Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Union 3-0 NY Red Bulls

Photo: 215pix

Philadelphia Union paired their best half of the season with 30 minutes of survival and an 11-minute C.J. Sapong hat trick to knock off their vaunted New Jersey rivals, earn a shutout, and — most importantly — collect their first win since August 2016.

Jim Curtin has preached execution, focus, and getting everybody to play well at the same time as simple solutions to his team’s winless streak, and in the opening 45 minutes Saturday fans finally saw what a Union team that adheres to those principles can do.

Ever since it became clear that Alejandro Bedoya was not a solution at attacking midfield, the Union have been seeking a balance between the captain’s high-energy game, Haris Medunjanin’s distributive attributes, and Roland Alberg’s desire to receive, rather than make, the final pass. The result has been a soft spot up the center — where space behind Medunjanin can be exploited — and down the Union right, where Bedoya’s help defense and Medunjanin’s conservative movement can leave the channel between fullback and center back open for attack. Additionally, Alberg has shown more energy tracking back to defend down the left channel than the right, since he prefers to operate in that channel going forward.

Although everything from moving Medunjanin forward (or taking him off the pitch entirely) to switching the team shape has been suggested, Curtin chose to face the vaunted Red Bulls with the same midfield that looked stretched and disjointed against Los Angeles a week before. Only this time there was cohesion in the middle.

This time the Union controlled the match.

A win Curtin’s way

Curtin preaches that hard work produces results, and the first half was a near-continuous stream of Union players beating Jersey’s finest to every loose ball. Led by Oguchi Onyewu and Bedoya, the Union dominated second balls and avoided turnovers in their own half, severely limiting New York’s attack. Here is Sapong winning a loose ball, finding Alberg in close support, and taking off upfield as an option on the break. Sapong could add an angle to his run, but otherwise this is the type of play that fits Curtin’s coaching ethos perfectly.

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Additionally, Philly’s midfield trio was constantly connected, with Alberg dropping in front of Tyler Adams and Bedoya successfully shadowing the Red Bulls outlet to Sacha Kljestan in the Union’s vulnerable right centerback-fullback channel. In fact, Kljestan’s first pass didn’t occur until the 12th minute (though it was a good one that sent Daniel Royer behind Gaddis and earned a corner kick.

Watch below how Alberg keeps his feet moving to end up between Felipe and the ball. Also, look at the shape of the Union midfield — a triangle tight enough that each player can support each other whether they win the ball or lose it.

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A third aspect of the Union’s first half defensive performance that stood out was the aggressive nature of Onyewu’s approach to covering Bradley Wright-Phillips.

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Both of Philly’s center backs were alert to covering space behind the other — an issue BWP has exploited before — and Onyewu took advantage of this cover to step high with the Red Bulls striker throughout the first half.

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Defensive execution is only half the battle, though. Once the Red Bulls got their feet under them after the first ten minutes, the Union were far from a threat going forward and generated only a blocked shot and a stray shot the rest of the half. But that lack of attack should be framed in context: No matter how many times their offense broke down, Philly did not panic. The deep turnovers that fuel Jesse Marsch’s MLS Cup ambitions never occurred.

The Union coaches designed a good plan, and the players executed.

Hipster attack isn’t like other attacks

As good as the Union were early, it must be noted that the Red Bull game plan was rife with hubris. Teams have continually found that attacking the Union’s right is a fruitful endeavor this season. Curtin has switched out the entire defense on that side and shifted defensively responsible winger Chris Pontius over to help, yet opposing teams constantly find more success up that wing than on Fabinho’s side. The fundamental issue is not the individual defenders on the right, but the responsibilities placed on Haris Medunjanin by those attacks. Below, Medunjanin is slow to rotate on a second half move, allowing New York to find Royer in space and attack the Union backline.

