Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Real Salt Lake 1-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Not many teams win five matches in a row in MLS. Prior to Toronto’s epic six match winning run earlier this year, the last team to win five or more in a row was Orlando City SC way back in late 2015.

But Jim Curtin wanted at least a point when his team visited Salt Lake City, and an unfocused performance left that goal unmet.

To be fair, the major takeaways from the match are how well Real Salt Lake organized defensively and how relentlessly they attacked on the counter. The home side stuck to their game plan with aplomb while the Union became vertical, impatient, and lost the ability to dictate the match to a reeling opponent. Most disappointing for Philly, they had a chance to earn points despite RSL’s numerous good looks at goal.

Play offense with defense in mind

A subtle but consistent aspect of Philly’s play over their return to relevance this season has been the positioning of the midfield in transitions. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the relationship between the Union’s holding midfielders and the connection between them and the attacking mid, but most of the focus has been on the spacing when players drop into their defensive shape.

On Saturday, Philly’s midfield issues occurred further up the pitch, and many were self-generated. Below, you can see how RSL used the spaces between Philly’s lines to counter quickly (you can also see the work Fafa Picault had to do to defend when he was caught central).

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When the Union turned the ball over in the middle third — or when trying to force balls forward — they often found themselves unprepared for RSL’s quick counterattacks. Unlike Colorado’s successful counters, RSL did not get behind Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin very often, but they were far more successful at creating space in the center as they broke forward. Luis Silva — preferred to more traditional center forward Yura Movsisyan — dropped off the center backs or pushed them deep, depending on the numbers behind him. Luke Mulholland provided late runs through the middle when Albert Rusnak drifted out of the center to provide support to the wide areas (usually the right). In this way, Salt Lake consistently created numerical advantages in the center and then on the wings when they attacked.

Philly was often unable to deal with these counters because they were poorly positioned to snuff out the transitions. Transition defense is strongly affected by a) numbers around the ball and b) pressure on the ball immediately after a turnover.

The Union’s straight passes forward in the middle (a classic Curtin no-no) allowed RSL to quickly close on the ball from multiple sides and then use bodies around the play to break the Union’s initial pressing and get forward. On the edges, poor decision-making (e.g., continually returning the ball to whence it came) and low levels of support through the center meant RSL could again get forward with ease after trapping the Union deep.

Philly was also below their recent standards pressing the ball off turnovers. Past matches have shown how difficult the Union can be to break down when they quickly attack the ball following a miscue in the attacking half. This forces the opposition to send the ball back to the Union or play it deep and build slowly.

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On Saturday, the secondary support players were particularly slow to close down passing lanes, which meant RSL was able to work out of trouble deep in their own half. Below, you can see the Union in position to force a quick ‘n ugly clearance after Bedoya attacks in the box, but a lack of defensive pressure from the support around the ball means RSL can clear the danger.

A broad way of thinking about these issues is by examining how offense and defense should connect positionally. A primary driver of Barcelona’s move to the short, quick passing moves that became euphemistically known as tiki-taka was the role that style of passing played in their defensive strategy. By focusing on short passes, Barca always had bodies around the ball to receive a pass, but they also had bodies to quickly apply counterpressure should a pass go awry. The Union’s attacking shape was not conducive to their desire to press. In the clip below…

The right is alright

Notably, the home side did not disguise their intentions going forward: The ball was usually headed to the right. There are likely two reasons for this plan. First, Jefferson Savarino’s strength is in the counterattack and he’s more of a wide attacker than Joao Plata. Second, going up the right was aimed at undermining Fafa Picault’s penchant for sliding inside in attack.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one can give Savarino is that he played a match Jim Curtin would love (if it wasn’t against his team). Savarino worked hard to track and cover Picault’s runs, performing a necessary duty with Tony Beltran rabidly pushing forward from right back. In the attacking third, Savarino and Beltran spaced well on the wing, drawing Medunjanin over and creating a huge hole between Fabinho and Oguchi Onyewu, who was reluctant to leave the center. Below, you can see Rusnak’s big chance as he moves into space between Onyewu and Fabinho.

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Savarino’s work on the right meant Plata could slip in and out of the middle, casting fear into the hearts of the big central defenders who wanted no part of a player that moves like a well-compensated water spider. Just watch how Onyewu responds to Plata’s movement on RSL’s goal: He backs off and gives space despite the proximity to goal.

Exploiting Picault’s desire to move central and run in behind provided more opportunities for the home side down the right. When RSL counterattacked, Beltran immediately loaded himself into an invisible slingshot and flung himself up the pitch. Picault put in hard running to recover, but there was clearly an extra burden on the winger that didn’t trouble him during Philly’s win streak. As the match wore on, he was slower to track back, and you can see him catching his breath instead of moving into the passing lane on RSL’s goal.

