Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Union 1-0 DC United

Photo: Earl Gardner

Saturday’s win over DC United was a big stress reliever for Philadelphia Union. The positives: Andre Blake, Fafa Picault, the center backs, Ale Bedoya. The negatives: Late match game control (heck, game control throughout), the ever-widening space between Giliano Wijnaldum and Picault, inconsistent pressure from the front four.

But the biggest issue to highlight is clear: The Union continue to have a gaping hole in the number 10 position.

More from the 10

Kevin Kinkead did a deep dive into the Union’s lack of production from that spot, and Ilsinho took Saturday’s match as a chance to say, ‘Wait, there’s more.’

In Jim Curtin’s system, the attacking midfielder does not necessarily need to put up big numbers. Tranquillo Barnetta’s five goals and four assists in 2016 are relatively miniscule, particularly on a team that averaged over 1.5 goals/game. But Barnetta was an attention-magnet. His curled runs behind the midfield, his angled cuts into the channels, this was the motion that drew defenders and created space for the Union to generate offense through their wingers.

This year, Philly has focused on building from deep when possible, rotating the ball until Haris Medunjanin pops free and plays the pass the opens up the pitch. Although this has been effective, and Medunjanin has proven to be a quarterback that can pick apart MLS defenses, the Union continue to to control matches that they should, by all rights, control.

Pep Guardiola’s teams have become known for big possession numbers. Particularly the early Barcelona teams that could pass so effectively in small spaces that they seemed to be acting as if they had transcended the whole plebeian notion of attacking a goal.

But Guardiola’s emphasis on retaining the ball was really about two things: Moving the other team, and keeping the ball far from his own goal. Barca’s passing was short because when a short pass goes awry, a press can quickly win the ball back, or at least force a clearance. It was also short because it had to be: Everyone on the team seemed to be around the ball (except that player on the far side, waiting for the switch of play to attack, of course).

As if it needs to be said: The Union are not heyday-era Barcelona. But they could take some lessons from that team on how to kill off matches. Philly entered June with only three goals conceded in the final 15 minutes of 2017, the last being Anthony Jackson-Hamel’s deflating tying goal for Montreal on April 22.

This month, the Union gave up four goals total. All of them in the final ten minutes of the game. And if not for a save of the week stunner from Andre Blake, it would be five goals (and a single point in June).

And here is where Barcelona and the number 10 position come together. DC United was always going to press for an equalizer late in Saturday’s match. But that does not mean the match necessarily had to turn into the relatively open contest it became. Philly, at home, needed to control the ball. And they needed to control it in DC’s half. They very much needed a number 10.

A number 10 has the freedom to drift around and create overloads near the final third. This can lead to chances on goal, but it can also simply establish extended possessions in the attacking half and draw a midfield deep so it can’t stay in Haris Medunjanin’s grill late in games. Additionally, that drifting pulls a defense’s shape apart, and disrupting shape is not only a good attacking tactic, but it can also make transitions less fluid going the other way when players aren’t where teammates expect them to be. Thus, Philly’s lack of an attacking hub ahead of Medunjanin is about more than the scoring and creation issues Kevin details: It’s also about controlling play. Because the truth is that DC United does not have the personnel to be putting so much pressure on goal late in an away match.

The ironic part of this is that Roland Alberg didn’t do a bad job when he found the ball in the late stages of the match Saturday. He connected passes and even created an opportunity at the top of the box. But Alberg and Ilsinho are both very bad at controlling tempo. They are attackers, and they are thinking about how to move the ball toward goal, even if it means making a risky pass. Late in the game, however, this is not what Philly wants. They need to keep the ball and create superior numbers in small areas high up the pitch — Barcelona style. Pull the defense in, play around, play out, recycle, and back in again. In these situations, the 10 is the key of the 4-2-3-1.

Medunjanin and Bedoya need to be in safe positions, with Bedoya looking for spaces to step forward. This leaves the 10 and Sapong to operate in the center, moving into the channels to create triangles, maintaining possession at all costs, and allowing Philly to move the entire team forward and exert the kind of pressure that a) Keeps the ball far from their own net, and b) Taxes the legs of the opponent. For a number 10, it is not just about being able to make the special throughpass. Below, Ilsinho plays simple and quick after moving into space. The result is both fun to watch and generally positive.

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The role is about moving in a way that allows you and everyone around you to make simple, low risk passes when that is what the game calls for. No other player has the same kind of freedom to control rhythm late in a match. The Union need somebody in that role who can capitalize on that freedom and help them finish off games.

