Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: New England Revolution 3-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

Last week, Philadelphia Union were soundly beaten in the wide areas by Columbus, then used their wing play to effectively turn the tables on the Crew. Jay Heaps watched both games and took away some powerful lessons.

He learned that the Union center backs tend to get pushed behind their fullbacks by the threat of deep runs. He also learned that Philly’s once-effective counterpress has showed little of its former verve since the Gold Cup break.

Finally, and perhaps most forebodingly, he learned that if you keep the Union in front of you, they can’t generate offense — in fact, they pull themselves apart.

Simple as it gets

For all their attacking talent, New England Revolution do not have an effective way to move the ball through midfield (especially with Xavier Kouassi out). Recognizing his roster’s deficiency, Jay Heaps decided to play to his team’s strengths and bypass the middle with angled long balls to the strikers.

[gfycat data_id=UntriedHeavenlyAustralianfreshwatercrocodile data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

If the Union had been quicker and more coordinated in their counterpressing, they may have dented the effectiveness of the Revs approach. But a frantic, rattled visiting squad was slow to pressure the ball after turnovers, and they were unable to prevent New England from playing a first pass out of trouble and blasting a ball toward the far touchline.

But credit to Heaps — the Revs worked to create the space they targeted.  

Columbus laid bare an issue that has dogged the Union for quite some time: The fullbacks tend to become very man-oriented (particularly in the moments following transitions) and will follow a mark out of their space. Additionally, Philly’s center backs are at their most exposed by far when marking in space, so they prefer to stay fairly central. New England exploited this by sending an attacker on something of a curl route from the center to the wing to drag the far side fullback high. Another attacker — often Kei Kamara or Teal Bunbury — would then rotate across the pitch into the hole to the outside of the center back.

An unconvincing response

If the Union had been compact defensively, this approach may not have worked, since the fullback could have handed off the attacker to a midfielder or the center back could have strode forward to challenge the aerial ball. New England was clearly aware of the need to play away from Onyewu and Jack Elliott if they wanted to go long, and by dragging the defenders into wide areas, New England made the Philly backs very aware of angled runs and more hesitant to step forward and challenge balls into the center.

[gfycat data_id=CoarseGivingHorseshoebat data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Above, the Revs easily play a ball through Philly’s spacious midfield without receiving any pressure. Then, they rotate to the right and find Wijnaldum leaning toward Farrell on the touchline while the center backs hold a far deeper line. To be exposed once on a single play is rough; twice hurts (and leads to yellow cards).

And, since much of the beauty of soccer derives from how offense and defense can be blended together to enhance each other, it follows that the sport’s ugliness often flows from the two pulling against each other.

[gfycat data_id=NecessaryVeneratedCoyote data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Indeed, Philly’s desire to move the ball forward quickly away from home put too much strain on the defensive shape and by the time New England doubled their lead they were playing in enough space to feel justified giving each other astronaut nicknames (if you listened closely, you could hear Lee Nguyen yell, “Way to go, Buzz!” when Juan Agudelo cut one of the final anchors off the Union’s playoff ship.)

[gfycat data_id=ElectricFreshGrayreefshark data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Perhaps no play sums up Philly’s night better than the one above. First, there is no attempt to recover shape, meaning the Union start with essentially a 4-2-4 shape spread over nearly half the pitch. The Revs easily play through lines, but, luckily, Kei Kamara is not a great passer (as he showed multiple times on the night). Bedoya can therefore create a turnover in a good position.

Alberg’s first pass off the turnover, unfortunately, is a poor one. Even if C.J. Sapong collects it, he will need to play a well-weighted pass behind an onrushing defender while spinning. Doable, but hardly as useful as if the Dutch attacker had drawn in his defender, played a simple ball to Bedoya, and let his side rush at the opponent with numbers. Yet, because the Revs are not really sure what to do when they’re doing well, they give the ball right back…only for Gaddis to push the ball in front of him and…sigh. You get the idea.

Rough night for Roland

For those that wonder what Philadelphia Union would look like in a 4-4-2, find a friend with MLS Live and watch last night’s match. The Sapong-Alberg partnership stayed fairly close together, but the Dutchman was rarely connected to the deeper midfielders.

This was just one issue on a lengthy list for Alberg on the night. On a club that dominates possession and needs to break down deep blocks, Philly’s sitting striker might be quite the addition. His shot is quick and dangerous, and he tends to be far more motivated to find space when operating in congested areas.

