in 2015. Who was the second most prolific Philadelphia Union midfielder?

Here’s a hint: He’s already been traded this offseason to a Western Conference team that didn’t make the playoffs. Another hint: He played less than 1000 league minutes last year.

That’s right. Zach Pfeffer nabbed the silver boot for the midfield by knocking in two goals last season. And for anybody who watched the Union, the lack of contribution from the middle of the park is not particularly surprising. To compensate for rounding up an inconsistent stable of central defenders, the Union dropped Maurice Edu into the back line and inserted the more defensively-oriented Michael Lahoud as support for Nogueira and Cristian Maidana. That midfield trio, with input from Brian Carroll and Zach Pfeffer, became the engine room of a team that finished in the bottom quarter of the league in shots per game, and at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference in goals scored (below Chicago. Chicago!).

This is how Philly wants transition defense to look in midfield in 2016.

This is how Philly wants transition defense to look in midfield in 2016.

The 2015 Union had the spine of an invertebrate most of the time, and when they did manage to fill spaces in the middle of the pitch they were either pinned too deep or stretched too thin. Lahoud and Carroll focused on protecting the back line while Maidana stayed high and facilitated transitions. Nogueira’s job changed depending on the flow of each match, but he often did a lot of chasing.

In short, the preseason plans went out the window once it became clear that Edu was needed in back. The 2016 Union have a different plan. Although, until reinforcements arrive, it looks no less frail than its predecessor.

The plan involves two interrelated changes: First, Tranquillo Barnetta replaces Cristian Maidana in the creative role. Second, well, everything that stems from that.

“I think it goes without saying that Cristian Maidana is a special player,” Curtin said. “He did a lot for the club. But he was a completely different No. 10 than Barnetta. [Maidana] made us better in transitions. But Tranquillo gives us a guy in there that will do the defending first, do the running defensively. And that will lead to offensive success because we’ll turn teams over closer to their goal.”

Last season, the Union were almost entirely reliant on Cristian Maidana’s creativity, and they accepted his defensive effort as a price to pay for a player who can pick out a final pass as well as anybody in MLS. But in the modern game, teams that cannot close down the opposition in midfield must be extremely stout defensively and able to pass out of the back with accuracy and length. Unfortunately, Philly could not claim those qualities, and as a result they ceded possession more than any other team in the league.

“We look at the data a lot and it is clear that we are at the bottom in possession,” Curtin admitted. “Mo, Tranquillo, and Vincent in the center will do a good job of improving our possession. We still have to win the transition games as well. Those three guys are three good guys in transition.”

But how?

Maidana’s habits are well-documented. The Argentinian was nominally a central attacking midfielder, but his laboratory was located near the touchlines. By edging outside when the opposition pushed up the pitch, Maidana would either drag a central defender out of position or occupy a fullback, preventing him from joining the attack. All well and good, except that the Union expected — and, frankly, needed — all three midfielders dropping into shape to close down passing lanes in the middle. This is not an indictment of the other midfielders so much as a simple adherence to the gameplan: The team sets up to defend with ten behind the ball. When only nine are in the shape, any organized plan quickly devolves into putting out fires as they crop up. Maidana did not ignore his defensive duties, but he interpreted them in a way that allowed him to return to his beloved wide pockets as quickly as possible.

In 2014, Jim Curtin successfully corralled Maidana’s game into a counterattacking strategy that temporarily lit up the league, albeit while shipping a not insignificant number of goals at the same time. As teams adjusted, however, Maidana went one way and the Union went another. Instead of trading Maurice Edu for the developing two-way game of Amobi Okugo, the Union were using Lahoud or Carroll and transitioning at a less robust pace. Yet Maidana continued to look for the same holes, hanging high up the pitch as the team struggled to clear the ball from its own third.

Given the disjointed roster he inherited, one of the stronger criticisms leveled at Curtin is that once he led Maidana and Andrew Wenger to water with a powerful counterattack, the two players were unwilling (or unable) to take any other route, and Curtin struggled to show them the light.

