Tactics Talk

Tactical thinking: Options for the Union in 2017

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union suddenly have a surprising amount of depth in their attacking unit. New signing Jay Simpson becomes the third striker on the roster, and in Chris Pontius, Ilsinho, and Fabian Herbers the Union have three wingers that collected minutes on a strong offense in 2016. The only real question mark is up the middle, where Roland Alberg and Alejandro Bedoya are both options in an advanced midfield role.

With the Simpson signing, the Union are likely 2-3 moves away from solidifying most of the minutes they expect to hand out in 2017. Another attacking midfielder is an option, but the only glaring holes on the roster are at the deeper midfield positions and central defensive depth. Earnie Stewart is currently focusing on a “controlling midfielder” and putting the pieces in place to add veteran depth to the back line. This all suggests that the Union brass agree with the general notion that the Union need another reliable goal producer and more strength up the center. 

Assuming Stewart and his crew continue to address those weaknesses, the next question is how Philadelphia Union will set up tactically in the upcoming season. Last year there were calls for a switch to either a three back system or a 4-4-2 look that could put another body next to goal-shy CJ Sapong. Jim Curtin and Stewart never budged, sticking with a 4-2-3-1 that sought to protect a young back line and create space for Tranquillo Barnetta.

Although there is no reason to expect the Union to alter their tactics, it is possible for Philadelphia to change their shape without abandoning their broader tactical goals.Over the next few days, we will examine how the Union could add formation and role variability in 2017, and look at the advantages and disadvantages of each shape and system.

First, let’s outline the apparent tactical goals of the 4-2-3-1 the Union used last season before breaking down where it, well, broke down.

The counterpressing 4-2-3-1 ideal

Before the 2016 season, Jim Curtin explained how the Union would use the strengths of their central midfielders in an attempt to control the middle of the pitch and, thus, the flow of the game. Just look at how Philly catches Montreal below. Sebastien Le Toux wins a challenge within ten yards of the halfway line, with Vincent Nogueira nearby for support. After squeezing Montreal off the ball in midfield, the team finds Barnetta and counters with four players at pace. 

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Curtin, of course, imagined a central midfield of Mo Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Tranquillo Barnetta. Instead, he got Brian Carroll, Warren Creavalle, part of Alejandro Bedoya, and an increasingly isolated and hobbled Barnetta.

The high tempo pressing through midfield that Curtin imagined? The tight formation that left no space for opponents to pick out through balls? Both ideals faded from memory as the season wore on and Philadelphia was consistently exposed with geometric triangular passing that negated a stretched press and resulted in an inability to control the all-important center of the pitch.

The Union’s 4-2-3-1 is designed to be offensively flexible and defensively solid. It can be conservative, with two holding midfielders shielding the defense while the wingers drop into midfield. When the team wants to hop on the front foot, it can quickly resemble a 4-1-2-2-1, pushing five players closer to goal as a holding player joins attacks with more frequency and the other sits deep to close off counterattacks. Below, you can see Barnetta able to run at a defense, spread the ball wide, and crash the box. You can also see that the attention Barnetta draws allows Brian Carroll (!) to join the attack and end up in the box in a good shooting position. 

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Early in the year, the Union were fresh and coordinated even without Maurice Edu. Quick pressure in the opposition half meant teams rarely ran at the defense in numbers, and Warren Creavalle’s tendency to get lost in zone coverages was largely masked (when Creavalle can zero in on an opponent, on the other hand, he’s at his best).

In Keegan Rosenberry, Philadelphia found a player who could change the shape of a game by playing through the midfield lines from a wide position. With Vincent Nogueira and, eventually, Joshua Yaro, this gave the Union three players who could break lines when the team’s movement became static. Thus, the Union’s 4-2-3-1 avoided one of the issues that can plague a system with two deeper midfielders. Below, you can see Rosenberry — under pressure! — find Barnetta behind the opposition midfield. Center backs like Joshua Yaro are in demand right now specifically because they can bypass midfield pressure with passes like the one Rosenberry unleashes here (see how Tottenham uses their center backs to pass through lines here). By loading the right side with two rangy passers, the Union were able to draw defenses in then exploit spaces in behind thanks to Barnetta’s intelligent movement and freedom.

