Tactics Talk

Making adjustments to a very good offense

Photo: Paul Rudderow

In the player ratings, I focused on three areas where the Union can improve defensively going forward. Since the ratings pieces are already longer than Brian Carroll’s career, I wanted to look at some of the offensive issues Philly will be looking to address during the final games of the season.

First of all, let’s put this in proper frame. The Union have scored 47 goals, one goal behind New York City FC for the league lead. So even with these issues, things are still pretty groovy going forward.

Against Montreal, Nogueira offered an extra option near the edges so Philly could work out of pressure. That option was lacking on Friday.

Against Montreal, Nogueira offered an extra option near the edges so Philly could work out of pressure.

Outside looking in

Vincent Nogueira was a unique player. He was best playing in deeper positions, but he wasn’t a physical holding midfielder and he wasn’t a typical box-to-box player (maybe an almost-box to sorta-kinda-close to the box player?).

Nogueira’s special skill was creating fast, rhythmic ball movement by helping the Union move the ball both out of the back and off the wing. On a team that generally denotes “dirty running” as defensive workrate, Nogueira’s dirtiest work was in the attacking buildup. In his passing chart against Montreal in May, you can see how often Nogueira worked his way out to the deep channels so he could offer a short, easy outlet for the wide players. This outlet has been far more difficult to find since the Frenchman left.

The Union under Jim Curtin have always had a penchant for putting their fullbacks in tight spots. By virtue of how high the fullbacks play and how quickly the Union like to get them the ball, there is always the chance that the defense will rotate before the offense and trap the fullbacks or force a lame ball up the line when the numbers aren’t favorable.

In 2016, Fabinho’s oft-overlooked decision-making improvements and Keegan Rosenberry’s comfort on the ball have meant the Union don’t get caught on the ball quite so often. But without Nogueira to provide a short outlet, the team still tends to find themselves with the ball on the wing and no simple option into the middle. At the very least, they lack a checking run from the center to draw a defender out of shape.

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In the above clip from last weekend, you can see Fabinho collect the ball and move toward the wing. Pontius goes wide as a short option and Barnetta pushes forward, which moves the defense back.

All of this movement pulls five (and nearly six) Chicago defenders — or, over half the non-goalie team — to the Union left, a feat the Union have accomplished with only four players. This is an instance where switching fields quickly should allow Philly to drive the ball forward and create a numerical advantage down their right. But there is no quick way to switch fields beyond a diagonal from Fabinho.

There are two options. First, the Union could pull their central defenders higher so Fabi can lay off a short pass to Marquez who will look to switch play with a quick and accurate long ball. This isn’t Marquez’s specialty, nor is it part of the typical Union system. It’s more like something Kansas City would run through Matt Besler or New England would run through Jose Goncalves. Even Montreal will look to Laurent Ciman to quickly switch fields after drawing a team to the left.

The second option is the one that Nogueira made possible. With a deeper midfielder checking in, Fabinho can lay the ball off centrally to a player who can try a difficult pass through the center or quickly switch fields and follow the play.

That last part is important, because it’s where the dirty running comes in on offense. Switching play forces the opposition to move side to side as a unit, something that sounds simple on paper but is very difficult in practice. Players are tired, this part of the game feels like a good time to reserve energy, and the opposition is sufficiently far from goal that this doesn’t feel like a key moment in the match.

All of those things are signals that this is a key moment for the offense. By switching play, they have laid the groundwork to attack a more disorganized defense. To do it successfully, they need to get numbers to the other side quickly so they can make runs that create the gaps that turn a numerical advantage into a big opportunity. Key to this is getting either a deep-lying central midfielder or a ball playing central defender across the pitch to support the ball short again.

The Union did not do this well against Chicago, but they have looked far better supporting the fullbacks with Alejandro Bedoya on the pitch. This will be a key area to evaluate over the final matches of the season.

Additionally, in Joshua Yaro the Union have a central defender who can pass like a midfielder. Yet, the club has a tendency to ask their center backs to offer a fairly deep option to the fullback instead of striding forward as a square option. One potentially helpful solution to the team’s central access problem is to allow Yaro to push forward when the ball is on the wing so he will be in a position to make a quick, short pass through lines instead of essentially restarting play by sitting so deep that the opposition can recover shape while the Union choose their next foray forward.