Undoubtedly, Curtin and the Union recognized this with the tools at their disposal, Maidana’s style was simply too high risk/high reward. Tranquillo Barnetta was signed to play in the middle because of his willingness to play as part of a compact three-man unit in midfield. Barnetta’s interpretation of the No. 10 role is wholly different from Maidana’s — which is not to say it is better, but rather to say that it is more geared towards Philly’s top priority: Defense.
BarnettaSpread

Above: Barnetta spreads the field then follows the play into the box.

Catching up to the wave

Philly is not reinventing the three-man midfield. The 2015 MLS Cup final featured two teams that ask their technicians to put a lot of miles on their tires each game. And Jesse Marsch won the 2015 Coach of the Year award after showing Sacha Kljestan and Felipe that helping Dax McCarty was key to winning in an Eastern Conference that featured few (well… one other) elite teams. Curtin and the Union are trying to match up in the midfield so the Union can force more turnovers and create scoring chances from quality positions.

“We’ll still look to press teams in their half of the field,” Curtin said. “And when we are in possession in our own half, towards our own goal, those first five seconds, we call it counterpressing. It’s not a secret, you know the [Borussia] Dortmunds of the world do it exceptionally, we try to win it back. And if not, we set our lines accordingly. We want to be a little more aggressive team in that regard and win that transition game from defense to offense and offense to defense.”

Again, not a new concept, but one that the Union struggled to master last season. The counterpressing that Curtin wishes to implement requires, at minimum, that the entire team compress the field after turnovers to prevent the opposition from playing the ball into corners and, second, an efficient return to shape if the initial press does not result in a turnover.

If you think of soccer like an action movie (and let’s be careful not to extend this metaphor too far), the counterpress is cover fire. If the good guys hit someone, so much the better. But at a bare minimum, it allows the rest of the squad to get back into safe positions. Philly is gambling that a midfield of Barnetta, Nogueira, and Edu can turn a weakness into a strength by pressing after turnovers and returning to shape.

“What all three give us is a consistent ability to run,” Curtin told PSP. “They all cover a ton of ground. Offensively and defensively. That’s a big part of how we want to play this year. It’s a bit of a shift.”

The shift is not meant to indicate that Carroll, Lahoud, or even Maidana could not or did not cover a lot of ground. But in the current trio, Curtin believes he has players that can change a game with their athleticism.

“I think their skill sets complement each other,” Curtin continued. “And then the big thing being that they’ll be able to outrun the opponent in midfield.”

BarnettaOverlap

Above: Barnetta’s overlapping run holds Parkhurst wide and gives Le Toux a gap to run through in the center.

When is running more than running?

Let’s be clear about what Curtin means here, because “running” has a long history of locking ‘thinking’ out of the American soccer war room. The Union envision a mobile midfield that can force teams wide and close down opposition attackers when they receive the ball with their back to goal. Last season, Brian Carroll was at his best in a simple sitting midfield role. As Carroll or Lahoud looked to step higher and press the ball, they were essentially doing Maidana’s job and leaving space in front of the back line. Admirable effort, to be sure, but it left the Union exposed. This issue was exacerbated by Philly’s deep defense, with expanded the pockets of space attackers could use near the top of the box. Columbus’ Justin Meram, for two seasons now, has been particularly adept at gliding from the left channel into a central bubble and creating havoc.

So running, in an ideal sense — which is how Curtin is certainly using it — should be viewed through the lens of organization. A teamwide commitment to a midfield press means meeting the opposition in front of the final third, forcing them backwards or sideways, and quickly converging on the ball when it is in a vulnerable spot near the sidelines or on the foot of a poor technician. To execute such a plan, the midfield must be able to cover ground as the ball moves side to side, closing down passing lanes through the lines that bypass an energetic press.