But on the Union, a team that so baldly needs a link between defense and attack that can establish extended possessions in the opponent’s half, Alberg is a misfit. He is more than capable of playing a wonderful pass when he finds himself in good positions, but when out of those positions he seems tragically uninterested in discovering them.

[gfycat data_id=GivingCircularErin data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Take the play above, where Alberg earns a foul in a good position. Earlier in the play, when Bedoya was zooming upfield with only Gershon Koffie between him and the Revs’ back four, Alberg can’t seem to find a passing lane. If he gets free, he can line up that powerful right peg instead of receiving an aerial ball with his back to goal.

[gfycat data_id=GraveDemandingBlackrhino data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Above, you can see another issue that makes Alberg a poor fit for the linking role. After helping his side transition, the Dutchman moves up the pitch, but once there he doesn’t have the vision to recognize his advantageous position on the left. When Epps plays the ball inside, Alberg can run at Andrew Farrell and create a 2v1 with Marcus Epps. It’s an easy play to see from a distance, but it’s not actually the easiest advantage to see on field. The catch is that a creator would see it, and Alberg is not that.

This might matter less if Alberg were playing as an attacking midfielder. But he isn’t. The defensive effort comes and goes, and when it comes it involves sprints, not positioning. Sometimes this doesn’t destroy the Union’s shape, but Saturday it was costly because of New England’s long ball approach.

[gfycat data_id=CornyGoodAfricanclawedfrog data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

The Revs were set up to collect second balls and establish possession in the Union’s half. This meant that Philly was often running backward then pinned fairly deep and giving up a lot of space in their own half. To prevent the Revs from easily moving the ball around and pulling their shape apart, the Union needed Alberg to slide back defensively to, if nothing else, fill horizontal passing lanes.

[gfycat data_id=UnawareVictoriousDartfrog data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Above, you can see that even if he simply comes back and plays at half-speed, Alberg can offer defensive help. If he does not come back, Haris Medunjanin gets sucked over toward the ball, leaving the center exposed. Instead, New England settles for a cross.

The final conundrum Alberg presented involves New England’s use of Gershon Koffie as a shield for their back line. Koffie both wanted to cut out Alberg as a transition link and protect the center. The Union’s number 10 could have made him choose between the two, but instead tended to stay central and high, allowing Koffie to cut him out as an outlet.

In fact, the main contribution Ilsinho made after coming on was to move Koffie around and expose just how stretched New England got defensively.

[gfycat data_id=BabyishHeavenlyBlacklemur data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Ilsinho also showed how an attacking mid can help hold the ball in the attacking zone by checking short to the fullbacks, but Gaddis, unused to the support, played an ill-advised cross instead of finding the Brazilian in space.

[gfycat data_id=NecessaryCoordinatedAfricanpiedkingfisher data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Overall, the Union were second best but still could have come away with points if they had held possession in New England’s half. The Revs remain a deeply flawed team, particularly when using Kelyn Rowe in defense, yet the Union were unable to seriously threaten and needed a defender to make a save for the second straight match.

And for all the criticism leveled at Roland Alberg, he was the only Union player with a key pass in the first half.

[gfycat data_id=AngelicMatureAlleycat data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]


  1. How much of this is on the coach?

    • Adam Schorr says:

      It’s tough to say. I fully believe that “getting open” is a skill. That ability to seemingly magically float into open space is so, so difficult. It requires not just incredible awareness, but the ability to almost imperceptibly move without drawing any attention.
      That being said, when it is clear that your guys don’t have that skill, it is on the coaching staff to either switch the system to one that is less reliant on it or one that has more “set plays” (like in American football) that call for a certain set of coordinated movements that are designed to create at least one attackable opening. The combination of guys who don’t know how to get open and coaches who don’t know how to scheme to get guys open is fatal.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I don’t disagree with the notion of ‘getting open is a skill.’
        That said, the amount of space a defense can cover, unless, low blocked in final third or pushing a Juventus style high line is so minuscule getting open is actually as simple as constantly thinking in triangles.
        so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so many times the players are in flat lines On Offense wether in middle of park or more unforgivablely while waiting for a cross … it is unforgivable – even Najem and Alberg are in a flat line with striker when ball out wide as the dreaded outswinger is on its way.
        It is unforgivably unforgivable.
        what do they watch each week when reviewing the film? Oh hey there’s a flat four and the ball in right channel… all part of the plan, eh?

