Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Philadelphia Union 2-2 Atlanta United FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Whew. Josh Yaro is on a run of bad luck.

Many players make poor decisions during a game, but Yaro has been punished extremely harshly for his errors recently.

Yaro’s red card on Saturday, however, stemmed more from issues in midfield than from the second year man’s reading of the game. The pass that sent the extremely quick Josef Martinez through could have been prevented, and cutting out direct play through midfield remains an issue for a Philadelphia side that operates without a true holding player protecting the back line.

Find the space, attack the space

A key function of dropping one of the strikers from a 4-4-2 into midfield is creating a triangle. Nothing groundbreaking there, but it’s worth considering the geometric advantages a triangle gives that any two-man combo can’t provide. Playing with two advanced midfielders and a holding player should force an attacking team to play wider before penetrating the center. The passing lines available against such a triangle are rarely vertical, but instead angled from outside to inside. Thus, to attack such shapes, teams will look to rotate the ball and penetrate through the center as defenses rotate.

Alternatively, a triangle like the Union nominally play may allow teams to advance further into the channels, but with a holding player on either side of the advanced midfielder, it should be hard to re-enter the center and end up in high percentage shooting areas. The advanced midfielder prevents immediate access to the center, forces play into channels, and can exert back- or square pressure on the ball if it moves through channels.

In both cases, the result of the extra man in midfield is not merely another body, but also a shape-based advantage in space.

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Take the above instance as an example of reasonably good spacing but without a clear sense of what its goal is.

Alberg, Bedoya, and Medunjanin are all well-connected, and Sapong has forced the ball to one side. The midfield trio, though, is unclear on how to handle the situation. Alberg initially sits in a passing lane to the near-center player, ignoring the other midfielder in the middle. This allows the ball to be switched into the right channel, and the entire midfield must slide, with Medunjanin approaching the ball and leaving a lane through the middle. Once that first pass is completed, Philly is essentially in scramble mode. Fafa Picault comes central, leaving his man to sneak behind the midfield (but, again, in front of the deep defense), and Atlanta is easily slicing through the center of Philly’s shape.

This could be solved if Alberg sat in the lane to the open player initially or rotated deeper as Medunjanin slid. This would allow Bedoya to drop and protect the center (a necessary move since the defense has left a big space behind midfield to play in).

All season, the Union have sought to maintain their midfield triangle while properly supporting their extremely active striker. This has, over and over, proven a difficult problem to solve.

Jim Curtin would like his attacking midfielder to stay close to CJ Sapong defensively in order to prevent Sapong’s high workrate from being in vain. As Sapong presses the ball, Ilsinho or Alberg should be reading his movements and preparing to press the most likely forward pass or prevent the ball from being fully rotated back across the pitch.

Doing this, however, creates separation between the attacking midfielder and Philly’s holding players, who must step quickly to players drifting through the center while also monitoring the center to ensure the center backs are protected.

From the outset, Curtin has focused on alert rotations as solution to protecting the back four that doesn’t involve deploying a more pure defensive midfielder. And, accordingly, rotations have taken the brunt of the criticism when the Union have been easily played through. The emphasis on Bedoya and Medunjanin has, however, obscured at times what the rest of the team must do to, essentially, protect the protectors. Preventing deep vertical passes requires team positioning that minimizes the amount of ground — both vertically and laterally — that the holding mids need to cover. The Union’s deep defensive line and undisciplined attacking midfielders have not minimized space but, instead, enlarged it.

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Above, the Union’s defense is stretched vertically with Sapong in Atlanta’s back line, Alberg in space, and the rest of the defense deep behind them. Ideally, Alberg would be connected by 10-12 yards from Sapong and from the holding midfield duo. The Dutchman would sit in the central lane looking to press a short pass from Michael Parkhurst before the receiver could turn upfield. Additionally, Alberg would be shadowing the vertical lane through midfield that the dangerous Miguel Almiron is hoping to find.