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When teams approach the Union right, Bedoya shifts over to help and Alberg should drop to pressure the central outlet and prevent a switch of play. Medunjanin must read and respond to runs off the ball, both protecting the space between the fullback and centerback and ensuring that if the ball is pushed backward, it cannot immediately return through the center as it did against LA. Make no mistake, this is a complex set of decisions. Michael Bradley took a while to figure out his positioning at the base of Toronto’s midfield, and Medunjanin will, similarly, improve with time.

New York, though, chose to go up the Union left for most of the first half. The ostensible goal was to rotate the ball back across field for Kljestan or to throw crosses in for Royer, who is excellent in the air and could battle the diminutive Gaddis.

But when the ball goes up the left side of Philly’s defense, Medunjanin becomes the first midfielder into the fray, and he picks up the deepest free man. This is a comparatively simple set of decisions, and the complex defensive read is left to Bedoya, who made it extremely difficult for Kljestan to get involved with excellent cover shadow of the passing lanes (see below). Meanwhile, Royer’s impatience led him to drift further and further toward the ball, and his runs into the box often paired him with Jack Elliot, a formidable aerial opponent.

Two final points on the first half

First, New Jersey’s Tyler Adams is a huge talent, but his offensive spacing was problematic in this match.

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The Red Bulls often create positional advantages near the ball and use their deepest midfielder — either Adams or Felipe — to exit pressure and rotate to Kljestan. An oft-noted but still under-appreciated key to Jersey’s success over the past few seasons has been the interplay between Felipe and Dax McCarty. Adams is McCarty’s replacement, and he struggled to find the appropriate angles to open space for Felipe to advance while also giving himself room to move the ball out of pressure.

Adams’ struggles were due to the second important point: Roland Alberg’s defensive workrate was unnervingly high. Alberg stayed close and connected to Bedoya and Medunjanin, meaning he was close to Adams and also able to collect loose balls and make quick square or advancing passes out of pressure.

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Alberg’s on-field success has often been a function of goalscoring. On Saturday, he was largely an effort player. And boy, did it make all the difference.

Second half

It’s a bit strange that after controlling play for 45 minutes without scoring the Union seemed to be letting the match slip away when they finally broke through.

The second half can be broken down rather neatly into three 15ish-minute segments. First, the Red Bulls found their identity as a pressing, vertically attacking side and clawed back into the contest. Then Jim Curtin made a pair of injury-enforced substitutions and New York found the space to turn control into big chances. Then, just when it seemed the visitors would break through, Sapong made Aaron Long pay for a bad mistake, Fabian Herbers made a perfect cross, and Derrick Jones’ press-breaking led to a penalty. Along the way, Long whiffed on a chance to redeem himself and Andre Blake used The Force. Because he can do that.  

Red Bull rising

A poor touch from Alberg allowed the Red Bulls to break through Kljestan within the first minute of the second frame.

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Adams was quick to close down the Union’s Dutchman and Kljestan was positioned closer to the ball so he could immediately pick it up and attack. Although his pass was behind Royer, Kljestan’s drive signaled that New York would work to get him on the ball. Furthermore, the play ended with a deep sliding tackle from Bedoya, foreshadowing the incredible amount of defensive work he would put in for the remainder of the match.

Increasingly, the Union’s back line and midfield began to stretch, and the Red Bulls — with Kljestan always around the ball — wrestled away control of midfield space. Additionally, New York was more willing to advance up the Union right, with Royer holding his position and Adams offering more support.

Backline retreats

Following Curtin’s substitutions, the match varied between Red Bulls’ fast attacks behind a looser and less structured midfield (and a swiftly retreating defense) and the Union’s aggressive pressure led by Bedoya in an advanced role.

The defining sequence of the match likely came in the 70th and 71st minutes. It begins with the Red Bulls exiting pressure and advancing up the Union left, much as they had hoped to do throughout the first half. Now, though, Derrick Jones is the near-side holding midfielder and Medunjanin is occupying the role Bedoya held throughout the first hour of the match. Jones shadows the run of Alex Muyl, but Medunjanin doesn’t drop to shadow the lane to Kljestan.

