Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Philadelphia Union 0-3 Montreal Impact

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union dropped points to Montreal Impact following a simple move up the left side.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Many of the Union’s typical strengths and issues were on display, but also, darkly, the palpable sense of frustration emanating from the field felt more constant than in the past. After a static transfer window, Philadelphia was fully lacking in ideas going forward. Solid defense up the center provided enough stability to pull the Union through the first half, but aside from a small collection of moves up the right side, the home side only looked threatening when they forced high turnovers or caught the Impact asleep. In other words, they came nowhere near breaking down a team that will struggle to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

And then, after nearly 70 minutes of Montreal’s patient, expansive play wore them down, that simple move up the left.

Stretched thinner than their playoff hopes

A key aspect of Montreal’s play is a willingness to be patient in buildup. This is not a pointless patience though, but that of a team that knows exactly where their attacking strengths are and where they are not. Blerim Dzemaili’s effectiveness blossoms in the final third, but diminishes in small combinations through the center where he rarely finds the space he needs to attack a defense and find runners. Samuel Piette and Patrice Bernier are simply limited passers with a broad, balanced range of defensive skills.

The Impact seek to utilize the subtle and smart movements of their holding midfielders to draw the opposition to one side then work quickly back to the other. Given room to run, the Impact left will almost always create mismatches and open gaps in the middle for Dzemaili, and then Montreal can create chances while protecting against counterattacks.

Unfortunately, the Union are often goaded into following expansive teams instead of responding with their own traps. CJ Sapong’s prodigious workrate is only as effective as that of his attacking partner, and once the Union striker has been moved out of the center, it is all too easy to break down the spacious banks of four left behind.

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Above, Sapong presses the ball but does not receive support from Ilsinho. This allows Montreal to quickly bypass the first line of defense. If Mancosu’s run at the end is wide instead of through the channel, he’s behind the defense and isolating Gaddis.

A second consequence of becoming stretched horizontally is that it opens the Union up to becoming stretched vertically. Once Montreal created time on the ball in deep areas, Matteo Mancosu’s running pushed Philly’s central defenders deep, while the visitors’ wing players checked inside to draw the fullbacks and sit in free spaces behind the Union midfield. The Union’s response to this, much like in previous encounters with the Impact, was not adequate.

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Fullbacks were caught in between following their men and holding wide, while the center backs were often far behind the rest of the team, leaving a gap behind the midfield that became lethal in the 69th minute.

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The cost of relying on Medunjanin

The Union’s deep-lying playmaker can provide opportunities out of nothing, but Haris Medunjanin can also leave his team exposed by looking when his team is not set up. Another way to think of this issue is that Philly needs to get numbers forward in a hurry when the ball is played long. Additionally, though, they need to prepare counterpressure so the opposition can’t move back upfield unimpeded. This push-pull has been an agonizing dilemma without a clear answer. And, not unsurprisingly, the problems can be traced back to lacking a presence in the number 10 role.

Anticipating long balls, the entire Union offense stays high, emptying the middle and leaving Medunjanin stranded.

When the Union push Bedoya forward, he often moves through the opposition back line, taking runs that will open the center. In order to make these runs effective in attack, somebody must fill the spaces Bedoya leaves. And, since soccer is a game in which attack and defense are tightly entwined, leaving that space unfilled has defensive costs as well.

Medunjanin’s long balls are meant to create individual matchups for Philly, and Bedoya’s running means those individual matchups can become overloads, with the near-side fullback also streaming forward. Although this has rarely materialized in 2017, isolating wide players with long passes has been as effective a strategy as any for the Union’s lackluster offense.

The issues arise when the Union doesn’t turn those wide passes into crosses or shots. Philly has developed an alarming tendency to look in two minds when playing from wide. Players line up in the box expecting an immediate cross, so when the crosser does not immediately serve the ball, he has no nearby support.

Then, anything other than a ball into the box delivered behind the defense leaves Philly in bad transition situations. Teams do not necessarily need to break with speed on the Union. Merely finding time to look up and force the center backs to retreat stretches the field and means a club like Montreal can develop a relatively slow attack while the Union’s defense is still stumbling after dead sprints back.

The season winds down

Standing still during the transfer window is a fairly good sign that Philadelphia Union are accepting their playoff-free fate in 2017. Saturday marks yet another match in which the team showed flashes of potential but turned off too often and generated little offense from open play.

