Tactical Analysis

Tactical quick hits: Philadelphia Union 3-0 Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

And just like that, Philadelphia Union are out of their slump.

Twenty-seven shots — including an in-game contest between Marcus Epps and C.J. Sapong to see who could make the right post tap out first — point to a Union side that was determined to be aggressive even at the expense of leaving space in back for counterattacks.

And that’s fine.

Playing at home after struggling to create opportunities on the road, Philly needed to play with confidence and aggression even if it meant losing a bit of defensive solidity. The fullbacks pushed into attack, the center backs carried the ball forward, and both wings looked for chances to break behind the Columbus wingbacks and challenge the Crew’s three (then two) central defenders.

Although Philly continued to struggle picking up Columbus’ attacking midfielders early, once they went up a man and evened up the battle in wide areas, Jack Elliott and Oguchi Onyewu were more willing to stay tight to the midfield and prevent Justin Meram and Kekuta Manneh from turning and running at the defense.

Getting out of the back

A huge issue for the Union last Saturday was moving the ball beyond the first line of defense. Columbus used three front players to either match up on Elliott, Yaro, and Medunjanin, or they used two players high and a third to sit in deep passing lanes and trap a fullback. Both approaches were incredibly successful at preventing the Union from playing through the center since Philly was not challenging the Crew deep and allowed the home side’s back line to creep forward and compress space.

Wednesday was far different. The Union rotated both deep-lying midfielders in front of Columbus’ first line of pressure, which created an extra man through which to play out of the back. Additionally, Ale Bedoya quickly pushed forward when the ball moved up the right and provided the support that finally, mercifully, gave Philly a chance to hold the ball in the Crew’s half.

While this went on, Marcus Epps was busy looking for opportunities to push high on the left, looking to occupy the spaces Fafa Picault takes up, but then using his technical skill to attack on the dribble.

In short, the Union were proactive by returning to the fundamentals of the system that has been most effective for them this season, but they also let the players available be themselves. Playing at home can do a lot for confidence going forward, but falling back on the system when the going gets tough is the best way to overcome a lull in form. Philly did it well, even if they didn’t have to do it too long with even numbers.

A fight for the width

Not only did the Union challenge the Crew for control of the wide areas from the start, they did it with speed and continued to do it throughout the first half hour.

Pushing into deep areas is crucial against a three-back system because it creates numerous problems for the defensive structure. When a wingback is pulled wide, does the central defender slide over to help? Does a central midfielder drop deep? Pulling the attacking midfielders back removes the transition target, so Columbus was left protecting the box and giving Philly 1v1s that Epps and Ilsinho took to with aplomb.

Still plenty of room to grow

Even up a man, the Union were easily attacked with long, angled balls out of the back line. Will Trapp was particularly adept at playing low balls across the formation when one of the Crew’s attacking midfielders pulled Medunjanin out of the center. Meram would force Medunjanin to shadow his lane in a channel, and this allowed Manneh to slide into spaces behind a retreating Bedoya. Philly responded by aggressively stepping out of the back line…at times. But when they were slow to respond, Columbus would throw a wingback forward and quickly find loads of space behind the Union defense.

The key to closing off these plays — and it is a key Philly will need to remember when they face Toronto again — is handing off the first player so the Union’s central midfielders can remain, well, central. As Meram exits the middle, Medunjanin needs to know that somebody else is stepping to him so he can abandon his shadow and remain in a covering role until Bedoya is back in position.


The Union were aggressive, physical, and stuck to their plan even after the Crew’s dangerous breakouts could have led the home side to sit back. After generating two shots in a match, that’s what needs to be done. Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether Philly remains physical without going over the line. For the second straight match, the Union were lucky that Bedoya was not handed a caution (he picked up a third foul in the first half after being warned that another would lead to a card…then he grabbed a fourth less than ten minutes into the second half). If Bedoya gets suspended, the Union will need to show that a player like Derrick Jones can come in and not just play a role but excel the way Marcus Epps did Wednesday, rebounding from a whimper of a match over the weekend.


  1. Tim Jones says:

    I think the avoidance of cards has something to do with Elfath’s style of refereeing.
    I think it worth mentioning apropos of that that Elfath was the referee in the first VAR experimental game last season with the Red Bulls 2 being at home, by memory. He has had the longest to get his head around the fact that his evaluators now include a fellow ref in the booth during a game.
    That might have come into play on both red cards.

  2. Spot on as usual, Adam. I always appreciate your assessments.

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