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The New York captain is free through the center and has his shot pushed wide by Blake. This leads to a clearance that is pressured by Sapong and Bedoya. They force a turnover and quickly move the ball to Medunjanin who flights it deep to Pontius. Bedoya’s late run draws Adams and provides Pontius with time to loft a cross to Sapong. Luis Robles does his Andre Blake impression, and the match remains scoreless.

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Union get a break

This play clearly galvanized the Union, but more importantly it put the Red Bulls on their heels. Moments later, Jones would dispossess Kljestan in the New York half, leading to an open look for Pontius. Then, unlike last season when Ken Tribbett’s rookie error gifted Red Bulls the lead, it was Aaron Long’s freshman mistake that put in Sapong for the winner.

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Until Sapong finally made the Union threat real to New York, it seemed as though the visitors would be the first to break through. Kljestan was on the ball far more than in the first half, and his presence near the ball finally gave the Red Bulls the effective pressure in midfield they needed to break Philly down. Jones roamed from left to right, cracking the fragile balance of the Union midfield. When he missed an early tackle on Kljestan, it became apparently how quickly the defensive line was dropping once the Red Bulls were on the ball. This led to a wave of threatening attacks.

But Sapong’s month-long quest to prove he can carry the offense bore more fruit. The striker worked tirelessly off the ball to ensure the Red Bulls struggled to leave congested areas in the first half, and his back pressure put Adams in poor positions as an outlet. In short, his goals were the well-deserved payoff of a long night of work.

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The Union certainly made mistakes — Jones’ enthusiastic dribbling led directly to Blake’s magic trick on BWP’s shot.

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But they also built attacks out of Bedoya’s relentless running, found Medunjanin in advanced positions, and used Pontius’ aerial skill to create chances. It is particularly notable that all four big chances for the Union, including the one Robles’ saved, involved an effort play from Bedoya.

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The captain’s defensive work held things together in the first half, and his energy pushed the team over the finish line. Above, notice how closely this play resembles Curtin’s ideal vision of an attack: Bedoya using his legs to create space, a direct run from the winger, and a midfielder — Medjunjanin! — in the box.

Plenty to build on, plenty to work on

Going forward, Philly still has a lot of work to do. Until the opening goal, Red Bulls seemed more likely to break the deadlock, and it was clear that once they began attacking the right side of Philly’s defense they were more effective overall. This may be why Derrick Jones took up a position to the left of Medunjanin, so he could play the more central role when Elliot and Rosenberry were under pressure. Additionally, the Union still don’t have a clear lineup that can produce both offensive chances and defensive solidity. Although Alberg got off another early shot, his defensive duties largely restricted his contributions on the attacking end. Aside from a few absolutely wonderful passes to get out of pressure, the Dutchman still doesn’t have a great sense of how best to contribute when he’s coming deeper to help (let that be a small quibble held up against a night in which Alberg finally showed he is capable of becoming a more well-rounded contributor).

The Union contained a very good team for 45 minutes by creating a better game plan than their opponents and executing it. They got contributions from the bench, and held a shutout behind the error-free play of a center back that lost his job to a rookie and from the rookie himself. It wasn’t pretty, but it was tough. And it was prideful. And it was a win.

Feels good, right?

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  1. Atomic Spartan says:

    As usual, admirable work in analysis, Adam. I am not worthy…
    Yes, feels good. But as much as I loved singing Doop 6 times in the last 2 home games, my enthusiasm is solidly curbed by facts. Both the away tie at Vancouver and the W vs Pink Cows came vs teams coming off mid-week games. The tie vs LAG was against a certifiably poor side. And 3-3 vs Montreal shows we can still blow a 3 goal home lead vs. another bottom tier team.
    So Saturday was reason for hope. Just as much reason for concern. The U have a lot to prove.

    • The Truth says:

      Yup. I let the ecstasy of the victory last all weekend but looking at the schedule hanging at my desk Monday morning sobered me up.