This is par for the course, now.


  1. Adam Schorr says:

    I think when Earnie sits down with Jim at the end of the season, Earnie should just have each one of these analyses open and one by one go “did you make the necessary adjustments to fix this?” followed by going to the next tab and going “nope!”
    It’s damning. It’s really, really damning. It’s really easy to say “well, the Union just need to change formation”. The thing is that the Union already basically play a 4-4-2. They call the 10 a midfielder, but in this system, the difference between the 10 being a CAM and the 10 being a second striker isn’t much.
    The real problem is that nobody ever seems to know what they’re supposed to be doing or where they’re supposed to be going. The whole point of sticking with one constant formation is that, over time, those baked in motions become second nature and it is easier and easier to execute them, and then you can riff of those motions to misdirect the defense. So not only can you sometimes simply execute well enough to create, but you can also execute differently to create.
    The Union don’t appear to have any built-in actions anywhere. Their best play is “kick it to space somewhere in front of Fafa and see what he does and hope it’s good”. Bedoya helps overload the right, but they don’t have any actual plan or coordinated movement.
    In basketball, the rough equivalent would be the “Horns” set: http://blog.coachbase.com/horns-offense-complete-guide-to-plays-run-by-every-nba-team/. Just about every team these days has some variation of Horns in their playbook. A team running Horns well, with set plays and counteractions, can be one of the highest scoring teams in the league. A team running Horns poorly ends up with the dreaded “clogged toilet offense” where nobody moves so nobody can move.
    Here’s a great breakdown of it from a few years ago, explaining how every team basically uses the same formation but every team runs it differently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wt3C_NB5n70. You can see similarities to the Union’s offense even – get the ball to a playmaker far from goal and let him dictate play based on the movement in front of him.
    See the problem? Curtin understands that the 4-5-1 formation is good, but doesn’t know why or how to implement or anything, and he’s proven that time and again. It is mimickry without heartbeat. Facsimile without life. It is electric football – players are put in the right places and then told to go, and everybody just kinda seemingly goes in random directions at random speeds. It is a clogged toilet, not because of formation or personnel (although I don’t think either helps), but because nobody really knows how to move or where to go, and so because nobody’s moving, nobody can move.
    Curtin has to go. He’s just not a good enough manager, and everybody else is suffering for it. I would love to see this team under a real manager. I don’t think they’d be an elite team, but I think there’s more quality available than we’ve seen.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      It’s difficult to ask a chef what meal that he/she would like to cook and then the person who buys the food, just buys any ingredients that happen to be on sale that week, regardless of whether it fits the planned meal.

      Who is to blame, the chef or the person who shopped for the ingredients? Seems to me that they are both to blame, especially after Stewart specifically asked Curtin how he would like to play.

      Dare I say, that’s not a recipe for success.

      • Adam Schorr says:

        If my chef asks for shrimp and gets chicken instead, I still expect him to be able to cook chicken. Then I fire the idiot who can’t tell chicken and shrimp apart and the idiot who can’t understand that they’re not the same and shouldn’t be cooked the same.

    • Excellent points, Adam & Adam!
      Could not believe it yesterday when Phil Jones was interviewed after the ManU game and they analyzed Lukaku’s goal from the header. Turns out it was practiced prior to the game how everyone needed to move (and block people) to make sure Lukaku would be free to score. Things like that do not seem to be practiced at all under Curtin.

      • You mean the interview where the guy kept on divulging team secrets on live tv? That was hilarious to watch, but very informative.

        Yeah, Curtin doesn’t do that…

    • Adam as much as I agree with you, there’s no way Curtin is going anywhere. I said this in a previous post…Curtin is doing what Stewart wants. Or at the very least, what they agreed to do. Stewart realizes the limitations he’s saddled Curtin with. If you know someone is doing a job you asked them to do, and you are generally pleased how they do it, even though it might not be succeeding, you don’t get rid of the person you put in a shitty position and asked to succeed. Curtin has next season with a lineup basically all constructed by him and Stewart. Built with the funds that will be freed up after all these contracts are gone. As long as Jimmy doesn’t completely screw the pooch, he’ll get the year after that. So basically two more years of Curtin, maybe a year and a half. It’s sad to think about but I bet it happens.

