Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Union 3-3 Montreal Impact

On Saturday, Philadelphia Union went up 3-0 on Montreal Impact through a break off a deep Hernan Bernardello turnover, an extended set piece, and a what-was-he-thinking penalty off a corner kick. In total, they generated four shots on goal, two of which went in. Despite ceding possession throughout most of the contest and spending virtually no time in the Montreal half of the pitch, the Union came away with a point.

Note: This was a home match against a one-win team.

Also note: During his 60th minute interview, assistant coach Mike Sorber said that the Union did not intend to give up so much possession in the second half, they simply… did. In short, Montreal did what they wanted, and Philly — the home side, knowing that the other team needed to push forward — had no answer.

How does this happen? How does Philly turn a 3-0 lead into a single point?

Any answer should start with personnel, because even with Haris Medunjanin’s ability to spread the field, the Union clearly do not have a roster built for ball retention. On Saturday, there were continual and frustrating breakdowns in the team’s structure and communication that all but guaranteed Montreal would have chances to even the score.

Leaving aside Blake’s error on the third goal, Philly still granted the visitors two breathtakingly simple goals. Only Minnesota United, who have already given up 3/4 of the goals Colorado gave up all last season, has a worse defensive record. And no team in 2016 ended the year giving up more than 1.76 goals/game; the Union are currently at 2.0.

Curtin IDs a weakness

Before the match, Alejandro Bedoya told Dave Zeitlin that he felt bad for Jim Curtin because, “He’s put the right game plan in for every game.” This may be a stretch, but certainly in the past two matches, Curtin has come up with tactical approaches that creatively exploit opponent weaknesses. Philly’s relentless high pressure generated deep turnovers at an astounding rate against NYC, and pairing the high press with outlets behind Ambroise Oyongo was a brilliant, if somewhat limited, response to the Impact’s reliance on left-sided overloads.

This was the story of the opening moments of the match: Montreal sought to draw the Union to the right half of the pitch then switch the ball to their strong side, where Oyongo would be pushed up nearly even with Piatti. Philly’s high press, however, stifled the first pass into midfield, and the Union immediately targeted space wide of Laurent Ciman on the break.

Keeping C.J. Sapong close to Ciman on the left paid early dividends when a bad touch from Bernardello sent Sapong and Roland Alberg in on goal. Attacking the left side continually provided strong returns, with both Pontius and Sapong running onto deep passes from Elliot, Medunjanin, and Alberg.

From these forays behind the Montreal defense — notable as the first time Philly has had a consistent presence behind the defense this year — the Union generated corner kicks but no other real chances. They did not establish possession deep, nor did they threaten the goal. But thanks largely to Medunjanin’s exceptional service, turned those set pieces into goals.

The Union did make the most of those corners though. Two Jack Elliot shots in the 18th minute came from a corner, and Philly’s 23rd minute goal also arrived following a corner kick that ended up back on Medunjanin’s feet. In the 27th minute, Sapong nearly turned in a loose ball that ended up in the box off a throw-in that came from a corner. Overall, Philly’s attack was effective if they could charge upfield, create a deadball situation, and sow confusion.

Biello breaks it down

Mauro Biello’s response to the Union’s high pressure defensive scheme was intelligent both in its belief in the original gameplan and in how it turned the high press against itself. The Montreal manager did not pull Oyongo into a safer role, but instead began dropping a second midfielder back to drag Medunjanin forward. Additionally, the defense patiently moved Sapong off Ciman before shifting the ball to the Belgian, who stepped forward, froze Chris Pontius, and played the ball wide to the now-free Oyongo.

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Once established in the Union’s half, Montreal faced little real pressure on the ball. Oyongo and Piatti were supported by Patrice Bernier and Marco Donadel, often giving the visitors a numerical advantage near the ball since Medunjanin covers a narrow horizontal range of the pitch defensively.

Few plays highlight the Bosnian’s defensive limitations better than Piatti’s opener. Though both Pontius and Bedoya had a chance to haul down the Argentinian wizard, it is Medunjanin’s finger-first defense that stands out. Not only does it seem as though the Union mid should be pressuring Piatti, but it is terrifying to imagine that there aren’t clear directives drilled into the defense about how to respond when Piatti drives in from the left. I mean… that’s what he does.

