Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Union 2-1 Colorado Rapids

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Last season, Philly and Colorado met when both teams were atop their respective conferences. A chilly draw ensued, and the Union never regained their early season form. Though the Rapids finished second in the west, both clubs were ineffective in the postseason and looked to retool for 2017.

Early returns have been decidedly mixed for the Union but trending far more negative for last weekend’s visitors. A 3-0 win over San Jose remains the Rapids’ only points accumulated since week three, and it was clear why last Saturday. Colorado opened the scoring on what would be their only shot on target of the match, bringing them even with D.C. United at the bottom of MLS’ team scoring chart.

Mastroeni’s middle-clogging 4-4-2

The most interesting aspect of Colorado’s tactical setup was the play of their front two. Caleb Calvert and Kevin Doyle had to carry the majority of the attacking load while also putting in a lot of defensive work. Below, you can see Doyle track Ale Bedoya into midfield while Axel Sjoberg sprints out of the back line to follow C.J. Sapong. Also keep an eye on Josh Gatt sliding all the way over to keep an eye on Haris Medunjanin.

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The Rapids’ wingers tracked deep into their own half to prevent the Union from creating wide overloads, but this meant the strikers were often operating alone when clearances relieved pressure.

Early on, Doyle and Calvert got the better of the Union. One challenged for aerial balls while the other sought to find space behind Philly’s midfield. When this happened, the Rapids quickly ran at the home back line and hoped for a mistake to open enough space for a chance.

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This is how Colorado scored, and it’s how they created nearly every other half-chance in the opening frame.

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Defensively, Colorado asked one striker to pressure the ball — preferably forcing Philly to their left — while the other dropped deeper and sought to quickly press any vertical passes in front of the midfield line, which played significantly deeper than the front two. If the Union played a first pass into the center of midfield, Michael Azira or Sam Hamilton would step up to push the next pass wide while a striker sped over to provide on-ball pressure. Additionally, Colorado attempted to hold a line 5-10 yards above their own box, collapsing the attacking space Philly had available.

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The main goal appeared to be forcing the Union to play into traps on the wings. Particularly over the first half hour of the match, but generally over the first hour, the Rapids were quite effective dividing the Union attacking play into thirds. Any balls down the middle were forced back and wide, and everything down either wing was trapped by an aggressive fullback, a retreating wing, and both central midfielders. Axel Sjoberg also had license to roam as far as necessary out of the back line tracking C.J. Sapong, further eliminating the Union’s ability to get off one side once they advanced down it. Below, you can see the wing trap in action. The Rapids bring lots of bodies — including both strikers — into the defensive work.

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Jim Curtin’s men struggled mightily to deal with this disciplined system. Ilsinho, who had been so effective in his two previous outings in the middle, was never afforded space to turn and run at the defense (particularly since the Rapids only sent more than four men forward unless absolutely necessary). Once the Union played the ball to a fullback, the Rapids got tight to Philly’s near-side winger and brought a striker over to cover the Union’s nearest central player. In this way, they continually forced the home side to recycle the ball, and the highest striker worked to make the Union drop play as deep as possible, giving the visitors time to shift across the pitch.

The most obvious issue with this defensive system is that it leaves huge gaps through the middle since both central midfielders move relatively tight to the sideline. To prevent any late runners from having a free run at the defense, the Rapids shifted their far side winger into the center and positioned him quite deep. Below you can see Mo Saied sprint over to press the pass off the wing into the middle.

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This meant there was very little width in Colorado’s transitions, but also that the Union were left without an outlet from the wing aside from a deep negative pass.

The second clear issue was that the strikers were being asked to put in yeoman’s work racing deep to press any vertical passes, and they also had to move tight to the sidelines to cover Medunjanin and Bedoya.

The Union spent much of the first half recycling play, looking for an early diagonal that would allow attacks to develop before the Rapids could shift. Passing charts from Philly’s attackers show just how effective Colorado was at placing early pressure on the ball so the Union could not find runs behind the fullbacks.

