For Pete's Sake

The defense can’t rest

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Author’s Note: The eagle-eyed reader will note that this column now has a punny name. I hope you enjoy it. Dan Walsh rejected my suggestion of “A View From Afar, But Not Quite As Far,” proving once again that his judgment is much better than mine. 

Watching the highlights of the Philadelphia Union’s face-meltingly embarrassing capitulation to the Montreal Impact this weekend, the viewer is struck by one thing: how easy Montreal’s goals were.

It’s an unchallenged run by Ignacio Piatti, a defense that’s repeatedly too slow to react to Anthony Jackson-Hamel, a team utterly plagued by confusion.

Through seven games, the Union are conceding goals with reckless abandon — a full two per game. They haven’t pitched a clean sheet since the season opener.

Going into the season, few would have expected this turn of events. The Union returned a promising young core with MLS experience — Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, and Keegan Rosenberry. They were surrounded by competent MLS veterans (Oguchi Onyewu, Fabinho, Ray Gaddis), complemented by young prospects (Giliano Wijnaldum, Auston Trusty, Jack Elliot, Ken Tribbett), and backed up by one All-Star keeper.

There are more than enough pieces there to build a competent defense. What’s gone wrong?

The dominoes began with Josh Yaro’s injury in the first phase of the preseason. The Georgetown product looked set to be the centerpiece of the defense heading into the season. Sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Union were forced to improvise, forcing Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliot to slide up the organizational depth chart.

At the same time, new personnel led to troubles in the midfield. In 2016, Jim Curtin preferred to deploy either Brian Carroll or Warren Creavalle as a shield in front of the back four. Haris Medunjanin, however, is a wholly different kind of no. 6. His shaky defensive partnerships with Derrick Jones and Alejandro Bedoya have allowed Union opponents to gash right into the heart of the defense.

As a consequence, it’s not much of a surprise that we’re seeing regression everywhere. Fresh off their All-Star form in 2016, both Keegan Rosenberry and Andre Blake have been shaky in 2017. Rosenberry earned his first professional benching against the Impact, while Blake’s exceptional shot-stopping has been hit-or-miss so far. Marquez and Fabinho, too, aren’t playing at their best.

Jim Curtin — a defender in his playing days, who has preached team defense throughout his entire tenure as Union manager — now finds himself leading the second-worst defense in MLS. It can’t be said that this group looks well-drilled, well-led, or filled with confidence. Rather, they look ready to collapse at a moment’s notice, as they did against Montreal.

A solution? The 3-5-2

Earlier in the season, Kevin Kinkead suggested that the best formation for the Union might be a 3-back system. At the time, I disagreed with him. Now, I’m not so sure.

What changed? Three things. For one, the Union have allowed two freaking goals per game so far this season. For another, the absence of Josh Yaro hurt this team’s defensive stability more than any of us thought possible, and so a more advanced rethink of tactics is required.

For a third, Arsenal — the only club more set in its ways than Philadelphia — switched to a back three a couple weeks back, in the midst of one of the worst runs in the club’s modern history. It helped them beat Manchester City on Sunday — but, more importantly, it seems to have rejuvenated a defense that was shipping away goals like it was… well, a shipping company.

(You might argue that taking a tactic from Arsene Wenger is foolhardy, given the legions of Arsenal fans who want him to leave the club. But, hey, Arsene Wenger is also the only man in the world to manage a Premier League side undefeated through a single season. He’s entitled to a certain amount of deference.)

Here’s what the Union would get out of switching to a five-man backline (three center backs and two wing-backs):

Graphic courtesy Seth Finck. And yes, I know that it says “Epps.” Elliot’s ascension into the first team was so unlikely that there’s literally not a file for him in Seth’s lineup generator.