      • A trip to RFK against a team that is almost as bad as we are, a midweek home game against a good attacking team that may not bring their A squad, a home game against the one team who is worse than us (and who is also on a short rest), and a road game against another team as bad as us?
        That sobered you up? There is real opportunity in the next four games. Granted we’ll probably blow it like usual, but there is real opportunity to be just on the outside of the playoff picture by the end of the month.

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, I just looked at the upcoming scheduled, and the optimist in me see a real chance for serious progress, all the way through the end of June. NYCFC and NYRB are the 2 toughest teams we’ll face, and neither scare me that much. I mean, I’m terrified of David Villa, but they’re not close to indestructible.
        Win the game against DC and there will be cause for legitimate optimism for the next 6-8 weeks.
        (Dammit…now I have hope. Go ahead, Lucy, pull the football…)

      • The Truth says:

        “We’ll probably blow it” is the exact thought process that sobered me up.

  2. pragmatist says:

    Again, just as a way of interpreting a line and thinking of a solution:
    “and Roland Alberg’s desire to receive, rather than make, the final pass.”
    Would we be able to swap CJ and Alberg? CJ is willing to track back to receive a pass and make runs with the ball. If he slides into that False 9 position, he can play to his strengths, while letting Alberg play to his.
    Again…just a thought. But I like the Bruce Arena theory of put players in their natural positions for a greater chance of success. (Odd, huh?)

    • Alberg can only run for 30 minutes because he’s still so outta shape. He should be a sub at the 60 minute mark because he’s spend before halftime when he starts and it kills the team. That said, I would mind seeing Simpson and Sapong out there rotating between our 10 and 9 spots.

    • I think any variation of this argument is a call for a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, which Red Bull used in the Petke days with Henry and BWP. I get the argument, but CJ is not a #10 (though neither, really, is Alberg).

      • pragmatist says:

        Your last sentence is why I was thinking about it. We don’t have a 10, so why not use a guy who will at least check back to the midfield for the ball, instead of running towards the goal the whole time.
        If Simpson and Alberg are the truly redundant players, should we explore CJ as that deep-lying player? He can still work his hold-up magic, and maybe that other guy up top can pull some defenders off him.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Excellent analysis as per the standard Adam.
    Funny when I watch the videos chosen here to highlight parts of the game, can’t get past this….. incessant need to get forward at all costs. Highlights those things Pirlo and Bastien discuss about the running in this league.
    I guess it’s seen the sparks
    No one else
    Would know

    Hey man, slow down
    Slow down
    Idiot, slow down
    Slow down

    Sometimes I get overcharged
    That’s when you
    See sparks
    They ask me where the hell
    I’m going?
    At a thousand feet per second

  4. As stated last week, this looked like a reversion to the mean. The union play was pretty poor and mindless hard work did result in some good luck regarding the goals.No way the Red Bulls are a top team this year. Sad to say, the union still looks like a last placed team. This game accurately reflected what Schweini had to say about the state of MLS in a recent column. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and that is good.

  5. azogD'filer says:

    Good analysis on Alberg. He worked his tail off, and I felt bad he was boo’d when subbed off – yeah, he had a couple of bad passes and a give away, but for a player who lacked defensive chops – he showed well.
    And lets give him a small break. The guy just had his first kid. How many guys out there packed on the pounds as a first time daddy?? I sure as hell did….

    • You weren;t a professional athlete. I’m not giving anyone a break for gaining 20 pounds in an off-season. I’m guessing you don’t get paid $400,000 to be in shape either. I agree he worked hard, but he’s still only a 30 minute player.

  6. Not sure how to do a “fan post” so my apologies for jumping off the reservation.
    Jay Sugarman, while falling asleep thinking about what to get his mom for mothers day, gets visited by the Union ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. They say that the only way for him to avoid Marley’s chains for eternity is to make a purchase equal to the highest paid player in MLS – KAKA @ $7.2M.
    Do you get one player or split between two? Who and why?

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