That was the third issue for the Rapids: By trapping on the wings, they tended to break their back four and leave a hole to the outside of the central defenders. The Union spent the first half probing but unable to find connections that opened that space. Ilsinho and Sapong should have been curling into that zone, daring the center backs to follow them wide and further open the center, but instead they gave support square and Colorado filled those passing lanes with relative ease. Below is one instance in which the Union did manage to attack space behind the fullback and let Giliano Wijnaldum show off a cultured left foot.

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The visitors were assisted in the first half by the, let’s say, physical nature of the match. Referee Jose Carlos Rivera refused to believe that a slender stick like Axel Sjoberg could haul down brawny C.J. Sapong. Sjoberg made it his mission to prove the referee wrong, draping himself around the Union striker and resorting to early tugs whenever Sapong rounded him. Multiple times, Sapong looked to have earned a foul with good movement but found himself on the ground with the only whistles emanating from an increasingly frustrated crowd.

A final reason the Union struggled to break down the Rapids in the first half was the play and early exit of Fabian Herbers. The winger is at his best cutting in from the touchline and combining to create numerical advantages behind the opposition midfield. He did this early, but his touch — which has tended to come and go during his early MLS career — let him down. His injury replacement, Chris Pontius, stayed wider and offered less of a dynamic threat coming inside.

In the second half, the Union made two adjustments that helped them grow into the match. First, the fullbacks became more aggressive going forward, requiring the Rapids’ wings to be even more disciplined tracking them or risk letting them run free into space behind the defense. Below, Wijnaldum’s early, deep run moves the fullback deep and Ilsinho curls into the half-space behind Colorado’s midfield.

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Second, Ilsinho and Sapong made a concerted effort to support buildups in wide areas by looking to attack space behind the opposition fullbacks. Below, Sapong’s move toward the space behind the fullback draws Azira a few steps toward the touchline, opening a passing lane that allows Philly to escape a potential wing trap.

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These minor changes allowed the Union were finding outlets when the Rapids collapsed on them out wide.

These tweaks helped, but Philly also benefited from the inevitable tiring of the Rapids’ front line. Calvert and Doyle could no longer make extended sprints across the formation, and Haris Medunjanin found more time on the ball deep in the half-spaces. As he began orchestrating attacks, the Union grew in dominance, and their 67th minute penalty was a just reward for their generally patient but increasingly vertical play.

Of course, the match became even more one-sided once Calvert was sent off for not listening to the teacher. Calvert attempted to re-enter the field without Rivero’s permission twice, and received a caution and a sending off for his troubles. From that point on, Colorado attempted four passes deeper than the halfway circle in the Union’s half, and their only shot was Michael Azira’s wayward strike from a non-threatening distance (Azira is no David Villa).

Individual notes

Ilsinho continued to show a renewed commitment to defensive work in the center. His sprinting created pressure that forced the Rapids to play backwards, and he continued to do it as part of a group pressing mindset instead of simply solo running.

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Above, Ilsinho’s pressing helps create a turnover, but it also allows Bedoya to stay deeper and ensure the ball-carrier can’t escape forward. Furthermore, it means Philly has bodies around the ball following the turnover, allowing them to attack before the Rapids can set their defense.

Giliano Wijnaldum’s debut proved to be a bit of a mixed bag, though the fullback grew into his role as Philly increasingly turned the match one-sided. Curtin’s post-match praise for Wijnaldum focused on some very clear positives, and there were quite a few. The crosses sent in were hard, curling, and accurate, and Wijnaldum’s feet look to be generally secure and quick.

Union fans will need to see what the Dutchman grows into, because he showed a bit of hesitancy in key areas where Philly needs contributions from the fullback role. For instance, Wijnaldum was hesitant to attack on the dribble and largely conservative in his passing off the wing. With Rapids’ right back Mike da Fonte on an early caution, Wijnaldum might have attacked a bit more to put pressure on the fullback. For a debut, though, the returns point to a heap of potential.