  • You could fit five defenders on the field. More defenders can’t be a bad thing for a team allowing a ludicrous two goals per game.
  • Marquez, Onyewu, and Elliot could fit together as part of a back three. We’ve seen Elliot’s willingness to push the ball up the field, something that could be compensated for by the other two covering. Onyewu’s lack of footspeed, too, could be papered over by the presence of a third guy at the back.
  • The Union’s two best fullbacks are Rosenberry and Fabinho. Both of them are strong on offense, but struggle at times with their defensive positioning — particularly Mr. Sun Rocket himself. Using these players as wingbacks allows them to pour into the attack, while still providing coverage at home behind them.
  • Medunjanin’s defensive weaknesses can be accounted for, by shifting more of his defensive responsibilities to the most aggressive of the three centerbacks.
  • Wing play has been a major issue for the Union this year. Chris Pontius has been invisible, Ilsinho hasn’t produced, Fabian Herbers has regressed, and Fafa Picault underwhelmed Curtin to the point where he didn’t make the bench for two games. A 3-5-2 would let you forego wing play entirely, with the option of using those players as second strikers off the bench.
  • Jay Simpson, theoretically, thrives in a two-striker system. You could play him with Sapong and see if service helps him get on track. Remember, we’ve barely seen Simpson play this year — at 174 minutes, he hasn’t even played two full games.

Now, the calculation should be completely different when Josh Yaro returns. Yaro is the club’s best center back, and he has the foot speed and ball skills to anchor a back four.

It may be a pipe dream to even suggest this change, given what we know of the manager and sporting director’s mindset about how the team should be run. But it’s well past time to take drastic steps to stop the current bleeding.

For now, things aren’t working.

The man at the helm built his entire soccer career on his defensive fortitude.

If he wants to turn things around, it starts by plugging the leaky defense.

29 Comments

  1. I forsee a lot of chips to the corner over Rosenberry’s head in that formation.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Advanced rethink of tactics… good one Pete~
    .
    ~~~ oh belly laugh.
    .
    ….5 minutes later- shit.stop please…it hurts. good one. holy hell…
    .
    no seriously though please refer to comment yesterday regarding Eating Grass.

  3. That formation puts 2 barely good enough MLS CBs and 1 mediocre MLS CB on the field. Two are super slow and one has simply ok speed.

    • i think when Yaro is healthy, he goes central and elliot is the right option and that makes the back 3 significantly more athletic and increases the level of distribution out of those 3.

      • Wouldn’t teams just dump and cross into the corners then. I think Yaro would gets us abused in the air if he’s playing central. Maybe not though. I do like the 3 man backline, although moving Elliot to the 6 could basically accomplish the same thing…

      • i have it further down with Yaro or elliot at the 6 (but that’s when/if yaro and Edu are healthy)

  4. Jim Curtin says:

    Learning new stuff is too hard. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.

  5. lol exactly Jim. The fact that we are last in points, second worst in goal differential, third worst in goals scored and second worst in goals surrendered, clearly means we just haven’t had the ball bounce our way. Guaranteed version of that at the presser today.

  6. Several of us, myself included, mentioned this in the preseason before Kinkead even did. I’ll assume you mean Elliot and not Epps as the center of the back 3. This needs to be at least tried. I personally think this fits our personnel best, even more so when Yaro returns. He’s a perfect outside CB in a back 3 and OO can back up Yaro and Elliot. Yaro may not the strongest, but fast and solid on the ball. I’d even consider Jones at the 6 and move HM up to the 10, Alberg is the third ST. PLEASE TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

  7. Why does Medunjanin have to play as the 6? It is clear he can not defend the position in MLS. Can he play the 8, or even the 10 role? I’d be very tempted to dust off Carroll to start as the 6. Jones at 8. Medunjanin at 10. Bedoya at right wing.

    • all you would see it dumpoffs into the corners with that. I would like to see Jones and Medunjanin in the center with Bedoya out on the wing.

  8. Adam Schorr says:

    To everybody who advocates the 3-5-2, I suggest reading this: http://assets.ngin.com/attachments/document/0042/4901/Controlling_the_Center_of_the_Park.pdf
    .
    I don’t think you can play a 3-5-2 with Alberg and Medunjanin on the field without giving up a ton of goals. The benefit of the 3-5-2 is that you win in the midfield. In the alignment shown, you’re asking Medunjanin to cover a ton of ground and to drop into the back line, and you’re asking Alberg to cover a ton of ground and to be able to read and react high up the pitch. I simply don’t believe either are up to the task.
    .
    Most important may be this line: “It is not suggested to play with a back three instead of a back four when there is a lack of defensive talent because the back position becomes that more demanding. Playing in a back three usually requires more field coverage. Spreading out the back three across the width of the field will leave huge gaps between players.”
    .
    Put simply, the solution to “our CBs suck” is not “play more of them”. With the proposed formation, Rosenberry and Fabinho might literally die from exhaustion, and with the proposed personnel, you’re giving up midfield control because Alberg and Medunjanin simply do not have the defensive abilities needed in the midfield. It’s the worst of all worlds.

