Tactical Analysis

PSP talks to Jim Curtin: The Five Things

This is part 5, the last in a series of posts based on PSP’s talk with Union head coach Jim Curtin. Find part 1 herepart 2 herepart 3 here, and part 4 here.

At the start of this series, I wrote that there were three things Jim Curtin did not want to see in 2016. But after five days of writing, and reading over my interview with the Union head coach far too many times, I am convinced that there are actually five markers of success  that fans can watch for in 2016, but they can be broken into three categories. 

When Jim Curtin talks about how Philadelphia Union’s 2016 season can be better than the last one, it is clear that he sees two main drivers. Changes in personnel will cause (or allow) the team to play more compact, press more effectively and hold more possession. Those improvements will come as an almost organic outcome of a more thoughtful roster building effort. Changes in strategy, on the other hand, will take more time to implement.

Curtin is looking for fairly specific markers that will indicate when his team has understood and is executing its strategy effectively. Those five markers can be broken down into three categories: Running, intelligence, and aggressiveness.

Running

A reminder: Running should not be read with an invisible ‘mindless’ in front of it. And while it can be calculated with straightforward metrics like distance covered, that sort of information does not tell you whether running is being done effectively. The first marker, then, is shutouts. Think of shutouts as an indicator of running in the sense that a team that executes a successful pressing game must be able to run for the entire match (It may be notable that players who rarely lasted the full ninety minutes last season are no longer on the roster).

As Curtin told PSP when discussing defense: “Interesting stat, and it’s an obvious stat when you hear it: In games where teams kept a clean sheet last year, they averaged 2.5 points,” Curtin told PSP. “That’s common sense. You don’t give up a goal, more likely to win. The only other thing that can happen is a 0-0 draw.

“In games where you give up a goal, the average is 1.2 points. The focus has to be not conceding first. We’re going to score, other teams are going to score, but, simply put, keeping a zero is the easiest way to get points at the end of the day. It’s an obvious one, but it’s one that jumps out at you.”

And what can the midfield do to help secure those zeroes?

“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.”

And the team in general?

“The data shows you have to be willing to outrun your opponent in our league. 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.”

But it’s not just about being able to run on defense. The Union must be willing to chug up the pitch on offense to make balls into the box count. As Curtin told PSP when discussing width: “One of the things I want to stress this year, no matter when we get the ball wide, at the top of the box, I want a minimum of three guys committed to get in the box.

“A lot of the time when you go through the film now, you see CJ running hard in there by himself. There’s not a real commitment there from the weakside striker to come in and join in, and a midfielder late running hard. Not just jogging into the box, if it comes to me ‘Great!’ and if not ‘not great.’ You can train that, you can practice that.”

So running has two markers that designate different things. 1) Running in a macro sense, from the start of the match until the end, and 2) Running in a micro sense, at the right time and with a commitment to sprint to the target with intent.

Intelligence

Both markers of running share the slightly ignominious quality of the cliche. It is likely harder to find a coach who has not said that they like shutouts and three men in the box than it is to find a decent cheesesteak in Texas (I’m not crying, I’m just cutting onions in my mind…). Pundits often harp on the shutout stat or highlight a lack of men in the box. Valid though they may be, they are cliches. And the informed fan knows to look for them as reference points for success.

The markers of intelligence are more obscure and harder to spot for the routine observer. They relate to how a team moves the ball and how it moves off the ball.

The Union’s passing game was, let’s say, subpar at times last season. Fullbacks were often isolated and forced into risky or ill-advised passes up the line. Central defenders were skittish about receiving a pass under pressure and dwelled on the ball too long. The midfield trio was often stretched so thin it could masquerade as Peter Crouch.

But beyond those obvious issues, Jim Curtin thinks a broader problem needs to be solved: Passes straight ahead.

“The emphasis for everybody: Defenders, midfielders, will be to play forward as quickly as possible; we want to get away from the straight passes,” Curtin said. “And when I say play forward, what I mean is that your first look should be forward. That doesn’t mean you’re jamming the ball into a tight spot just to play forward. There will be moments where we keep it and we need to play sideways and back, but to program all these guys to have their first look to play between the lines, which means a pass that eliminates defenders.

“No straight passes. Because if you think about it, straight passes usually have a defender up a guy’s back. Angled balls are critical and we’ll work on that all preseason. A lot of that has to do with spacing, opening up a little more. The outside backs getting their backs to the sidelines just to create a better angle so the passes aren’t straight. The straight ones, we played a lot of them last year. Those lead to turnovers in bad spots, those lead to defenders up a guy’s back, and generally not keeping good possession.”