      • “so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so many times the players are in flat lines On Offense”

        I see this all the time and it depresses me and I am forced to take another shot.

  2. This was the worst game of the season for me. Awful versions of the Union have dominated the Revs for years, and this version, with what is arguably more talent than most previous versions, looked lost, limp, and languid. Get it? They took “L”s……

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    Coaching. Period.

  4. Alberg has shown *no* willingness to move without the ball to link up offense and defense all season. This makes him all but useless as a 10 in this formation. Ilsinho, for all his flaws, is willing to play link-up soccer, and our offense has looked best this year when he’s been at the 10.

    Why Curtin continues to try to get Alberg on the field as a starter is beyond me. He’s objectively terrible for this team – and as his run-ins with CJ over PKs have shown – he’s a terrible teammate.

    • Chris , you’ve nailed it. I’ve been stressing this all year. I’ve been saying to make Alberg a striker. He is absolutely not a # 10. It’s already been proven time and time again. He doesn’t move enough to play the position and is always lost. Say what you want about ilsinho but, he has shown that huh is the best player on this team for the #10 position. Again he doesn’t have to make longated runs. He can make short bursts to create space for himself , to become open, to take on defenders and to take shots on net. Frankly, he has shown the most productivity in that position. Once again, for some reason, our coaches have to change critical positions to screw up the chemistry. Offensive movement up field was a dissaster. I’m over this season. I’m starting to lose faith in Curtin as well. He and maybe his staff are not understanding the players that work and who do not work. I admit , I do it see what plays out at practice but I do see what is happening on the field.

    • I have been saying this over and over and over again since… last season. And again this season since, like, May. I am baffled that anybody thinks Alberg belongs in the #10 spot. Boggled. Gobsmacked. Teary-eyed, beer-crying, hair-pulling.

      Ilsinho is not a fantastic #10, but he is far, far better suited to it than Alberg. And Najem belongs there. Either of them should spend the remaining time there. And if they are both out, push Bedoya up. Alberg should never be put in that spot again. (I don’t think he should be put in any spot again, but that’s another story and I’ve said that many times before too.)

  5. The Truth says:

    Sickening performance, really. I slammed my laptop closed at 2-0. Ready for 2018.

  6. “The fullbacks tend to become very man-oriented (particularly in the moments following transitions) and will follow a mark out of their space.”
    This. I was watching from ten rows up at Gillette, and lost track of the times Wijnaldum followed someone into the center and left Kamara or someone a mile of space.
    The dad in front of me told his 4-year-old daughter, “You could score on these guys.”

    • So sorry you saw this in person.

    • Speaking as a father, that guy sounds like a terrible father.

    • It was a good plan by NE, but it relied on having a bit of time on the ball in back. It also meant NE needed to keep players high to collect second balls, so if Philly had been more effective in transitions, they would have had real chances. The real problem will be if this becomes an aspect of the Union’s defense that teams can consistently attack in different ways (CLB came at it with a different perspective than the Revs, but pushing at the same soft spot).

  7. If the Union is going to continue with this formation, and it seems to be cast in stone that this will be the immediate future at least, it seems that the entire formation needs to shift forward. As long as Sapong is by himself up there, he should likely be playing at the back line of the opponent, all of the time. This would prevent the forward drift of the opponent’s entire formation, which seems to allow both ball control and more passing options, while also requiring far too many long attacking runs from the Union offense. With Alberg on the field, Sapong needs to drop and provide some sort of defensive help, and the weaknesses of the formation are amplified. (I would refer back to my many criticisms of Alberg, but with him on the defensive side of the ball, it strikes me that the formation winds up as the true doughnut alignment- nothing in the middle. But, I digress.) Adam, I know that you do a detailed film analysis of these games, and would like to know if what I see is borne out by your film check. It seems that there is a perpetual twenty yard gap that must be covered by the shift between defense and offense. If the front plays higher on the opposition back line, then Sapong can check back to the ball, and there might actually be some of that counterattack that is so clearly missing. What do you think?

  8. Hello? Hello?
    Um…yes this is the MLS Summer Transfer window calling again. I have left repeated messages for you but have had no response. As I have already said, it is very important that you get back to me in the next 7 days or forfeit any plausible chance of a post season plus 15-20% of your season ticket holders.
    I strongly suggest that you return my call asap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *