Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Union 0-2 NYC FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

In desperate need of a result, Philadelphia Union put zero shots on frame inside the box, and only two shots from distance could lay mild claims to threatening New York City FC’s goal. Despite creating turnovers in the visitor’s half throughout the opening forty-five minutes, the Union never showed anything more than bluster and hustle as they sought to end what has become a haunting and heavy 14-match winless streak.

Philly’s approach was different from past matches, but the result was the same: A lack of focus, an unnerving inability to consistently build attacks from deep or in transition, and defensive frailties sniffed out over time by opponents that adjust and destroy.

Alberg as savior

Roland Alberg, by virtue of a hot patch over six matches in 2016, was touted as a potential creative hub prior to his start against NYC. Viewing the Dutch attacking midfielder as a creative force is strange though because, if anything, Alberg’s MLS numbers profile more as the shot-monster striker Philly needed and didn’t sign than as a player that can make shots for others. When he was rocking last season, Alberg took 21 shots over a five game stretch. His touch percentage — a statistic that shows how involved a player is while on the field — is on par with strikers who are asked to do more with fewer touches than with creative players who facilitate attacks. 

So he can score, but the question has always been whether he can do anything else. On Saturday, Alberg proved he can man-mark a 40-year-old for about 50 minutes, but far too few of his other qualities showed through.

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Above, Alberg basically exits the play after making a pass. This is not the movement of a creator, but instead of a guy who wants to fade into the background until the final moment when he strikes.

This is not a personal shot, it’s simply a reflection of the Dutchman’s lack of movement and energy in attack, coupled with the fact that he almost instantly became a defensive liability after NYC’s opening goal. Once the Union were behind and had to stretch their defense, Alberg demonstrated why it is so hard for Curtin to fit the 26-year old’s goal potential into his team. In much the same way Chaco Maidana offered tantalizing attacking possibilities paired with defensive frustrations, Alberg follows in the Argentine’s footsteps.

Could Alberg play as a second striker collecting second balls and blasting them into the stratosphere and, occasionally, the net? Certainly. But that requires a set of tactics that acknowledge taking a body out of midfield. And do the Union currently have the midfielders to accommodate such a shape? 

The initial reaction of Alberg’s presence in the starting lineup was that Jim Curtin was searching for something different in the No. 10 role after watching Alejandro Bedoya struggle to impose himself on the first five games of the season. But it may be that Andrea Pirlo’s presence offered Curtin the first opportunity to build a defensive set suitable for Alberg. The Dutchman man-marked NYC’s Italian regista throughout the match, facilitating the Union’s successful high press.

In the grand scheme of soccer defenses, straight-up man-marking is the simplest assignment for an individual, but can be a difficult system for the rest of the team to execute. The other nine field players must recognize that even though they have a teammate in a certain space, he is not supposed to acknowledge that space so much as the individual man in it. So once Pirlo left a zone, Alberg would follow and that zone was empty and available to another player, and Philly’s defense had to react accordingly.

Both defenses dictate game early

By using Alberg as a man-marker, the Union were able to negate much of NYC’s ability to build attacks and spread the ball to their wingers in the first half. With Pirlo largely taken out of the buildups, NYC struggled to figure out how to work around high pressure. Both Alex Ring and Maxi Morales dropped deep and looked to play out through David Villa, but Jack Elliot followed the Spanish striker’s checking runs; the Union created a seemingly endless stream of turnovers that, incredibly, came to nothing.

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Medunjanin had excellent passing depth through the first half hour of the match.

After the first half hour, New York City made a defensive adjustment that so many teams have made before them, and it started the swing that would move the match inexorably beyond Philly’s reach.

Instead of dropping Ring and Morales deep to collect the ball, only Morales continued to come back and look to create overloads up the Union left, with Pirlo popping in and out of nearby zones to attract second defenders and open spaces. Ring stayed high, and snuck around behind Philly’s midfield, with Marquez and Elliot hesitant to follow him for fear of losing track of Villa.

Additionally, Ring could then put pressure on the Union higher up the pitch. Instead of receiving the ball in his own half with space to turn and assess, Haris Medunjanin was forced to move forward and look for passes in more congested areas just inside NYC’s half. His effectiveness plummeted accordingly.

In the second half, NYC continued in this vein, but now felt the freedom to knock long balls up the left to escape high pressure. Even though they rarely connected, those long outlets now found players in light blue around to hunt second balls.

Now NYC could advance without Pirlo. Now Alberg was a liability.

Union midfield falls apart

Although Haris Medunjanin’s speed is often cited as his defensive shortcoming, there are plenty of solid holding mids that don’t rely on zip to be effective. Medunjanin is unquestionably a smart player and he generally does a good job building his athletic disadvantages into how he plays the game. Thus, his defensive

With NYC playing higher, Medunjanin moved upfield and played a shorter, connecting game.

movement often involves taking a safe option — such as retreating to the center — rather than looking to jump passing lanes. Safe is often smart, but it can leave opposing teams with too much time on the ball in midfield areas, particularly when the rest of the Union don’t recognize Medunjanin’s movements and respond.

In the second half, Medunjanin was dropping deep, Bedoya was trying to be everywhere, and Alberg was a lost cause after NYC went ahead.

Perhaps no sequence sums up the 2017 Union season thus far (though there are, unfortunately, plenty of candidates) as well as this attacking move from NYC in the 68th minute. It begins with NYC rotating the ball to avoid CJ Sapong’s high pressure. Alberg moves off of Pirlo (who he still man-marked often, even down a goal) to press Chanot, but his angle gifts the defender space to advance play. After distributing the ball, Chanot immediately opens for a pass. Meanwhile, Alberg’s play is done. The ball is played into Pirlo, who moves forward unchallenged and plays into David Villa’s feet. Moments later, the match should have been 2-0 if not for Rodney Wallace’s too-cute finishing touch.

Broken down, there are a number of important aspects to this play.

  1. NYC’s recognition that they need to take Sapong out of the play.
  2. Alberg’s incredible approach to Chanot and Ilsinho’s quarter-hearted effort at providing support.
  3. Once Pirlo is free, the visitors immediately find him, and the other two midfielders both move away from the ball at angles, which means they pull defenders away but also change the lane those defenders have to shadow; Medunjanin and Bedoya both need to continually assess their positioning rather than finding a lane and approaching the ball.
  4. Pirlo doesn’t try to play the ball to those midfield runs (more on that later), understanding that they are decoys.
  5. David Villa responds to Ring’s run by checking around him and realizing that he can help by pulling the defense out of the center. He makes a quick feint at a deep run, and this simple five-step move draws the attention of both Marquez and Elliot. Meanwhile, Ring is behind Medunjanin, who now has to ask for help and doesn’t get it.

This is reactive defending. It takes thought, which slows down behavior, and it signals that the attackers are dictating space to the defense rather than the other way around.

Roster building

A final note on that play is important to make: It started with Chanot, a central defender moving into the prime ages of his career, who NYC brought in last July. He only played in six matches last season, but at age 27, he has a lot of room to grow. Next, it featured Jack Harrison, who NYC traded to obtain in the draft. NYC brought in high-priced acquisitions Pirlo and Villa, and involved offseason signings Alex Ring and Rodney Wallace nearly scoring.

In short, it was a reflection of a modern MLS roster versus Philadelphia Union. Each player involved in the play was — price aside — a relatively low risk/high return signing.

  • Chanot and Ring are both entering peak ages for their positions, and both were brought in to fill specific holes in the roster: A leaky defense and a Lampard-sized midfield gap.
  • Villa and Pirlo were expensive, but sure as a sure thing gets.
  • Harrison, like Keegan Rosenberry, is an example of using the draft well. With so many good players out of the draft system, it’s only worth spending resources on the draft if you are targeting a specific player for specific reasons. NYC thought Harrison was special and moved accordingly.
  • Finally, Rodney Wallace was a known MLS quantity.

In short, NYC spent the offseason building on the foundation Patrick Viera laid in his first season in charge. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Union made high risk signings with uncertain upsides and retooling their system to fit a regista model. Different approaches, and far different results.

Wing support

A strange aspect of the Union’s attack is how it rarely builds effective triangles on the wings. The striker is dedicated to remaining between the center backs, so the Union are simultaneously dropping one or more midfielders deep to instigate buildups and playing long passes out wide to get behind the first line of pressure. This results in many instances where the fullback and winger are on the touchline at the same time, both limiting their options when receiving the ball and making them easier to disconnect. The issue is exacerbated because dropping two midfielders means there is often a delay in central support for the wings.

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Above, you see Elliot hit Rosenberry with a long diagonal pass, and Medunjanin moves up in support, bringing Pirlo out of the middle. This creates a 3v3 on the outside, and for a moment the Union have a positional advantage because Pirlo hasn’t arrived yet. But they make no use of it: Ilsinho doesn’t create space for himself, and even if he had there was nobody moving into the space Pirlo vacated to provide the outlet and dangerous drive toward net.

In contrast, NYC generated strong wing support as the match went on. Below, you can see Villa put Marquez in a difficult position by checking deep on a throw. Marquez decides to drift into the back line after his initial pressure, which gives NYC a numerical advantage on the wing and leads to a free cross.

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Finally, you can see that NYC built an overload on the left in the lead-up to their opening goal. Maxi Morales joins the play late, creating a 3v2 and giving NYC the ability to counterpress and regain the ball when Rosenberry takes a very loose touch. The poor communication and spacing between Fabinho, Marquez, and Elliot provides the opportunity for Matarrita to easily find Harrison for the goal. One thing to notice in the buildup is that Alberg cannot drift over to help on the wing because his role is purely Pirlo-based. This means that once the visitors have a numerical advantage on the wing, they keep it and Philly cannot support their overburdened defenders.

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There are certainly things to build on following the Union’s latest defeat. They executed the defensive side of the high press effectively, even if they looked hapless going forward off of turnovers. Jack Elliot proved solid with the ball, and offers far more upside than Oguchi Onyewu. Medunjanin showed, once more, that he can create isolations with his distribution, though he also highlighted just how poor Philly’s wide play has been once the ball gets out to the wings. Andre Blake continues to look more comfortable in the air than at any point last season, even if his distribution remains a struggle.

But overall it is hard to find positives in a home defeat that featured no real goalscoring chances. For the second consecutive week, a team came into Chester and attacked the Union right side relentlessly and effectively. And even with Bedoya deeper to help out, Philly had no real answers. Indeed, it’s hard to look at the Union’s roster, look at the results outside of the stellar scoring runs by Sapong and Alberg last season, and look at their recent play, and figure out how the future gets rosier any time soon.


  1. How long did it take RBNY to evolve into their high press, “pretty” style of soccer?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      On the basis solely of memory, so not highly reliably, when Jesse Marsch became coach and after Thierry Henry retired. Somebody Curtis, Ike maybe?, came in then to get the entire organization onto a coordinated single page, so to speak.
      Quietly in the backs of our minds, focus an ear to the ground for the 18-year old center back pair at Lehigh, Trusty and McKenzie. And then put Jack Elliott in front of them at defensive center midfielder. If it were ever to happen at the first team level, it will be some time in the future. Lots of growth has to happen first.
      One morsel of taste: the only defense to hold FC Cincinnatl’s new striker Djiby Fall scoreless in the first four games of the season was that one. There were other major factors, but still … .