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Small mistakes

The lack of clarity about how to handle the most likely creator on Montreal making what might as well be his signature run is where real dread comes in for Union fans. This is reactive defense laid bare: Medunjanin hasn’t rotated, Elliot has no idea how to respond to the run to his right, the defense is trotting backward before Piatti even makes his turn, allowing him plenty of space to attack as runs develop around him, and the defense continues retreating all the way to the penalty spot because they stop thinking and start reacting.

This isn’t the only instance of Philly looking as though they don’t have a clear sense of how to switch off runners as a play develops. In far less severe circumstances, Gaddis and Bedoya struggled with Piatti’s run through the left channel. Gaddis can step back into the defensive line and let Bedoya move over to Oyongo, but instead he waits until Bedoya is even and presses the Montreal fullback. This tactic is ineffective because Oyongo has already picked his head up and can easily find the space behind Gaddis and Piatti’s run. Bedoya has followed Montreal’s playmaker, but now instead of being ahead of Gaddis, he has run an extra 15 yards deep into his own defensive corner. If you think those runs don’t add up over the course of a match, you haven’t seen the Union touch the ball four times in the extra minute of first half play without once winning it back from Montreal (which should have scored).

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In the end, the Impact wholly dominated the Union in the second half and found the goals they needed through constant pressure. Jim Curtin used his subs, but couldn’t keep his defensive line or pressure up top high. Roland Alberg disappeared almost completely after the first 15 minutes; his only attacking half touches after that point in the first 45 minutes were corner kicks, the pass to Ilsinho that came after a corner and led to Philly’s penalty, and the penalty itself. Without the Dutchman to link to C.J. Sapong, the Union left their striker isolated. They sank into a shell that increasingly became man-oriented, so that even when they won the ball back there was usually an opposing player nearby every potential outlet.

It was bad. It was a team playing scared to lose. And it’s extra weight on everyone at the club’s shoulders as they head off across the country to face a Galaxy side that recently defeated Montreal 2-0.


  1. Piatti’s body language after the penalty kick indicates that he decided to make a really strong effort to get a goal before the half. He consciously and deliberately raised his game to counteract the depression that would have swept his team had they gone to the locker room down 3.
    To the man’s credit, he made it work. To the Union field leadership’s discredit, he made it work. My live read was that he took them by surprise.
    A coach can tell his players what is coming. If they don’t actualize an appropriate heightened response, not even legendary reservoirs of abusively foul language will have an effect.

  2. JediLos117 says:

    Also…instead of Jones subbing into the 6 to shield the defense he was put in as a 10.

    • I have the theory that the Union kind of want to have a pair of 8’s in the midfield that can be both hybrid 6’s and 10’s. I’m probably wrong but its the closest thing to an explanation to their odd midfield construction I can think of.

  3. Yea. Maybe its time to get Bedoya on the Wing.
    If we aren’t changing the formation. (and we aren’t)
    We will need some sort of ball winner/destroyer in the middle and taking Haris and Bedoya off the field just doesn’t seem like an option.
    God this midfield is a mess.

    • JediLos117 says:

      6 Jones
      8 Medunjanan
      10 alberg
      Bedoya out wide

      • Alberg isn’t a 10 more of a second striker. But he is better than anything else we have going on at the moment.

      • Agreed and he disappears fast. He sould be subbed off after 60 or maybe in 55, and hopefully he gets a goal or 2 before then. Also, we need to get back to what we did whan Curtin first took over, which is counter attack, and probably shift to a more 4-3-3. Get some speed on the wings and let Jones steal the ball pass it to Medunjanin and have him drop it into a corner. We can’t press for a full game and we can’t keep possession.

      • Counter .attack? are you insane?
        To counter attack means you 1. believe in your defense enough that you are willing to concede possession for large chunks of the game.
        2. Believe you can win the ball back.
        3. Have the speed to created numerical advantages in the attacking half.
        Good god man.

      • I meant in terms of organizing the D. We counterattack all the time now as it is with our long diagonals. At least drop the full court press because it stretches us out and drains us way before the other team.

      • i’ve been seeing this idea everywhere after last game and i couldnt agree more

      • I agree with 3/4 of this. But Alberg cannot play at the 10-spot. Yes, I am going to continue to continue to beat this drum despite the brace in this past match. And I will give him his due: the first goal was excellent. The penalty was poorly-taken and he was lucky it went in. As Adam notes, he pretty well disappeared from the match early on. If we continue to play him at the 10 we are in trouble. I grant that we don’t have many other options — I would still rather give it to Ilsinho for several games and see if he might gel there — but at most, if we start Alberg there, he better come out at the half before our defense seriously suffers.