Sunny days without Beckerman

Kyle Beckerman’s suspension brought hope that the Union could find space through the middle against Real Salt Lake. They rarely did, however, because Sunny proved an excellent replacement in a holding role.

Somewhat ironically, Sunny’s performance echoed the fairly glorious showings Derrick Jones has been putting in for the US Men’s U-20 squad in the current World Cup. Jones entered the lineup following Gedion Zelalem’s injury and has been protecting the back four ever since. Although both Jones and Sunny are capable of covering a huge amount of ground, their current roles require them to rely more on their intelligence and quick closing speed. Sunny rarely left the center of the pitch on Saturday, but he didn’t get caught chasing runners into the back line, nor was he dragged toward the wings. His primary responsibility was making sure anybody that received the ball in a dangerous area could not turn and create a chance, and he was eminently successful.

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Sunny’s job was made easier by Philly’s suspect midfield spacing. Bedoya was often positioned deeper than normal as he sought to help on Plata, and RSL’s quick pressure on the ball made it more difficult than normal for the Union to pick up Medunjanin. There were multiple instances — including on the play just before RSL scored — when the Union had the chance to rotate the ball and find their creative hub in space, but they rushed play or looked to go forward when patience was the better choice.

Switches get stitches?

For all the little positional glitches that prevented the Union from controlling the match, the clearest was the dearth of switches to open the field.

In the past few matches, Philly created triangles on the wings and used that possession to find space and switch the ball. Finding a free man in space on the far side is such a useful tactic for the Union because it forces the defense to drop and re-organize. Making the midfield drop is so important because Philly utilizes a deep playmaker. Whereas other teams may drop and compress space to force the opposing playmaker deeper, the Union have the benefit of building attacks with their creator in a deep role, ready to threaten with angled aerial balls or deep passes into corners. As much as the Union have missed a true creator high up the pitch, they have found more success by building attacks push teams deep and allow Medunjanin to run the offense. 

Below, you can see Ilsinho receive the ball in a good position to move the ball central to Medunjanin. However, he’s quickly pressured and chooses a more direct pass. This highlights how both Philly’s lack of conviction in looking for Medunjanin and RSL’s quick pressing affected the Union’s ability to control the flow of the match.

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On Saturday, Philly rarely combined effectively on the wings to open enough space for switches of play. Medunjanin only found time for two longer passes between the 25th and 80th minutes, and Jack Elliot didn’t attempt a long diagonal until the final fifteen minutes of the match. Notably, Medunjanin’s long balls were quite effective, but only because they were unnervingly perfect. The Union were less driven to find their creator than in past matches, and it showed in how often they looked to advance the ball rather than find their hub and play through him. 

Last week, Colorado attempted to lock the Union on the wings, but once their strikers tired the Rapids could not prevent Philly from playing the ball back and rotating it. RSL did a far better job of controlling these switches of play.

Next up: Bigger and better

Philly faces NYC FC next. One key aspect of the Sky Blues’ gameplan is finding David Villa in the left channel. Conspicuously, this is the same area that RSL found the most — almost all, in fact — of their shooting spaces. Though they took long shots, Salt Lake often took them under minimal pressure which allowed them to make Blake work. Luckily, the Union have a goalie who can handle that kind of action. But can he do it twice in a row? And this time against a far more potent attack?

Hopefully, the Union won’t need to find out. A renewed commitment to pressing up top and more patience going forward should return Philly to their stout defensive ways. Then they just need to put a couple past NYC’s suspect defenses.


  1. Of course, if we don’t have Medunjanin for that match (in addition to not having Bedoya and Jones), we’re not putting anything past anybody’s defenses.

  2. Adam Schorr says:

    There was one stretch of play, I want to say it was the 64th or 65th minute, where the Union held possession for a good 90 seconds, in which they completed about 20 passes, none of which were in the final third, none of which accomplished anything, and then they turned the ball over. Don’t know whether it was RSL’s D or our O or what, but it was brutal.

  3. I wonder how much of the Union’s generally failing to build out of the back this year is because of the absence of Yaro and Rosenberry – players who are good on the ball going forward and are really comfortable with each other after playing 4yrs of college ball together.
    While both Gaddis and the Sunrocket can sprint up the sidelines with the best of them if they have empty space, our only reliable path to actually playing out of the back right now is Mendunjanin. The opposition shuts him down, they shut down us playing out.
    There has been a lot said about how Rosenberry allows more goals than Gaddis, but I would think that a series of triangles based on Elliot, Yaro, Rosenberry, Bedoya, Mendunjan could work the ball out of the back at will.
    I know you can’t lose if you don’t concede, but you can’t win if you don’t score – and we all know that the best teams tend to get their rest when they have possession.

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