When the press is successfully executed, fans should see the entire Union side moving in unison not just side to side, but forward and backward, so that when the ball is on a wing, the ball carrier is closed down too quickly to pick out a long pass, but also has no short outlet through which to reset. The 2015 Union tended to lose concentration and overpursue the ball without support (something that looks a lot like pressing on camera, but is a lot more like a bull’s first wild rush at a matador without the rest of the team closing in behind) or give so much space that the ball could be pinged side to side.

The Union are simply following a successful blueprint using players accumulated during a tumultuous, somewhat rudderless, two seasons. But understanding that a true three-man midfield is only a starting point.

The Union need a midfielder getting forward into this empty space.

The Union need a midfielder getting forward into this empty space.

Going forward

Keeping a compact, tight midfield is a big step forward, but how will the Union compensate for the loss of Maidana’s offensive contributions? In other words, will Barnetta be able to key a successful attack?

“At it’s most simple, you want your best players on the ball,” Curtin said. “And Tranquillo is one of our best players. So he’s a guy that I will do a good job this preseason of coaching our outside backs, our center backs, Mo and Vincent, to get him the ball as often as possible in between the lines, behind the midfield and in front of the center backs, so that now the center back has to make a decision, do I hold the line and stay deep? Do I step to? And that creates confusion for defenses.

In the build up to Barnetta's fierce shot, he played the ball to Le Toux then continued his run around the defense, providing a vertical option through the middle the Union have often lacked.

In the build up to Barnetta’s fierce shot, he played the ball to Le Toux then continued his run around the defense, providing a vertical option through the middle the Union have often lacked.

“And Tranquillo is aggressive in turning in tight spots,” Curtin continued. “He’s not afraid if someone’s up his back. He draws fouls, which is something we haven’t had. He draws a ton of fouls. So, again, all the little variables that come up, I like him in that role because of the simple fact that he’ll be on the ball a lot. When you’re out wide, the game can drift in and out, you can find yourself overdoing things and running to try and get involved in the game, whereas centrally we’ll have him in the ball a lot. His commitment to get the ball in a tight window and turn and make the defenses backpedal is something that we’re excited about.”

Last year, Barnetta slowly adjusted to the pace and physicality of MLS. And he learned the value of finding a pocket of space and turning through it. The Union’s wing players like to go vertical; Sebastien Le Toux has never met a windsprint he couldn’t handle. By looking for central pockets in which to operate, Barnetta can occupy a central defender and release wide players without requiring the striker to check deep into the midfield. Additionally, he can facilitate play amongst the midfielders who were often left out of the offense when Philly attacked with such speed last season that only those who took off upfield immediately arrived in time to be involved.

In the 14th minute, Barnetta left Higuita behind as he drove at the space between Collin and Shea.

In the 14th minute, Barnetta left Higuita behind as he drove at the space between Collin and Shea.

The Union were dead last in short passing accuracy last season. A big reason for this is the amount of time spent near the touchlines because the middle was either empty or full of players who were not comfortable in tight spaces. When Curtin talks about improving possession, he is thinking about Barnetta in the middle, looking to turn but also willing to play short and stick around rather than dance out to the wing.

Beyond improving the possession game, Philly needs Barnetta to improve the team’s goal return from midfield. Maidana scored one goal last season and treated the opposition box like it was covered in lava. Barnetta was at his best when he drew in defenders, laid the ball off, and made runs toward the box. The Swiss midfielder’s first MLS goal was facilitated by Maidana on the wing, but it was finished by the type of late run the Argentinian never made from the central role.

Barnetta is already deep in the box here, but he reads the line stepping and darts in behind (click to play).

Barnetta is already deep in the box here, but he reads the line stepping and darts in behind.

The Union are counting on Barnetta’s willingness to be both a creator and a finisher as a change in style that will help Nogueira and Edu play faster and feel less of the pressure that has made them try to do too much in the past. Edu, in particular, has been rightly criticized for spending time on the ball in midfield. Barnetta should provide the extra option in the middle that allows Edu and Nogueira to play quickly and feel less impetus to go it alone.