    • OSC is right on the Ali Curtis/Marsch move to the high & counterpress. It was also contingent on bringing in a) the right midfield, b) making BWP the primary striker, and c) figuring out the defense and wings. You could argue they nailed the midfield and were trying to take things to the next level by finding the right wings and some consistent CBs until this season/late last season when they began bringing some very solid young mids in and started looking at the 4-2-2-2 RB Leipzig uses so effectively.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    What is the genesis with this quote by you… because it speaks to the heart of the issue IMO.
    “A lack of focus, an unnerving inability to consistently build attacks from deep or in transition, and defensive frailties sniffed out over time by opponents that adjust and destroy.”
    We are told this is ‘ The How Right Now for Where the Union Are’ according to the sporting director the weekend in a national interview….but these things seem to be imminently fixable… and display a lack of internal leadership.
    I’m perfectly fine with long view vision of installing a system and the bumps along the road but I’m not okay with individual skill errors, fear, and dunderheaded decision making over and over by certain players with what appears to be a leash without a terminus.
    Are you able to decipher the ESPN interview with TT? Is the sporting director cryptic management speaking? Is the coach totally safe and unpressured from within? If so…
    …how are we to at one time handle this total rebuild- yet tolerate the totally inexcusable play? WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE? How long is the installation?
    They’ve been beaten at home 5-1 in last two games man. What gives? A playoff team to a total rebuild in the absence of Vincent Noguiera and The Calm I guess?

    • el Pachyderm says:

      By the way…speaking to your quote I chose to insert The Calm at the end of my rant for a specific reason. This is pretty much the issue.
      I’m thinking Bedoya in the 8 having an offseason to adjust, Jones at the 6 and Tranquillo in the 10 is what the Sporting Director was expecting this season…
      …some speed on the wings, depth and Simpson up top and maybe this is a team on the ascendency.
      Total rebuild. Hey look, I answered my own rant.
      Still inexcusable play from professionals though. There’s some lovely footy going on in this league and it ain’t happening here.
      So the question then becomes. When?

      • But if that was the plan, why did Ernie sign Medunjanin and not bring in someone who could play the CAM? Who decided Bedoya could do it? Did Stewart think Najem would be ready sooner rather than later? I still think this mess is largely attributable to poor tactics, training. You can’t roll out a 4-2-3-1 with no CAM and arguably no true #9. It’s just not going to work. Red Bull has hit a stride with the 4-2-3-1 because they have Kljestan and BWP.

        Transfer Window in MLS is open until May 8. Wonder if anything is in the works….

      • I think that has been the most damning takeaway from the last 18 months. Thought about this as well this past weekend, before unexpected departures/injuries (and believing that they were after Bedoya for the better part of a year), you were expecting a spine that involved Barnetta, Bedoya, Nogs, Edu and eventually Jones. I’d wager those options would cover for a lot of deficiencies in the roster. A great “Plan A”.

        But. That obviously didn’t happen. It is quite clear there wasn’t much of a “Plan B”, as we are here scrambling for parts.

        Which is all the more worrying because this translates to the field and the players. As my wife noted driving home after we left at 65 minutes last Saturday, “When the team’s plan A stops working, they have no idea what to do”.


      • I wanted this to be a sarcastic comment, but it is the Union’s acquisition history — check the roster’s of clubs being relegtated.
        Nogs — Souchaux was being relegated from Ligue 1

        Simpson – Leyton Orient is being relegated to the Conference in England

        Andy DeLort – the other striker target the year Aristegeuita was signed – Wigan was threatened with relegation from the Championship

        So check the drop zone of across all of Europe, any division, and that is where your next CAM will probably come from.

      • Why did the Sporting Director expect Barnetta would return for 2017? We don’t know what was said in negotiations, but was there ever any public comment, from either side, that Barnetta would be here after the 2016 season ended? And Barnetta announced he would not return before the season ended. Earnie had the entire offseason to find a CAM to replace him. And yet…

        Fine, you try Bedoya there. Except the player and the coach have both said publicly this won’t work. Another possible replacement there – brought in by the Sporting Director the year before, given the chance to fill the role, shows up to preseason overweight and out of shape and six games in can’t go 90 minutes.

        By the summer window, it will have been 10 months since Barnetta left. I want a Nicolas Lodeiro or Diego Valeri level replacement with that much time to scour the second, and third, and fourth (Hi Jay Simpson!) of every European country’s league. I also want a Porsche, and there is a better chance of me driving past Talen Energy Stadium not attending a game in a 911 than the Union signing that level of player.