So a marker of a team that is thinking quickly and intelligently is angled passing, or the choice of an angled pass over a straight one. As Curtin notes, angled passing is something of a proxy for finding players in good positions: On the half-turn or already on the move.

The second marker of intelligence uses the movement of the opposition as an indicator of the Union’s own ability to move effectively without the ball.

“The one thing you want to make the other team lead in for running is their center backs,” Curtin pointed out. “You want their center backs to run. This is in the EPL, this is in Spain, this is worldwide right now. The data is really pointing to this statistic.

“And it’s one that we’ve been on for a while now, we just haven’t been able to execute it: Getting the other team’s center backs to run. That means getting them out of the middle, getting them into the corners where they’re not as good one versus one, making them uncomfortable. And that is something we will work on this preseason.”

Dragging defenders out of position is a fairly common point of emphasis, but focusing on the center of defense is more nuanced. Last season, the Union rarely pressured the opposition center backs directly. Instead, they concentrated on forcing central defenders to retreat straight back, which rarely opened channels for runners through the middle.

A renewed focus on dragging the defenders too high or too far apart fits with the qualities Curtin sees in Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius. And it will maximize the willing movement that CJ Sapong exhibited when he returned to the lineup on a tear last year.

Aggression

Curtin, thus far, has identified a single marker of aggression: The MLS Fair Play Award, which the Union (easily) won in 2015.

“I don’t ever want to win the fair play award, and I don’t say that to be disrespectful of the game or being a bad role model to kids,” Curtin said passionately. “I mean it from the standpoint of: If we’re going to be a team that is the hardest working team, that covers the most ground, that has the fighting spirit that represents the city, we’re committing more fouls than we did.

“And that means smart fouls to stop counterattacks before they happen. Little things, intelligent tactical fouls to put a stop to things before danger can come. I like that fire, we need more of it. It’s what our city is, it’s what our fans are. It will be unacceptable to be the team that commits the least amount of fouls again this year.”

These five markers — 1) Shutouts, 2) Three men in the box, 3) Straight-ahead passing, 4) Making the opposition center backs run, and 5) Getting quite a bit more physical — don’t guarantee success, but Curtin would argue they make it a lot more likely. Philly still has a fairly large purse to offer in exchange for another striker. The club wants to reinforce the midfield and likely needs to add more depth in defense. But no matter what names end up on the roster, the team on the field will be trying to implement a different, more difficult, and more complex strategy than the counterattacking system that characterized 2015. And one of the youngest managers in MLS will be looking to prove he can teach that system, and instill the values of his city, to a team that has suffered dispiriting losses and absorbed consecutive cup final defeats on his watch.

Through the 2014 run to the cusp of the playoffs, through the Rais Mgoalie disaster at the start of 2015, through scoring droughts and defensive disasters, the Union locker room has never expressed displeasure with their coach.

However, that intense belief in their leader and themselves rarely showed through on the pitch last season.

At the end of our interview, I told Curtin that I remembered a moment last season, near the end of a tight match, when Vincent Nogueira took a hard, late knock and Tranquillo Barnetta sprinted to the spot of the foul spewing fire.

“It stands out because there wasn’t a lot of that last year, that fire. Do you want to keep that reined in, or would you like to see more of it?” I asked.

“We need more of that, for sure,” he said.

“We need a lot more of that.”

21 Comments

  1. “The midfield trio was often stretched so thin it could masquerade as Peter Crouch.” My favorite line of the series.
    .
    Wonderful job Adam. I can’t wait for the in-season analysis.

  2. I am curious if the running stats play out in other leagues…
    .
    spacing and angled balls… I am so glad the manager has recognized these glaring issues and hopefully apparently has the wherewithal to correct them… this was such a central issue… spacing was TERRIBLE and off the ball movement was a Vincent Noguiera glare and hand in the air…
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    BTW Jim… hoping some coaches are reading about receiving on the half turn… cause what I saw the other day at a certain training, and have seen numerous times, was really really troubling.. as evidenced by the poor soul standing next to me in conversation who at one point put toilet tissue in his ear for the stark raving mad dog I was standing next to him…
    .
    ….regarding winning the Fair Play Award…. a thousand Yes’ to the manager for recognizing this….… I ROASTED the club not too long ago about this very award… please… I don’t want anyone to think winning the Fair Play Award is some stinking meritorious honor… IT SUCKS… its worse then being the last kid picked in a recess game with recurring bouts of flatulence and a knack for eating his boogers….Fair Play Award…. now the Best Dressed Front Office Award… that’s saying something.
    .
    Once again Mr. Cann… you have, “Verified our range to target..one ping only please.”