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Philly’s shape was built to find Tranquillo Barnetta and/or the right winger behind the opposition midfield. On the left, Chris Pontius facilitated possession or chased balls into corners, but he would often check deep to help build plays while Barnetta and either Ilsinho or Fabian Herbers stayed higher looking for space behind the defensive midfield.

Around the outsides, the Union fullbacks could be dangerous in attack, getting forward once possession was established or providing an early outlet for counters.

This is a solid plan! The Union wanted to attack the area just above the opposing team’s box, and in Barnetta they had a player who thrived when he could run at a defense through the center or through channels. Additionally, Barnetta was a consistent presence in the box, and by playing inside before knocking the ball out for crosses, Philly could collapse a defense and create man advantages in wide areas. Rosenberry proved a wizard with time. Moving well off wall passes and using his vision to find late runners with accurate low balls into the box made Rosenberry one of the league’s most dangerous defenders in the final third for the opening half of the season.

The counterpressing 4-2-3-1 reality 

So that was how it was supposed to work. A coordinated pressure led by a wonderful defensive forward in CJ Sapong would protect a young defense while Barnetta drew attention and found runners going forward. Below you can see both something like the ideal and something like a hint of the problems to come. Barnetta tracks Columbus’ midfield option, Mo Saied, high, forcing the Crew to move the ball without changing much about the Union’s defensive shape. After covering the lane to Saied at first, Barnetta doesn’t drop, and Brian Carroll doesn’t step to close space. However, Chris Pontius’ well-timed pressure on Michael Parkhurst results in a poor pass (this is how good pressure should work: Simple passes become more difficult under good pressure). Philly is in a good position to counter. 

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But let’s imagine that Parkhurst’s pass is on the mark. What now? You can see at the end of the play at striker Ola Kamara drifts away from his marker to provide an option for Saied. Additionally, you can see that Carroll leaves Federico Higuain to deal with Saied. Finally, you can see that Philly’s defenders are not stepping forward to consolidate the press. Playing through Saied is simply a ploy to open up more dangerous players. The Union need to recognize that when Carroll steps to the ball, Saied won’t have time to pick out a through ball, so stepping forward as a unit can compress space and force Columbus to either play backward or play dangerously, which could lead to a counter. As 2016 wore on, and Barnetta, Carroll, and Pontius all pressed a step or two slower, the pass to playmakers was connected with increasing frequency. Instead of closing it down, the Union retreated, and although that seems the more responsible move, it gave good players the time they needed to pick out dangerous passes without pressure.

Neither CJ Sapong or Chris Pontius had played over 2000 minutes since 2012. On the right, Fabian Herbers put in huge minutes for a rookie and Ilsinho’s body rebelled at regular requests to sprint.

Keep in mind, the Union’s system was extremely demanding. The high pressure system deployed in New Jersey may be both the gift that keeps the Energy Drinks near the top of the East and the curse that keeps them from excelling at the end of an incredibly taxing MLS season. Although players like Sapong and Barnetta continued to chug their legs through the Union’s quiet playoff exit, their decision-making suffered as they tired; Philly’s shape often resembled a 4-4-2 with the front two leaving gaps in front of midfield that smart teams easily exploited. When Barnetta was caught high and the defensive midfielders deep, teams could either play in behind Barnetta then turn with the time to find wing players in isolation or they could draw the deep midfielders forward and play through them to attackers who could run unimpeded at the back four.

It didn’t help that without Nogueira’s well-honed positioning, the Union’s transition defense often became shambolic, with the first pass out of the back finding time to turn upfield and send Philly’s defense into a disorganized scamper.

As the central midfield became stretched, the attack suffered. Rosenberry’s time on the ball dried up as opposition research clearly identified the rookie right back as a dangerman. With the holding midfielders lacking passing depth and Rosenberry suffocated, access to Barnetta diminished. The Swiss man was forced deeper to receive the ball, and no longer had the luxury of drifting behind the midfield.

Execution issues

In short, the Union’s late season slide was as much about the inability to execute the tactical plan at the end of a long season as it was about the questions opposing teams asked of the team’s shape.