    • To repair inexcusable play, the coach must the coach must set certain rules into focus regarding when and where to press,, rules regarding when and how to support, which Adam correctly points out is non existent. Curtin seems to involve himself in tactics somewhat, although man marking Pirlo with a possibly useful player is such a bad, juvenile tactic as to make the mere mention of it in the column embarresing. Man marking Hazard is one thing, man marking Pirlo is cause to be fired for bad tactics. Tactics can not succeed without small sided preparation. Although Adam mentions triangle type play on the wings, I am sure he knows that that is only adequate on the college level . On this level , wing play must involve 3 attackers with the initial touch player rarely being the one to recieve the thru pass. So we have vague tactics, no idea of what to do with those tactics if they are effective. please the next time they play Pirlo, use his defensive liabilties, and kick him in the ass if he gets too cute. That might help you win the game.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        To be fair to Curtin, man marking Pirlo worked for 45 min and if the Union had scored 1-2 goals in the 1st half, it would have looked really smart.

      • If coulda woulda etc. If they had not been man marking Pirlo, Alberg scores 2 goals easily since no one would be marking him , kind of like 10 against 11 all day.Since no one would be is marking him Alberg, a picks his spots to overload their defense, forcing them to make decisions they dont want to make. Just let Medu match his slowness with Pirlos, a perfect neutral situation. Maybe stop worrying about stopping someone and let them worry about you for a chnge.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        “Maybe stop worrying about stopping someone and let them worry about you for a chnge.”

        When only Minnesota has conceded more goals than you in the league, I think that a manager should try to figure out how to stop the other team from scoring so much. IMHO, it’s much easier to prevent goals than to score them.

      • There is no more “fair to Curtin”. He’s a one half coach. He gasses his guys every week with a press they can’t maintain. Ride out the storm, don’t concede, counter the counterattack in the second half. It’s not hard to figure out how to beat the U.

  3. I see the same thing over and over in this selections of clips: A pure lack of effort and commitment. Say what will be said, but nobody’s holding anybody’s feet to the fire in that locker room. Goodnight, Irene.

    • Nothing points this out more than the last clip of the opening goal. Numbers are even until NYCs back comes storming forward giving them the advantage.
      Keep watching the lower right corner and you will see Ilson slowly trot on screen right before they score. waaaaay after the fact.

  4. Zizouisgod says:

    After watching the one clip where Adam points out how bad Alberg and Ilsinho are at defending, I couldn’t help but remember that home match vs. MTL back in Sept ’16. Curtin brought these two players in when the Union were protecting a one goal lead and we gave up a late equalizer. Not a direct cause and effect, but clearly it wasn’t a great plan to kill off a match defensively either.

    • Those guys stick out as consistently looking a bit lost or indecisive with their defensive roles, but to be fair I also have a clip of Herbers putting poor pressure on the ball in back, which allows NYC to trundle up the left and nearly score. Not disputing your point or anything, just wanted to add that even though I highlighted Alberg, he wasn’t the only offender.

  5. I dont think it is lack of effort so much as players not knowing quite what to do. The roles are not clearly defined it seems, so they kind of drift around somewhat, not really having a clear plan of attack or how to defend. No coaching on a personal level.

    • I tend to agree with this to a certain extent. On both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, I often think that what looks like low effort is actually indecisiveness driven by having to think through what to do rather than falling back on whatever cues/heuristics of a situation should be driving the response without requiring thought.

      • More than Heuristics, The Union players need more rigidity in their structure so that looking for cues would be minimised. Kind of like Maourino does. For example, If Illsinho or anyone else loses the ball, they must press like hell for 6 seconds to get it back. If not successful, drop immediately into your zone of the defense (lets say 2 lines of 4) and defend. Or the man with the ball MUST have someone clear to his right and his left with a thru ball option in the middle. If he is by the touchline, the wing MUST come BACK to him, not run away. So if Rosenborg has the ball. everyone around him has a MUST DO task which gives automatic cohesion ,cover and order. If you are not attacking, then by default you are defending consciously. No more floating like they do now. The Union players I am afraid maybe are not good enough to improvise or look for cues. The quality may not be there. When looking at films next time, which I do in slow motion, Just watch how disorganized the support is. This is so, so baisic.This can be coached.