    • 100% true. I am still amazed as to exactly what question a 3-5-2 is the answer to.

    • Agreed.
      .
      A 3-5-2 with this roster has very clear issues to me – pretty much all of which you mentioned.
      .
      Personally, I have been advocating the 4-3-3 and I could understand a 4-4-2 derivative. A midfield 3 of a 4-3-3 with Bedoya, Medunjanin, and Jones looks really good to me on paper. You have two very hard working players with good defensive range bracketing your deep-lying distributor. Alberg has experience as the left striker in a 4-3-3 and on the other side, getting a “winger-who-is-more-of-a-striker-type” like Pontius, Herbers, or Fafa really seems ideal. Ilsinho is not really a fit but at this point, he seems a luxury player. Lastly, the 4-3-3 is very closely related to the 4-2-3-1 and so is an easy transition and is a more effective shape to high press from then the 4-4-2 in my opinion.

      • I think if ALL were healthy it wouldn’t be a bad shape:
        .
        Pontius Sapong
        Alberg
        Fabinho Bedoya Yaro/Elliot Rosenberry
        Marquez Edu Yaro/Elliot
        .
        Still a psudo-hodgepodge but definitely better/more athletic in the middle of the field.

    • I think you could set it up as Juve used to with Medunjanin sitting behind Jones and Bedoya. Alberg would have to be a striker though. I don’t think we have the CBs to pull it off. At least not unless Edu and Yaro are both healthy.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      +1

  9. el Pachyderm says:

    5 defenders along the back only works if Jones is the HDM IMO. still does not solve the problem in the middle.

    • Does it, that’s just adding a CB and a 6. Too much D. Jones should be playing the 6 though, Medunjanin is an 8 in this league.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I think that’s what I’m saying.
        .
        you could have 7 along the back line. if a true holding midfielder / destroyer isn’t in the 6 its pointless.

      • Ah I see, I read your comment wrong. I agree.

  10. Section 114 (Former) says:

    Right now we have, maybe, one CB playing at MLS level. So the solution is to put three of them on the field? Buzzz. Try again.

  11. Idk why Curtin and other ppl think that Jones is irrelevant. He’s been the best as the number 6 or DMid for the entire season. He needs to start. No one else is breaking up opponents plays in the middle and no one else is producing the offensive movement that Jones is. You leave him out and you get an open season through the middle for opponents to expose.

    • Jones is on the bench because Curtin is handcuffed to other good and/or expensive players he doesn’t want to bench. Right now, Jones is behind Bedoya, Alberg and Medunjanin in central midfield. The best solution is the one Curtin will not make: move Bedoya to the right wing, make Medunjanin your #8 and reinsert Jones at the #6. Pontius could use more bench time. Take your pick at left wing: Herbers, Ilson, Picault…. This doesn’t make the team suddenly that much more dangerous, but it does get Jones on the field for defense without sacrificing your best play maker and one of your best goal scorers in Medunjanin and Alberg.

      • Exactly, Bedoya should be on the wing or even the bench at this point but that will never happen.

      • I agree to the wing, but why to the bench. He’s better and has played better than most on this team, especially the wing players. So far we have 0 goals and 3 assists (1 for Herbers and 2 for Pontius) from our wings. That’s pathetic.

  12. Zizouisgod says:

    It doesn’t matter what formation that you play if:

    1) You put players in roles that they are not suited for.

    2) You have no one to organize your defense. Simply adding defenders to a back four which cannot stay organized doesn’t solve anything, you just create a diffusion of responsibility.

    3) You have too many players who are defensive liabilities either due to physical limitations (Medujanin/Gooch being slow and immobile) or desire/discipline to defend when needed (Alberg, Ilsinho and Fabinho).

    4) You play a style which your players are unable to perform consistently for 90 min.

    5) You unable to possess the ball for periods during the match when you absolutely need to. You don’t need to win the possession battle, but you need to keep the ball at least 42-45% of the time. It’s rare for a team to be successful with less than 40% possession unless they open up a big lead early and just sit deep to play on the counter for long periods of time.

  13. The refs completely blew the Arsenal Man City game, like at least 4 big blown calls including pens against Arsenal. I can’t take anything out of that game as far as Arsenal’s defense, honestly.

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