Kemp as the key

During most of Saturday’s match, both teams were concerned with Taylor Kemp. DC United looked to build through Kemp early, hoping to free up the fullback’s prodigious left foot to attack the Union box. Philly responded by freeing up Giliano Wijnaldum up their left, but neither side looked like settling into a rhythm.

This changed when DC began pinning Wijnaldum deep by playing through Steve Birnbaum and rolling Luciano Acosta into the right channel. Oguchi Onyewu’s reticence to move out of the center meant DC could occasionally free up Acosta and try to get behind Wijnaldum. The key to these moves was Fafa Picault’s defensive positioning. When Picault shadowed the passing lane into the channel, Birnbaum would play wide to rookie Chris Odoi-Atsem or back across the field to Kofi Opare (if the Union could choose, they would want Opare on the ball over Birnbaum every time).

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When Picault jumped the gun and initiated a trap on Odoi-Atsem too early, however, Birnbaum could play through the lines and make Philly vulnerable. As the first half wore on, DC began rotating the ball back around to the left where Kemp had more space to move forward. And that created opportunities for Philly.

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A strange, nagging issue for the Union this season has been finding ways to use the space vacated by Picault when he moves central. Both Fabinho and Wijnaldum have been hesitant to step up into that space and leave Onyewu isolated, so it can become something of a dead zone when Picault is inside. On the right, however, the wide space has been a fertile ground for attacks, and that was particularly true on Saturday.

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The formidable danger residing in Taylor Kemp’s left boot is real, but so is the fullback’s lack of top end speed and his right-side partner Opare’s positional naivete. Whenever the Union could, they looked to transition behind Kemp on Saturday, and it was a very good plan. Matt Doyle pointed out Ale Bedoya moving into that space before his assist, and while it was a good read by Bedoya, it was also part of the Union’s plan all night. CJ Sapong found that he was able to peel off Opare with absurd ease, and this meant he could turn and run at the defense with regularity. Notably, teams exploited Philly in a similar way earlier in Jim Curtin’s career, pulling the fullbacks off the back line then playing into the space they left.

Good but not great

Andre Blake’s sixth shutout of the year required him to stand on his head on a penalty and again in extra time. But he did it, and the Union are tied with NYCFC for the fifth best defensive record in MLS, behind only playoff locks Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, and KC. This is good.

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However, the Union’s second shot on target on Saturday came in the 73rd minute. This is not good. It is, unfortunately, something of a microcosm of the Union’s home form. Only Philly, DC, San Jose, and LA have dropped points in at least five home matches, and each of those teams has difficulty controlling play at home. It should make Union coaches and fans a bit uneasy to reflect that they just got a very good away win at home, but that’s exactly what happened.

To improve in the future, the Union need to — as outlined above — exert more control over home matches. This means finding ways to establish and hold possession in the opponent’s half and creating more shooting opportunities without relying exclusively on transitions. Also, the 10 needs to be more defensively responsible. In the clip above, Ilsinho does not shadow Harkes and as a result DC can quickly switch fields and attack up the left.

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Finally, Giliano Wijnaldum’s second start of the season was also good but not great. The Dutch defender looked excellent over the first fifteen minutes, but once DC began probing up his side, he was pushed deep and stayed deep. Timing runs forward is likely something that can develop with time, so it will be interesting to see whether Wijnaldum gets an extended run behind Fafa Picault. Certainly, Wijnaldum’s strength and passing precision are superior to Fabinho, but he is not as aggressive as the Brazilian. In one phase of play around the 60th minute on Saturday, Wijnaldum sat so far off his man that he might as well have been his caddy and pointed to which player to pick out in the box. Again, this is something that could improve with time, and it is good to see that Wijnaldum is aware of Onyewu’s mobility limitations and understands he has a large amount of space to account for on his side.

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Overall, Saturday’s match was likely a good indicator of where the Union are at this moment of the season. They have created a solid defense with hard-working wing play and the ability to transition with speed and danger. However, they lack the ability to regularly punish teams because their attacking midfielder is a bad decision-maker and consistently inconsistent passer. This means they rarely assert themselves on an opponent and instead allow themselves to get in positions where mistakes happen close to goal and a lot of hard work can be undone in an instant.

This is fixable with coaching and strategy. The problems at attacking midfield? It seems as though everyone at the club is coming around to the idea that the answer might not be on the roster (though Bethlehem fans: Feel free to drop Najem love in the comments).

Also, this, below, is a foul.

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No, really.

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21 Comments

  1. This is Phil says:

    CJ’s game is so so good. And I hate players that draw fouls. But I can’t help think that if CJ “sold it” a little more, refs would be more willing to give him calls he seems to never get.