      • That’s what I’m seeing. There’s no more tired a comparison than Leicster, but this team feels a lot to me like Leicster to start the PL campaign under Ranieri. No ideas. Just not capable of playing the game. Then Shakespeare takes over and brings them back to basics, lines them up the way that works best for them and they go and win 6 in a row (though losing right now to Atletico… sad. was hoping for a small miracle). The quality is there. It’s just not being managed at all.

      • Yeah, sometimes the quality has to be framed in a way that allows it to shine. In this league,good is not that far away.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        What’s weird to me is that this is precisely what Curtin did when he arrived. He organized the defense, and I can remember specific defensive shapes (in a road loss to Seattle) that made me sit up and say, in a good way, “Hey! Defensive shape! This team hasn’t done that in years.” Where did that discipline go?!?

      • That’s right, Chris. I remember in the first months of Curtin’s tenure in which he wold constantly talk about how he didn’t care about possession and that he was looking to release LeToux and Casey on the counter. It was total absorb and attack.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Watched Juve against Barca in Turin last week play a 4-2-3-1 offensively and a flat 4-4-2 defensively.

  6. This article ended up on an NYCFC fan board. This is not only great writing but superb technical analysis. Well done, wish we had someone this talented writing for NYCFC.

    • Thank you so much! That’s incredibly kind.

    • even though the union are not a good team right now we have had consistently great coverage and analysis from this website.

    • Thanks for posting this. That’s awesome of you to share. Adam is as good as it gets, and we’re lucky to have him.

    • We may have the worst club in MLS, but we still have the best blog. You should come back here every week. Guarantee you’ll learn something from Adam.

  7. Adam, one thing you missed was the following; the atmosphere on the ‘beer deck’ rocked at half time. I may not be tempted to go back to another game but will go back to experience that atmosphere.

  8. Adam Schorr says:

    You know, if the reason we can’t switch from the 4-2-3-1 to something else is because it’s “too difficult” to change formations, shouldn’t we show, like, some aptitude in *either* offense or defense? Can a formation change hurt when you can’t execute the current one?
    Also, while many people point to Barnetta leaving as the problem, the triangle thing is something Nogueira really excelled at. It looks like Haris is simply too slow both at providing support and at finding other options.

    • You know, this is a very good point. How could changing formations possibly lead to any more ineptitude than what we’ve seen already? I mean, seriously, we don’t have the pieces for the system we currently have in place, and yet the team is supposed to adhere to it because it would make things even worse to change? Worse than winless since last August?? Worse than dead last in the league???

    • Harris is seemingly more and more just a one trick pony. He plays a great long ball.
      Beyond that, he doesn’t defend well, he won’t tackle and doesn’t do the work to get back and block off lanes. He doesn’t get up into the attack nearly enough, once again he isn’t doing the work to get up there.
      Is he a worse version of Pirlo? (which is really saying a lot these days)

  9. yeah, I am surprised that this site more than any other seems to to have the most intelligent give and take with very little rancor. Nothing like it in NYCFC land for sure. Also, time to leave this Barnetta and Nogs stuff alone. It was yesterday and aint coming back, so lets move on and live in the present , painful as it may be.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      In agreement, but it is germain when seeing the product on field and the Sporting Directors comments from this weekend.

  10. There are only two positive things I will say about this match:
    1) At least Curtin tried a couple of different things. They didn’t work whatsoever, but they were worth trying. He should continue to try some different things until he finds something that works.
    2) This match validates the opinion I have been stating publicly since the middle of last year: Alberg is not a #10. Period. Never was, and never will be. In fact, I think it’s now pretty clear that he doesn’t belong on the squad at all. But even if you think that’s too harsh — and I don’t think it is — he surely should never be placed in the 10 spot. He won’t improve there either because it is not his jam.

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