        I hope to God Earnie is working on a playmaker for us. Then we can put Bedoya out wide, pair Jones and Medunjanin, who looked fairly promising together… maybe Yaro comes back to help solidify the backline… a guy can dream, can’t he?…

    • ThisisPhil says:

      I think somewhere along the way there was a hope that Edu would become a serviceable option. A healthy Edu makes all of this make more sense. Sadly, there was no adequate plan B to account for him not being serviceable.

  4. Adam, always a cogent analysis. It seems the back 4 do not have a concept of what they have to do. The last clip is very telling. Gaddis must NEVER come out to close down, but should drop off and let Bedoya switch of on the coverage. As you know, crosses from those areas are the easiest type of assault to defend. The concept is cohesion. It should be ,I think , as if the back 4 should be tied with a bungee chord about 10 yards apart from each other. If one of them steps out or shifts , the others must shift accordingly, leaving no gaps. the weak side middfielder MUST cover the shift and the strong side midfielder MUST stay between the goal and the attacker. Correct me if I am wrong , but maybe the defenders and midfielders would love to do the right thing, but seem to be caught in 2 minds, close down or defend zonally. That indecision is the coaching staffs fault however, well meaning they may be.

  5. Adam Schorr says:

    Watch Bedoya and Medunjanin on that Piatti goal and then ask yourself: what is the back line supposed to do when the mids who are supposed to provide support completely give up on a play? Bedoya makes a half-hearted tackle attempt, fails, and stops. Medunjanin points to where he should be but makes no effort to get there. Watch Bedoya and Medunjanin on the second goal – they are once again trailing the play, offering no support whatsoever. Watch them on the third goal – they’re jogging, and Bedoya is too late to realize there is danger, his sprint falling short.
    Of course, if you watch those goals, you will also see that Marquez and Elliott are not even close to getting the job done either, completely clueless how to handle runs made between them, often dropping way too deep or choosing the wrong person to handle the runner. It’s also glaring on Oduro’s should-be goal right before half.
    The only conclusion you can really come to is that the highly-paid midfielders are not giving enough effort and the young back line are simply lost as to their responsibilities. Fabinho, while he’s not actually good, actually does generally appear to have a decent idea of what he’s doing, he’s just not always great at executing (for example, on Oduro’s chance, he correctly slides between Oduro and the ball, which the other backs have been failing to do, but he’s then beaten for pace).
    I don’t know if there are good solutions. I just know it sucks.

    • They need a defensive midfielder because they don’t have one playing. Medunjanin and Bedoya are both used to having support and it doesn’t exist. That’s the easiest solution. It has to happen this next game. We need either Jones or Carroll or Creavalle to start (or Elliott to move up).

    • I think no professional wants to look bad or play poorly. Maybe they are confused as to what they should do. Maybe the effort is not there because effort alone may not give you any reward, if you feel the unity is not there and group is not all on the same page. It always ends up being a team game , I think.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Pontius gives up on that play too.

    • The crux of the issue is relying on Medunjanin to play defense when we know, we KNOW he won’t. It’s worse than with Maidana because he’s actually rolled out as a defensive mid. Maidana’s lackluster defending was excusable because of his role. Medunjanin doesn’t play defense and it creates a giant hole.
      Maybe it’s time for Medunjanin to try the 10 spot?

      • I don’t understand why you wouldn’t try HM at the 10. Best I can think of, since the experts keep telling me the 3-CB set doesn’t fit us, is to just tweak the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 with Jones as the destroyer. Tell him to sit back protect. Hell rotate BC back in there if necessary. Then let HM and Bedoya play those box-to-box roles, Bedoya being the more two-way player of the two. TRY SOMETHING. We heard HM has good passing vision and range, a nasty, curling long range shot, and takes a good FK. Sounds like more of an attacking mid to me. Put some speed around him (cough, Fafa, cough).

  6. Chris Gibbons says:

    These goals remind me of the difference between playing pick-up soccer and league soccer. League soccer is a game of tactics and inches and decisions and missed chances, all of which add up to a measurable and meaningful result, even when it’s pub league on Saturday afternoons. In pick-up, if the other team scores, it doesn’t really matter because goals don’t matter and your team gets the ball back at the end, which is what you really wanted anyway (just without having to work for it). It seems like the Union are caught between two minds sometimes, occasionally running for each other like their lives depended on it and occasionally just ceding the field and possession as though the outcome were already predetermined. *Sigh*

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