  3. Best example of the difference between “running” and “smart running”:
    .
    Total distance each team ran from the 2014 World Cup:
    1. USA — 77.17 miles per game
    2. Germany — 75.12 miles per game

  4. Hmm,I am again trying to suppress my belief that this is just happy talk. Before last season Curtin talked about defense first and how the team needed to be Philly tough. What happened on the pitch was a team that was terrible defensively and routinely folded when they got down a goal. If Curtin failed to execute his 2 main objectives last year, why will he be any better this year? Hope is not a strategy.

    • i think this needs to be said- curtin has never called for the team to be ‘philly tough.’ that was a hackworth thing that has stuck around among fans because it was so goofy sounding

    • For the Union front office, hope is indeed not a strategy. But for us fans, hope is the *only* strategy.

    • If you’re saying that players in last year’s opening day lineup would have performed significantly better under any other coach, I’d love to read how you justify that.
      Explain how that coach handles the M’Bholi debacle.
      Explain how that coach handles the TWO Sapong losses.
      Explain how that coach handles the loss of Aristeguieta.
      Explain how that coach handles the TWO Blake injuries.
      Explain how this coach handles filling ANY holes with Sak as the suit you’ve got to go through to get anything done.
      (Not even half way through the season I don’t think, shall we go on…?)
      .
      Are you saying Luis Enrique comes in here and makes last year’s squad a playoff team? Please.
      .
      You can’t play a very competitive game of chess with a (self absorbed) king, a BUNCH of pawns, one bishop and a rook.

      • “You can’t play a very competitive game of chess with a (self absorbed) king, a BUNCH of pawns, one bishop and a rook.”
        .
        this is stunningly good.

      • James Lockerbie says:

        I want to tweet and re-tweet post and re-post DaveR’s above comment, on every Union related website/facebook, and twitter account. Bravo! Bravo!

        Curtin, Sober and Albright were dealing with everything you listed above and then some. Why are so many fans missing these facts. Were they, too busy buying cotton candy for their boys and girls.

  5. I agree that hope is not a strategy. I get the thought about Philly tough also…but as a fan…I have to trust the process… It’s a NEW process… Guided by new personnel. I know the manager is not new but the bulk of body’s around him is…So I hope for a better season… As a fan…I hope…I hope the manager and his staff are able to deliver…I hope the players are willing to commit to the system…I hope the on field product is more palatable…. I hope!

  6. Boy, this sounds kinda half baked. What is this 3 in the box nonsense? Running will win games? Philly has to play dirty on order to be succesful? Chug into the box for crosses? what do we want, Scunthorp Utd? Angled passes vs. Staight ahead? What the hell is he talking about? what bullshit is that? On the half turn garbage is as stupid as pockets of space and off the shoulder nonsense. This jargon by the coach has no meaning and is totally useless . You can never make a central defender run to the sideline if he doesnt want to. Man ,if I am playing the Union, I give them the sidelines, , play my zone, hope they send 3 in the box with maybe a fullback crossing it in and counterattack like hell. Could be fun to play against Philly from what the coach is planning. I think he should stop attending these coaching conventions and maybe think things thru. It is so sad to hear him talk this way. What a dreary approach to the game. Run, get stuck in, cross it into the box , play it forward quickly so that your opponent can intercept and counter and no straight passes, whatever that is. Oh Boy! sounds like English second division to me.

    • Sounds proactive to me.
      .
      .
      Curtin is talking about holding more possession, pressing opponents in their own end, getting players in scoring position, adding more speed, athleticism, and technical skill on the backline, adding more variety when attacking on the wings, making the other team’s centerback move around, having your creative midfield occupy zone 14 instead of running to the wings, every player on the field contributing defensively, playing more aggressively and taking smart fouls, and receiving passes on the move.
      .
      I’m hesitant to believe we will see all this during the coming season being only Year 1 of Big Earn but I like what they are building toward.

  7. Thanks for doing this series, Adam. I really enjoyed reading all of them.

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