The issues Wijnaldum had were mostly defensive. Below you can see him get caught without an assignment after a long ball. This is partially a communications issue, since Onyewu could indicate where he is going and direct Wijnaldum to shadow the passing lane to the other attacker. But the Union fullback should either pressure the ball quickly or drop off to allow Onyewu to return to the center. He does neither, but his athleticism saves him in the end.

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Another worrying moment came on the break when Wijnaldum was fooled by Gatt’s intelligent cut inside. If Calvert is slightly more patient on the ball, he can send Gatt through once the winger has broken inside of the Union fullback.

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Still, the overall returns for Wijnaldum were promising. And given that Philly operated most of last season with Ray Gaddis covering both fullback roles, the Dutchman provides good depth and mouth-watering potential to grow into a possession-oriented wide player.

Those calls…

C.J. Sapong needs to get some calls. Jose Carlos Rivero was embarrassingly blind to the Rapids’ clear plan to bully Sapong until somebody made them stop. That somebody should have been the man with the whistle.

First, let’s look at one of the moments when Axel Sjoberg attempts the rarely-seen and overly affectionate hug-on-the-run defense with Rivero directly behind him.

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Sometimes Colorado went with the Classic Bulldozer, which Rivero also deemed entirely within the laws of the game.

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Alright, need a pick me up?

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That helped. And now we can all, like Conor Casey, head off to start the rest of our week.

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  1. Honestly, the Union could have been at least level at the break if it wasnt for Rivero allowing colorado to continue their treatment of Sapong. Sapongs ability to hold up posession creates space for Ilsinho and well Ilsinho has proven to be a deft passer with space.

  2. ebradlee10 says:

    The Union need to send a tape of Sapong muggings to New York. It’s getting ridiculous.

  3. Fascinating. Now I understand why Colorado was so painful to play against.

    Thanks so much for all the hard work that goes into something like this.

  4. The Truth says:

    Wasn’t able to watch, looks hard fought. Happy with the 3pts, grateful for the PK/redcard luck.

    • There was nothing lucky about the PK. The defended basically laid down and grabbed the ball. Honestly that probably should have been a red card.

      • The Truth says:

        I’m not sure you understand what I mean. I’m not commenting on the validity of the infraction, I’m only noting it is lucky for it to have happened inside the box and to have had a scoring opportunity from such an advantageous position. The same infraction anywhere else on the pitch would not have given the Union’s equalizer chances better odds.

  5. That, was a “playoff” win. Colorado did their best to bunker in and just be a bunch of giant tools, but the Union took advantage of 2 great opportunities and found a way to win. In the past this team’s role was reversed – they were the one clinging to leads only to see them slip away to a better team – but they are slowly becoming the better team, finding ways to win no matter the situation. Good on them, keep up the doopin’ work!

  6. I was at the match in section 107, screaming my head off at the ref for the continued assaults he allowed on Sapong. (It took all my willpower to not use profanity, what with all the kids around including my own.) Is there, seriously, anything the Union can do about this? It is getting utterly ridiculous seeing this week after week. Part of me is infuriated that Colorado would play like this, but on the other hand, a last place time, on the road, seeing how everyone else gets away with it, you can hardly blame them.

    Assuming this doesn’t change, I think Curtin is going to have to get smart and start giving Simpson some spot starts just so the opposition can’t automatically base a game plan around Sapong Battery.

    • I think Sapong has to take a foul on one play, then loop behind the CB on the next similar play and do the same thing to him. Then complain like crazy when they call the foul on him.

  7. Tim Jones says:

    Appreciate the detailed break down on Wijnaldum. They chose a good opportunity to evaluate his progress, as Colorado’s shape and personnel were not especially threatening to him.
    We would all like to see Adam Najem given a similar evaluation.
    His absence from the Steel is clear in its impact.

    • HopkinsMD says:

      He exceeded my expectations, mostly because of what he brought on the attack (navigating out of a jam and beating the defender).
      Expectations had been set as a result of seeing him live and in person against HCI, plus the observations you have shared over the last couple of months.

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