  2. Adam….thank you!
    It completely amazes me that the Union haven’t hired you. Your analysis week after week is incredible!
    So let me ask you….
    If you were named coach and couldn’t’t change current combined Steel/Union rosters….what three things would you do to turn around season now. Forget playoffs…objective is wins.
    Thank you.

    • This is a great and fair question, but it’s difficult for me to answer since I’ve seen very little of Bethlehem Steel this season. I’ll give it a shot off the top of my head (criticisms welcome).

      1) Get more numbers around the ball. This likely means pulling the far side winger toward the middle and trying to use the fullback for width. This has been dangerous for the Union since they struggle to create coherent, lasting possessions in the opponent’s half, meaning the fullback can make the right decision to move forward but still be caught out.

      2) Invert the midfield triangle and put a true holding mid – and ask him to prioritize the central vertical third – behind Bedoya and Medunjanin. There is no true #10 on the team so let’s stop pretending. Instead, this system may bring Bedoya and Haris closer to the striker when the ball is played long but also allow them to backpressure and help when teams try – as they have been lately – to draw Philly’s fullbacks narrow.

      3) Be. More. Compact. From the front line to the back, both the shape as a whole and the bodies within the shape need to be more compact and proactively respond to each other’s offensive and defensive movements. If CJ is going to chase, someone else has to remain close enough to make that chase worth it (or he shouldn’t chase). On the other end, the back line needs to do a better job setting and holding a line and reading the ball carrier rather than responding to the runs of strikers. Every time the CBs drop, it creates space behind the fullbacks. In the past few games, teams have focused on dragging fullbacks inside, and with the CBs too deep, this opens huge spaces on the wings that, well, we all saw the first Montreal goal.

      And I think implicit in all of this is just focus. When the ball is in play, when it’s out of play, there is always a job to do. Clarification on what that job is, making sure players know what information they should be taking on board during those brief moments when the ball is out of play, using breaks to reset or look for a weak point, these are all little things that, beyond athleticism of skill on the ball, can make a significant difference for a team that isn’t rolling in dollars.

      I probably overlooked something obvious, but that’s what I’ve got.

      • Disclaimer: I make no attempt to criticize Adam Cann’s analysis in what follows. I attempt to understand his points and fill in for his lack of direct observation of the Steel.
        Regarding point one, that is, numbers around the ball by pulling the away winger inside and having the away fullback overlap into the vacated wide space he left, and retain possession well enough so as not to get countered.
        The Steel try to do that when the right personnel combinations are on the field. The left flank mid who understands that particular gambit best is Santi Moar. All three who have played left back understand th concept. Of those three the one who has the best instinctive feel for it is the least likely to play, Charlie Reymann. I base my judgment in how well that gambit worked between them in preseason against lesser opposition. Matt Real is usually the starter now and is good at that particular combination. Auston Trusty is a damn sight better out there in 2017 than he was in 2016, but on merit as a left back, he should be 3rd not Reymann for offensive considerations only.
        Crucial is the central channel midfield combination with which the outside left guys are working because they will do the most the succeed in maintains possession so the left back does not get caught out. My preferred three would be Tribbett, Chambers and Najem.
        My preferences might change were the organization to give Coach Burke an extra day of practice with the group that will play his game for him.
        Cory Burke has not shown the same ability to integrate into a complex integrated scheme such as Adam Cann advocates. But he starts because he has the athletic wherewithal to have a greater impact on the game than does Santi Moar at this point in time.
        On the right side, Aaron Jones can play the scheme Adam Cann advocates. Chris Nanco is growing by leaps and bounds conceptually right now, but his instinct for the idea is less finely tuned than Moar’s.

      • With regard to idea number 2, inverting the midfield triangle, I am much more uncertain of my ground, in no small measure because they have never tried to do so.
        Nothing ventured nothing gained, however, so here goes.
        James Chambers cannot play a lone defensive center mid against a strong USL side for a full game in my opinion. He has the mental side of it covered, and he has the technical skill. He does not have the range and he does not have the aerial dominance.
        Ken Tribbett would be weak on offensive distribution capacity I fear.
        Derrick Jones would be a stronger candidate potentially but has played there much less, never as the outright sole DCM of course, and would have Tribbett’s distributive liabilities, perhaps a little more so. His ceiling is likely higher in the future.
        Najem and Fontana could play the two forward vertices of Adam Cann’s central triangle well, I would think, especially Najem. Chambers range would hamper him.
        And Santi Moar could play one of those spots along with Najem or Fontana.
        As a plan for the future training up Jonesy at the DCM, the number 6, might develop into the future ability to invert the triangle, but it would be more than a year before expecting consistent results would be fair.
        The Steel’s back line is actually better suited to supporting Adam Cann’s inverted central triangle than is the Union’s because the Steel’s is faster at center back, has greater range and can play a higher restraining line.