Providing a short, square-or-slightly-deep option also opens up the channel for a narrow winger. Below, you can see that when Pontius receives the ball in the left channel, he has space to turn towards the middle because a second defender cannot commit to him with Creavalle close by. If Creavalle hasn’t worked his way toward the channel in support, that defender can easily close on Pontius before he can move the ball across the pitch for a numerical advantage.

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Get their move on

The second area Philly can look at offensively is how the center backs advance up the pitch with the ball. The Union have typically shown a preference for quickly pushing the ball to the fullbacks as they work it across the back instead of asking the center backs to carry it forward. This is a fine strategy because the Union use the fullbacks as point guards at times, allowing them to try risky passes into the center or early crosses deep into the box. In both cases, Philly is banking on their counterpress to create havoc should either of these options result in a loose ball.

There are times, however, that Philly’s center backs pass the ball before they receive pressure. In fact, they move it before a defender commits to them even if the defense is already set. In a sense, this is putting the fullback under pressure against an organized defense and betting that your offensive movement will win out.

OK, that’s a risky proposition, but it’s how the offense is built, so it allows the team to execute patterned movements. However, the Union have center backs that are comfortable on the ball, and it’s surprising that they haven’t emphasized carrying it forward when it’s clear that the defense has time to reset.

Below, you can see Ken Tribbett receive the ball and quickly play it out to Rosenberry before he’s pressured. Complaints about Tribbett abound, but he is a solid passer and a smart player (remember: still a rookie). If Tribbett carries the ball toward Rosenberry — or simply straight ahead — he can force a defender to commit to him, which opens space for one of his teammates. At worst, he forces Alvarez to shade off of Creavalle, which opens a simply square ball and a switch of play. At best, either Herbers or Barnetta gets free and can turn to drive at goal.

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This is not a Tribbett problem. Richie Marquez and Joshua Yaro have shown the same tendency, to the point where it seems like a coaching decision. All the Union center backs tend to play quite deep when the fullbacks have the ball, and tend to play the ball quickly to the fullback when they have it. Again, this is not inherently a problem. But it does mean that a) when the ball is played back to a CB, they are too deep to quickly attack a defense and are forced to reset, and b) the center backs rarely force the defense to make difficult decisions that could open lanes through the center. This is a particularly glaring issue on the road, where both Chicago and Houston (to name just two teams) have settled into deep shapes and frustrated Philly’s attack.

Below, you can see the first two topics in unison. Brian Carroll checks short, moves the ball quickly to Ken Tribbett, and Tribbett finds Barnetta between the lines. A better pass from the Swiss man finds Alberg with a lane to Sapong and a ginormous hole through the middle that an aware Pontius can hit in an instant.

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Stretch Armsapong

The final offensive tactic Philly can incorporate into their offense is stretching teams over the top. Throughout the season, but particularly since New York Red Bulls caught them offsides eight times, the Union have only stretched the field when playing to the corners. Long balls into the corner are a very effective way to get forward, and Chris Pontius has been particularly adept at drawing his defender short to create space in behind.

But on the right side and through the middle, the Union rarely even test the opposition over the top. Fabian Herbers has certainly added a bit more stretch down the right, but CJ Sapong has all but given up pushing the defense deep with early runs through the lines. Instead, Sapong almost exclusively bodies up his defender and looks to create contact.

There is nothing wrong with this. But as Chris Wondolowski brilliantly outlined in his post for the Player’s Tribune, relying on a single tactic makes you predictable. And as a striker who is often in 1v2 situations, the last thing you can be is predictable. Even if CJ Sapong never receives a good ball over the top and never scores a goal by sneaking behind a defense, forcing defenders to think about that ball adds a level of hesitation to their movement. Can they really step up to get on his back? What if he spins and takes off in behind?

Dom Dwyer is a master at this sort of mind game, and it may be that facet of his play that separates him from Sapong. Both show excellent defensive workrates, but Dwyer is constantly poking and prodding a defense with outside runs, narrow vertical runs, checking runs, and movement across the back four. Sapong tends to take a far more consistent post-up approach, even though he has the speed to be a real threat over the top.

Below, you can see Pontius break off a turnover and Sapong hesitate to choose a run. Notice that this allows Chicago’s center backs to coordinate and hold a high line, so that when Pontius eventually drops the ball off, the Fire defense is already organized into a compact shape.

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If Sapong makes a deep run toward the right corner, or simply pushes through the center, he can drag the Fire defensive line toward their own goal, giving the Union more space to work and potentially creating a gap between defense and midfield that he can check back into. Additionally, that deep run stays in the mind of defenders and makes Sapong less predictable in the future.

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Lest you think Sapong never goes deep, above you can see how his direct run against Houston pushes their defense deep into their own box, which leaves acres of space through the center that a late run could have exploited.

Once more, the Union offense is already good. But against Chicago it showed that its weaknesses can become very problematic. Working on these three attacking issues can make the team even more dangerous as the playoffs approach.


  1. I think everyone would agree that Sapong is not a makes-his-own-space sort of forward who creates his own chances with the ball at his feet. He’s a target guy. Here’s the question: Is he not getting to the spots he’s supposed to? Or are other players around him not finding him (in which case the blame might be partly Sapong’s and partly the team)? He appears to be late to almost every cross that comes his way.

    • Your last statement “He appears to be late to almost every cross that comes he way.” Sums it up for me he is not getting to the right spot at the right time and has been his major downfall his thought process is not quick enough hence he sees the plays break a step or two too late.

    • Lucky Striker says:

      He was better early. He has been near a disaster in the second half. Touch has gotten progressively worse. Shooting ability is always going to be what it is-tantamount to a pachinko game -but the lateness…..yep.
      Becoming more and more of an issue.


      There’s no substitute for it………..

      • Well if he took half the effort from chasing down CB and goalkeepers when it was not needed then maybe he could make up that fatigue in games, but personally I think his thought process is to slow to see things develop.

      • Slow clap….

        Going deep on depth

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Quite interesting and thought-provoking. Full marks.
    A few times I have instinctinvely wanted to holler to Tribbett or Yaro, “attack the space!” Marquez has done it almost never.
    Dominic Dwyer is also very good at stomping a defender’s foot at the critical moment to create space for himself, I noticed in the SKC game. He did it once, but it almost created a goal-scoring opportunity. And there is no way on earth he did not know exactly what he was doing.
    Good observation about the reaction to the NYRB offside trap.
    Would love to be a fly on the wall were the Union coaching staff to happen to read this article.
    We all need to remember that what we saw from Vincent Nogueira came after only a few preseason weeks less than two full years of playing with the club and a season and a half playing within Jim Curtin’s parameters and vision. I know nothing of his previous playing career with Sochaux(?)and so cannot offer an opinion whether he had been coached towards doing the things described by the Union or whether he had done them before coming here.

  3. Some issues. The more Tribett takes space, the more the defense should let him advance, thus compressing space and shutting down angles. To advance the ball because you can is high schoolish. The ball always advances more quickly. In the Sapong clip, Sapong has no where to go because Alborg lazily, slowly drifts into the middle where much of the defense is, rather than busting down the left, rewarding the left fullback and forcing isolation on the fullback(always a good thing) and thus creating room for Sapong to make a run. This was crappy , lazy play by Alberg who turned something into nothing.Broad generalities like not relying on a single tactic are nonsense, like saying a good big man will beat a good little man in soccer or some such. Chinaglia was very succesful relying on a single tactic. Puskas shot only with his left foot and did o.k. Its the quality of the tactic that matters and whether it is appropriate.

    • @DrK – Great points here, especially on the center backs moving the ball forward. I should have been more context-specific.

      The Union CBs often get the ball 10-20 yards in their own half with little pressure on them and the defense already set up in front of them. If the defense is already set up in a fairly low, compact block, then I think you’re right that moving forward won’t produce much. However, opposing teams have often used a higher block and more pressure in midfield, so advancing the ball a few yards won’t compress space so much as it will either a) Draw a defender, or b) Move the entire defensive formation back. Additionally, it draws the defense toward one side, which can open space for a diagonal.

      Basically, I think there’s a fine line, and that the Union CBs aren’t even approaching it yet. I don’t think I’m saying ‘advance the ball because you can,’ I’m saying advance it for the following reasons, which I guess I didn’t elaborate enough.

      On the Sapong clip, do you mean Barnetta?

      And I would also argue that Sapong does have somewhere to go, and that would be either toward goal or an angled run to the corner. A run toward goal either forces the CBs to drop with him or forces them to both halt and hold a line. I’m basically saying at least a feint deep forces the defense to make a decision. As it is, the defense can read and react to what’s in front of them only without pivoting, and there is no clear run to give Pontius a signal about where to put the ball.

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean about relying on a single tactic. I’m definitely not trying to say it’s better to focus on multiple tactics if you are already Puskas-level-good at one thing. I certainly won’t chastize Angel Di Maria for not using his right foot at this point, given what he’s accomplished (mock? Maybe. Chastize? Nah.). But I guess my point was that whatever Sapong is relying on now – one tactic or many – can be built on, and can help create more space and chances going forward.

      • I think it would be fun to see if you and the other quality observers can get together and try to figure out how we could pare and simplify Sapongs game to make him and therefore the Union more dangerous and effective. He certainly looked lost in that sequence. What is he? a poacher? a hold-up guy ? A give me a headball Kamara type? Maybe find one thing he can repeat and do well in order to regain confidence? Maybe Sapong could look to play a two man game to the feet rather than trying to run to somewhere without confidence and just look to play Barnetta thru? love to hear what you think.

      • I’d say he needs to start using the corners more. Maybe even only for at least 20 minutes. Either run to the corner for one of our over the top balls (especially if Ilsinho is playing) or once he gets a ball under control play it to the corner. He just never does this and I think if he did it then he would be able to open up the center more.
        He has too much speed to only be trying to box out defenders all the time. Plus in my opinion he is fast but not quick, so he’s going to win the long distance foot races with CBs but not necessarily going to be able to get that quick half a step opening for a shot once he bodies them up.

      • I’d love to do a deeper dive on Sapong’s development this season; maybe in December I can try. But right now, off the top of my head, my thinking is: a) His defense is highly rated but probably still underrated. Still room for improvement though. b) He can do more to establish contact with CBs on his terms, so that when he posts them up, it’s in a place that opens gaps for others. Right now he tends to let them dictate, which means a lot of body contact in places where if he loses it, the defense is more likely to recover. c) He probably needs to isolate and drive at defenders more so they can’t rely so heavily on him bodying them up with his back to goal.

        Like I said, that’s off the top of my head. I still think he’s a player that could bloom further as he learns how to be a bit less predictable.

      • How much more blooming is realistic to expect? He’s a 27yo six year pro with 162 MLS matches in. He may just be what he is, a good defensive forward who pots a goal every 3.5 games or so.
        Reminds me of college, I was the fastest runner on the swim team…

      • @Scotty – Yeah, man. You’re 100% right that I’m painting myself a rosy picture.

        But I do think the Sapong playing now is quite different from the one that played prior to his little incident/time off from the team last year. So if we assume he’s barely a year and a half into really learning how to be a big league striker, there might be some growth potential still.

    • Really informative and excellent discussion by you guys here. Slow clap.

  4. So does this mean we’re no longer beating the “how long til Klinsi calls up CJ?!?! He scored from 3 yards, def WC qualifier material!” drum? His PK was his furthest goal in a full calendar year. Everything else has been loose scrambles in the box.

  5. No better endorswemwnt of your views than Jay opening up the checkbook for Bedoya, with Big Ern’s urging. Edu’s return is key, too.
    The flaws in CJ’s game are also unimaginitive coaching. Who tells him to run after low percentage balls? When he’s so often a step late! I also believe his injury nags. C’mon Charlie!
    If all the pieces dall right, this team could go deep. Or not. But not because of the coaching acumen of Jim Curtin. He excuses CJ’s play when we all can see the bigger problem – with no apparent fix.bI’ll give him time. If he grows.

  6. Sapongs skill set reminds me a little of Chinaglia,not quick but with good speed and very strong physically, very hard to push off the ball. What Georgio would do is set up slightly on the left side of attack, fairly close to the left central defender. Once Bogie would get the ball , Georgio would put the defender on his left shoulder, hold him off with his arm and body while maintaining contact with the defender and just whip a shot toward goal with his right foot while running to his right. Rather than run into space, he would run to get close to the defender to be able to control him physically.Maybe Sapong should get close to the defender so that he can body him in a way to get shooting position. Look to do one thing well ,the caveat being you need a reliable distributor who is in synch with that tactic.

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