So while there are certainly reasons to suggest that the rise of three-back systems and the return to prominence of dual striker setups will soon make certain versions of the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 anachronistic (for a time), there is also reason to believe that better execution can mitigate some of the club’s persistent problems.

This is, of course, a not-so-subtle way of pointing out that without oodles of money at their disposal, Philly absolutely, unquestionably need their first team coaching staff to turn out sides that continue to grow and improve over the course of the season. Plenty of MLS teams have started slow and galloped into the playoffs to make deep runs, few have started hot, cooled off, then pulled it together for the postseason. In MLS, the length of the season means coaching is late season adjustments: Portland riding Fanendo Adi as a sole striker in 2015, Toronto discovering that they could tweak their formation to fit the opponent without a drop off in cohesion last year.

With that in mind, we will next look at the positives and negatives of some formation variations the Union could adopt going forward, along with the roles required in those formations and the ability of the current roster to fulfill those roles.


  1. Atomic Spartan says:

    Yep. First rate analysis

  2. Great article Adam.
    Also, that Spurs breakdown you linked was a good read. Thanks for pointing to it.

    • The more I think about it, the more I think that the shape will look more like a 4-3-3 this year.

      • If Edu is healthy…. i really think he can man the holding role and build play…. i love the idea of a 4-3-3. LOVE IT.
        and to be fair… with technical players, Edu will push up too because hopefully the whole team is playing a high line… i want to suffocate the offensive end… with pressure and possession… with Edu as the fulcrum. A big if.
        I’d pay anything to see him fit in an Earnie built team.

  3. Crappy day at work but this really made my day. Thanks Adam. Your insight helps me enjoy the game in an ever expanding way. Much like a well turned double play in baseball is more than just two outs or vivid description in a book is more than words or an unexpected minor chord is more than musical notes your examples make it possible for me to see more than a string of passes or a goal. Thanks for making the game ever more enjoyable for us.

  4. A fun analysis , but a little superficial at times. Like trying to shape the answer to fit the question. In the first video, the pressure is minimal at best by a single individual.There is no evidence of a team system. The turn by the Montreal player is soooo catastrophic and unnecessary , that it was a pure giveaway. Ugh! Turning with your back to goal, not knowing whos behind you is kid soccer.In the Barnetta tracking video,a horrible diagonal ball to a moving player in midfield allows the disruption. All CLB has to do is return the pass back, and the threat is wiped out totally. This example of the overall poor quality in the MLS, the bad conceptual play is what Adam should include in his analysis. This league can be so bad at times, that a minimal effort can be disproportionately rewarded. Maybe thats what Adam is getting at. (Forget the laziness shown in the NYCFC video.)

    • You sound familiar… are you the mirror?

    • @ Dr. K – You’re definitely on point that MLS struggles with the fundamentals of build-up play, and that’s part of what has made NYRB’s press so effective. It’s also partly why 2015 Columbus’ decision to spread everything out in the build-up phase made them so effective, players often need that extra half-second of space to make the right decision.

      And you’re also right that the first video doesn’t give enough information on how the Union forced a bad, aerial pass in midfield to give Barnetta the opportunity to press Ciman. Unfortunately, MLSLive is down for the offseason, so I’m working with whatever clips I already have at my disposal 🙁 The takeaway I’m hoping for there is that creating turnovers in midfield allows quick pressure on defenders who, as you point out, are prone to on-the-ball mistakes even under minimal pressure.

  5. Always fun to read the analysis, and because it is trenchant, it is fun to ponder the point of view. Since about half of goals scored in the run of play are caused by turnovers in the defensive 1/2 of the field, I absolutely agree that a team MUST create turnovers in order to be successful and must be structured to do so particularly in this league. This press must be team organized , not individual as much, to be most effective. Therefore, to protect itself , the Union must work very hard to not hold the ball on defense, every player must support any pass the defender wants to make so the defender on the ball can not be squeezed easily. Those lovely defense splitting ,to the feet passes by Rosenberry that was shown in the video, are part of what it takes. But, the potential reciever must constantly work like hell to get onto position, to give the passer a clear lane.Every one must work and be on board. This is all coaching and preparation. The mindset must be always active mentally. If I am not attacking, then how can I prepare to defend. The Union , with good preparation, can be an exciting , uptempo winning team,, right?

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