      • With regard to “Be. More. Compact.”, the Steel are clearly coached to be so, and they succeed against lesser USL teams. But it is at USL pace, not MLS’s.
        And elite USL midfields and attacks stretch them.
        Tomorrow night the Steel play the 1st place team in the east, Charlotte, in Charlotte, and the second place team, Louisville, at home in the Lehigh Valley on Sunday.
        Watch and judge for yourselves. 7:30 pm Weds evening YouTube and 5 pm Sunday, same.

      • Tim, this is fantastic stuff!

      • Awesome stuff guys, I almost missed this exchange. Thanks for going through this.

      • Me Edu could be that #6 we all need.

  3. This is an email I sent my Union ticket rep yesterday. I suggest everyone does the same.

    I’m sure you’ve heard some feedback from others this past week but I needed to vent. I don’t even expect you to have any answers to my questions but these things need to be said. The Union are reaching a crossroads. The audition is over. The ownership has taken the fan’s patience for granted and they are greatly underestimating the vitriol that is to come. Personally, I was impressed with the interactions I’ve had with Earnie, Tim and Jim. They really took the time to discuss the club and I appreciate their honesty. I love the game-day experience and you guys have been amazing as representatives of the Union. There is nothing more you can do from that side of things. We needed to get someone early in the transfer window and it passing without picking up anyone is inexcusable at this point. Almost every other club fighting for a playoff spot made at least one move and we did nothing to help out the club this season. We’ve had some solid wins and they were no doubt fun to watch, especially in person. But too often we lose, and too often when we lose, we aren’t even competitive. There have been several games this season where there has been absolutely no life whatsoever on offense and nothing to cheer about for an entire two hours. And still, no moves. We watch Atlanta, NYC FC and other clubs that should have no business being clearly better than a club in it’s eighth season and they are. The fans don’t dismiss the importance of the academy but if the ownership group can’t build an academy and put a competitive team on the field that makes the playoffs more than once in a blue moon, they should sell the club to someone who can. The players have shown they are capable of some impressive performances but they are too rare. It will be two playoff appearances in eight years with no playoff wins. In a league where more than half of the club make the playoffs, that is no longer acceptable. We know Earnie has a plan but something needs to be done immediately to show us this isn’t going to be another few years for us to get our shit together. We need to sign at least two players we’ve actually heard of who will be on the field at the start of next season. If they can’t do that, then I can’t shell out more money in addition to the thousands of dollars I’ve already given the club. I will not renew.

    • Nice dude. Good for you. I fear it has fallen on deaf ears.

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        Correct. Sugarman is sure to spend up to and including what the league gives him when the big salaries leave. Given what the league allows Sugarman, Earnie is stuck with playing high-risk “Moneyball” when the top half of the league is clearly playing a much different game. The “Process,” therefore, is a flawed business model as there will never EVER be enough money for U to compete, even if we could sell the entire Academy to Barca at world class prices (yet another pipe dream).
        The owner is betraying the trust that the SOB’s have placed in this organization, and unless some moneybags with European club connections decides the U are good for developing players for bigger, better things, we will all be stuck. So Earnie, you got any friends across the pond with enough money to rescue all of us, including yourself?

      • I know, but had to get it out of my system.

      • Old Soccer,Coach says:

        Do keep in mind, irradiated hoplite from Lacedaemon’s phalanx, that even if you sell you academy products at your dreamed-for prices, you may only use 650 K per transaction on paying your roster.
        That is a league-mandated rule. It prevents clubs from doing what you advocate. The rule is completely no under criticism, for the reasons you articulate very well. But that strategy is not yet feasible.

  4. Thank you, Adam and Tim. Really fantastic answers!!
    If I were in Union employ I would hire both of you!
    I think issue is coaching not lack of talent. Good coaching and inspired players often overcome more talented teams.
    We already have 3 with solid usmnt experience and sophomores with promise. Aj is a beast. Yes a #10 would help but lack doesn’t explain what we see on field.
    Wish someone at union recognized the insight two of you offer.

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