“We want to be better on the ball,” Curtin emphasized. “I think all three of them — Mo would eventually be the one that sits a little deeper, breaks up plays and has the athleticism to win the physical battles. Vincent’s your prototypical connector, he’s a guy we’ll program our defenders to get the ball to, to be the one who makes the decisions to start our attack. [He’s] capable of hitting the 40-50 yard diagonal, can also play the ball on the line, between the lines, and eliminate defenders. I really like the two of them, they complement each other.

Gfycat gif

Above: Barnetta shades to his left to close a passing lane, forcing Columbus into a turnover. Then he drives at goal.

“And then Tranquillo gives you a guy that turns when he gets on the ball, he looks to turn and run at defenders,” Curtin continued. “And he’s pretty aggressive at getting in the box. Three guys who, I think, their skill sets complement each other. And then the big thing being that they’ll be able to outrun the opponent in midfield.”

Barnetta took a shot every 59 minutes in 2016. In contrast, Maidana took a shot every 82 minutes (Nogueira every 133 minutes). Barnetta’s number is on par with Sebastien Le Toux (57 mins) and CJ Sapong (58 mins). Shots taken (often calculated as TSR, or Total Shot Ratio) is a fairly strong predictor of success in MLS. The Union are counting on Barnetta to generate shots for himself without entirely choking off the supply Maidana provided to the rest of the team.

No blame game

With Cristian Maidana gone, it is easy to look back on 2015 and blame him for Philly’s issues with defensive organization. But the truth is that Maidana was a known quantity, and the club should have been able to adjust to his style of play. Maidana’s penchant for the wings created a problem that was exacerbated by Maurice Edu’s positional indiscipline early in the season, and it is notable that Brian Carroll brought a calming presence to the center of the park simply by being reliably in the place he needed to be.

The spotlight will be on Edu in 2016 as the Union emphasize organized defending. It is often overlooked or talked around, but playing with two deep lying midfielders like Nogueira and Edu is like putting a central defensive pairing in midfield. They need to read each other with speed and precision or both will become less than the sum of their parts. Coaches are reticent to change a strong defensive pairing even at the risk of wearing them out, but that is not an option in midfield, where periodic rest is required. There is no doubt that Edu and Nogueira — and Barnetta, t00 — can do the required running. But doing it with an awareness of their role in the overall team shape is something coaches and fans will be looking for this year, particularly from the absurdly talented but, at times, individualistic Edu.

“The data shows you have to be willing to outrun your opponent in our league,” Curtin said. “It’s not every game, but the percentages are in your favor if you outrun your opponent. So when we get back the data about who covered X amount of ground, the teams that are doing more running are winning.”

Athleticism and a commitment to controlling the middle of the park are the outcomes Philly hopes to attain by bringing Tranquillo Barnetta into a midfield with Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu. Pressing, offensive-half turnovers, and goals from midfield are expected to follow.

But what about when injuries strike, as they did in 2015? “We’ll obviously still look to strengthen those three spots in the transfer market to have depth and more guys with similar skillsets to those three,” Curtin assured PSP.

Jim Curtin turned a Maidana-based attack into a force in 2014 but never closed the holes behind it. The 2016 midfield features Philly’s three most talented players. And turning all that talent into a single functioning unit — in attack and defense — may be the task by which Curtin’s coaching credentials are judged.

35 Comments

  1. “In short, the preseason plans went out the window once it became clear that Edu was needed in back” –

    With Marquez and Yaro penciled in as starting CBs what are the odds this will once again be the case? Richie was a revelation last year. He’s got size and athleticism, showed heart and smarts but he is still low on experience and Yaro is well rated but untested. What’s plan B? It seems an awful lot hinges on Mo being in the MF.

  2. Is Le Toux good enough for a good MLS team?

    • He can still make the runs a lot of players in this league can’t. That is my firm stance. His touch is severely lacking (and getting worse) and he offers little else but he can finish a ball you put 30 yards ahead of he and his mark. I still believe in him.
      .
      That being said, I don’t consider him a lock for the starting XI. For me, the only locks at this point are Blake, Marquez, Edu, Noggy, Barny, Sapong. Our wingers and fullbacks are far from set in stone. I’m very anxious to see the result of the competition between Restrepo, Seba, and Ayuk.

      • Restrepo brought a calm and clever influence to the play I saw yesterday… I look forward to seeing him get lots of minutes and starting time possibly.
        .
        Funny how his finishing was a bit off which is a knock against him but on the ball he has the marks.

    • I’ve argued this point for a while now. I think Le Toux is better on a bad team. Like Truth says above, his touch isn’t the best. And I feel sometimes he makes the wrong passes, badly. I have real concerns about him being part of a possession offense. That being said, he has qualities that can be used to any teams benefit. His running and chasing down balls most people have no right to get to (sometimes he shouldn’t even be chasing them). He is also a good crosser of the ball. He’s money from the penalty spot.
      .
      Despite Le Toux’s liabilities, he’s also the heart of this team. If you were at the U.S. Open Cup final, it was apparent he was leading and encouraging his teammates. For this man, who has shown more heart than anyone for this organization, I can forgive a lot.

      • Yes. Le Toux can be a frustrating player, but when he gets hot he’s amazing. I don’t think he should be a lock to start every week anymore but he should probably be starting over half the time. His stamina and heart are useful attributes especially if the coaching can get him to stay within the shape a little better. While he is not a superstar he is the Union. He is our first legend. Fits the city to a T.

    • I still contend that Le Toux is a striker being forced to play on the wing.
      .
      Playing as a striker, he would have less to do both in the build up play and in defense (both being where most of the complaints about him come from). Plus he has the energy and work rate to make life an absolute hell for opposing defenders and puts the ball in the back of the net in bunches.

  3. If we are going with a midfield three of Maurice, Tranquillo, and Vincent…
    .
    I am now referring to our midfield as “MTV”!
    .
    .
    …and not today’s MTV, MTV when it played music!

  4. Sounds good on paper but I fully doubt the ability of Mo to not screw around. It’s possible that he demonstrated that so much last year because he felt the listless spirit of the unit. Now that the team has an idea, a plan, perhaps he’ll bend to the will of it. Another note, I think Leo will be a quality stand-in for Barny when the time comes.

  5. So many of my posts last season incorporated the words terminal and euthanize and derogatory adjectives aimed to skewer this malfunctioning club so I could sleep more easily at night, it was all about self preservation and helplessness— but mostly each weekly tirade would end with the comment in bold letters – -THIS IS ALL WRONG.
    .
    As I read through these stellar articles which point to our present or future by highlighting the recent past — it stirs really uncomfortable feelings inside me because I remember the belching in my mouth burn of vomitus in mid March through April and into deep May when I would think and write again and again that this team was flawed in EVERY aspect from goalkeeper through the lines up the stairwell and into the front office— totally unwatchable across the spectrum.
    .
    Phew… here’s to learning and continuity and a vision and plan and philosophy that is believable and discernible at every point going forward because I just can’t ever go back to last season again… EVER.
    .
    Keep it up Adam… your articles are rightly telling, summarily accurate and biting in their left handed criticism of a flawed organization trying to find itself and become believable.
    .
    Onward and upward.
    .
    Maybe soon…eh boys?

    • “…a flawed organization trying to find itself.”
      .
      Those seven words better summarize Union 2.0 (post-Sak) better than anything else I’ve thought or read in the past couple months.

      • James Lockerbie says:

        +1 I just wish the general public Fans would understand, that this is Union 2.0 and yes it is still in the alpha testing phase of spring training. This team is in fact a new improved version about to start the beta testing phase of spring training clearwater Fl.

  6. what is Pontius’ role? Does he compete with Fernandes to be Tranquillo’s back-up?

  7. I was so sad that Maidana was traded. His passing vision is a precious commodity in this game, and especially in this league.
    BUT… after reading this article, I have to say that the trade makes sense. He doesn’t fit the system they are trying to play. And Lord knows the team needs a change from last year.

    Of course, both execution of the strategy and depth remain to be determined.

    • Anytime you trade away someone with great talent, it is a risk. (See, e.g., Jackson, Desean; see also, McCoy, Lesean.)

      Chaco was one of my favorite members of the Union during his time here. He just simply saw the game differently from everyone else, and did some amazing things during his tenure with that vision.
      .
      He was, however, far from perfect, and his failings have been well documented here.
      .
      Hopefully, Barnetta is a sufficient upgrade that will improve the production from the striker and wingers.
      .

  8. While the article is great and it all makes sense on paper. I still don’t see this midfield working. Edu is not disciplined enough to carry this out. And the comment that this puts the 3 most talented players together I would tend to disagree. Edu’s talent is dropping for me where at one point he may have been in the top 3 for talent that is dwindling he maybe top 5 certainly top 7. However, a lot is riding on Edu and I don’t trust that one bit. Also, what happens if Barnetta goes down with injury. I mean Barnetta is great always have loved watching him play (still prefer him on the left), but he goes down with injury and what happens to this season and this supposed midfield structure. There is no back up plan just like the formation and structure last year. And what happened day one after it all fall apart. Nothing was picked back up ever and the team was a mess all year. So I see cover for the backline to a degree young as it is. But if nogs goes down or Edu or Barnetta or all three. Can you really see this working with a midfield of Carroll Fernandes (Pontius, Crevalle, or unknown). I mean I know they have to bring in other players but this midfield structure does not work if injuries occur as we have no cover.

    • Dr Union… I dare say, you have been on fire lately… tepid as usual….but in certain posts hopeful which is important to highlight… and often times spot on with some of your thinking and concerns for this team going forward.

    • Paper thin transition year. Edu is still an asset to this team, but as trade bait to plug more holes. I agree that he isn’t the guy to build around and his contract looks more and more the albatross. Certainly not a leader. I’ve always felt this was a move for him to get back to USMNT land, but he really wasn’t that level. Maybe off years, but he’s never been as good as Jones, Beckerman is miles past him and at this point I’d say Kitchen is the much better player. So…why have Mo?

      • I don’t think any of us know enough inside the locker room to claim that Edu is not a leader.

      • Stipulated that I’m not in the locker room. However, on the field I don’t see it. Do you? Maybe it’s why Curtin leans to veterans with passion like LeToux and Barnetta and even Carroll to an extent. It seems more like Edu gets the armband because of his contract. If you think about the roster manipulation over the last two years, how much of it is down to trying to get the most out of a positionally correct Mo? All of the formation discussions boil down to if Edu will play his position or go a-wandering and displace Nogs,et al.

      • There are different kind of leaders. Mo might not be that high energy, fiery guy like Barnetta but I believe he is a team leader.
        .
        Listen to him here:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZTXupJcLjI
        .
        There are other Mic’d Up games Edu did as well that you can find on Youtube. Edu is often directing the backline and giving instructions, organizing, speaking with the refs…all the things you expect a leader to do.

    • Edu is at a point in his career where he has to reconfigure his game. It happens to every player at some point. To continue to play at a high level, he has to adapt.
      .
      I understand the hesitation to believe that it will happen based on his previous appearances in the midfield however, it is by no means impossible.
      .
      What gives me hope is that Stewart has stressed defining roles for each player within a system. Clearly, Maidana couldn’t fill a role in the system and so he was traded. Edu still being on the team could be an indication on how the conversation about his role on the team went. I do not see Stewart conceding to a player.

      • James Lockerbie says:

        I completely agree with your commentary on Mr. Stewart not conceding to a player. This is how the team will play. You will play in the role your given or your career dissipation light will go into overdrive.

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