    • It was odd listening to Taylor Twellman act as though Fanendo Adi is in a class by himself in terms of not getting calls Sunday night… Sapong struggles to get many of the same whistles.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I thought the exact same thing. If I were CJ I would ask for a meeting to find out why exactly I have to be fouled 4-5 times before the first one is called?

  2. Yup to the #10 issue. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before… Yup to the C.J. foul and lack of call.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I think that last video is much closer to a correct non call than many are making it out to be. It’s almost shoulder to shoulder and I think most refs would be hesitant about calling it a PK with the man running away from goal.
    .
    Whether or not that should have been a foul, I think the bigger question is what the Union were going to do with the ball once CJ received it. Let’s say for a minute that there had been no contact. CJ would have received the ball about 10 yards from the end line while heading towards the corner with a man on him. Would he have really been able to turn and do something with it to create a chance on goal? My thought is that he wouldn’t have done anything useful (maybe try to kick it off the opponent for a corner but more likely either given it away or passed it back), and the Union would have squandered a decent opportunity. To me Bedoya would have been better off either shooting, or trying to pass to someone running towards the net, such as Ilsinho or Fafa, rather than to CJ.

    • I agree it was almost directly between his shoulders. Come on, that’s a foul. I do agree that we most likely would have wasted the chance if CJ got it clean though.

    • It’s not the shoulder so much as his right foot that steps in front of CJ’s left.

    • To me that was clearly a foul, the DC player was behind CJ and made no effort whatsoever to go for the ball. He just flattened Sapong. Hard to know exactly what would have happened, but there were four other players in on the attack – Pontius was outside, largely unmarked for an easy outlet; and Ilsinho, Bedoya and Picault were all able to make runs across the top of the box.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      The direction that the player is running doesn’t enter into the decision to award a PK or not. If that were the case, PK’s wouldn’t be given when an attacker pokes the ball to the outside of the keeper to get around him on a chance and gets tripped.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      My point here wasn’t to argue whether it should have been a PK or not. It was to show that if reasonably defended, it was a poorly chosen pass as it was leading Sapong away from the goal and away from his teammates.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Fair enough, but when you have defenders running back and facing their own goal, many possibilities open up

  4. I was watching a few weeks ago–forget the exact game–but the defensive plan was to foul CJ and pray not get called for it. And it works. Like 60% of the time. It is ridiculous. Ludicrous even. It has become an effective way of playing CJ out of the game. He should have more space to play because he uses his body so well. except he doesnt because teams dont respect that the refs are going to do their jobs.

    • It works because besides the fact we don’t get every call we whine for, teams realize CJ is about as un-dangerous a striker the MLS has, so they let him run into the midfield or sideline to sideline and tap him on the soldier and they know he falls. Even if we do get a free kick out of it, 80% of the time it’s a back pass to Gaddis and then Blake anyway.

      I know I sound harsh, but come on I want a striker who is known for things like scoring goals and stinging the GK’s hands. Here we are worrying about why our Striker isn’t getting that free kick call 40 yards from the goal.

      • 40 yards from goal..HUH? Measurements aren’t you’re strong suit.

      • Clearly I didn’t mean this one example. I meant in general, game to game, CJ roams a lot and is rarely in the box enough to actually be a dangerous striker.

  5. For a hold up striker, CJ goes to the carpet. Frequently. He’s also got size on most of the opponents who are sometimes legitimately fouling him, but I don’t know if most of these instances he’s actually getting knocked off his feet. It’s an interesting comment from those that suggest CJ “sell” it more. I’d prefer he’d give as good as he gets and play equally tough, so that when he goes down it is rare and of cause. I also suspect that this is not his nature and at this stage cannot be taught. Curious if anyone disputes this theory, and if so, how?

    • Zizouisgod says:

      If a foul is committed, then it should be given. Who can judge whether a player “should have” stayed on his feet in that situation and whether that should even be considered in the referee’s decision-making process?

      • You can argue a handful of foul calls every single game. The fact is most teams move on and don’t care because they dont have a striker who relies on needing those calls to make an impact.

        I’d rather not be the team that worries more about foul calls after every game than the fact our striker is barely ever in the box being a danger.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        James – That’s a load of nonsense, but hey, enjoy the weather.

  6. I thought it was very strange when Curtin put Alberg in in a match when we were up by a goal for just the reasons you mention: he is exactly NOT the guy help you keep possession and kill off a game. The more sensible move would’ve been to push Bedoya up to the #10 spot and bring in someone else at the #8. But then I realized that Warren Creavalle was not in the 18 — we had Ken Tribbett instead. Anybody know what the deal was with Creavalle??

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