Instead, Alberg and Sapong are on the same vertical line of the pitch. Atlanta brings bodies into the center to occupy Bedoya and Medunjanin, then finds the deep vertical through to Almiron. This puts the center backs in a difficult spot: Yaro must follow Almiron to prevent the playmaker from picking his head up, but in doing so, Yaro can open space in the back line. This is exactly what happens (in fact, it was already the second time Almiron used  an open field dummy through the center to advance play; he’s quite good). When Yaro follows Almiron, Josef Martinez slides across into the hole left behind and cues the fullbacks to move into Philly’s attacking half.

This is what happens to an unprotected back line. And while the Union have done a fairly good job recently of limiting attacks that build up the wings, they have yet to solve how to support Sapong without leaving the holding midfielders exposed.

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If Atlanta has a major weakness offensively (aside from an oddly lackadaisical response to losing possession at times), it is the passing ability of their holding midfielders. Both Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann are limited in range and iffy under pressure, so Atlanta’s solution is to simply play around them. Above, Larentowicz clears space by pulling wide while McCann comes deep to lure Medunjanin forward. Michael Parkhurst can then lift the ball into a huge space in midfield and pit an $8 million signing against a 4th round draft pick. That’s a matchup Atlanta will take all day.

Note, additionally, that if Almiron can turn, or if he can drop the ball back, Josef Martinez has pulled out to the right and Giliano Wijnaldum has two men to cover with no central defensive support. In other words: Good foul, Mr. Elliott. Good foul.

But how did all of this actually end up being costly to Philly?

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Above, you can see the events prior to Josh Yaro’s red card. Once again, the play will develop from a situation in which Atlanta is able to feast on the center backs because the first line of defense struggles to close down the ball.

Atlanta loads numbers on the right side, with the center back almost on the touchline to start the play. Importantly, they also provide a central option, and with the fullback on the touchline, the winger has moved into the half-space instead of staying wide.

There are many ways to defend this situation, and all of them involve ensuring that Atlanta cannot collect the ball facing forward with time and space in midfield. Yet, that is what occurs. Parkhurst’s initial ball up the wing to Walkes is closed down by Wijnaldum stepping out of the back line. This shifts Elliott into a covering role and Yaro slides over to hang near Martinez.

But look at what the first ball does to the Union’s defense: Already — after one pass — Philly’s shape begins to break down, and that is because it was never set up properly to begin with. Both Fafa Picault and Roland Alberg are providing very little defensive cover. Picault is sitting in the lane to the interior winger, but once the ball is played to Walkes, neither he nor Alberg respond. Bedoya drops because Elliott continues to cover space instead of stepping up when the ball is played to a man under pressure. Picault and Alberg watch, rapt, as the ball is shifted inside. This leaves Bedoya stranded, as he must now leave his man (who can draw away Elliott now that the ball carrier can look up and pick out deep runs) and guess at passing lanes to shadow.

He guesses wrong, and once Elliott leaves his hole, it’s a simple vertical ball to Martinez that does Philly in. Yaro is likely the fastest defender on the team, but letting him (or anyone else) engage in footraces with Josef Martinez is, let’s say, a bad idea.

Back pressure is the real pressure

The most frustrating aspect of the above play is that it hits Philly in a known weak point: The Union are not good at back pressure.

Back pressure is simply pressing from behind the player with the ball. It’s power is belied by its simplicity: If the man with the ball can’t see you, pressure — or the threat of pressure — can be extremely effective.

Using back pressure, a defense can use passes between the lines to their advantage, provided they dictate where those passes go. And, when the ball is played through lines, they can trigger pressure from behind that wins the ball or greatly enhance the effectiveness of those pressing from the front.

If either Picault or Alberg presses the ball in the buildup to Yaro’s card, there is not nearly enough time for the long pass through the lines to develop.

After the match, Jim Curtin said of Yaro, “He’ll learn from it, again, but there’s still three or four other things that could’ve happened on that play that don’t lead to the through ball that put Josh in a bad situation.”



  1. “. . . cutting out direct play through midfield remains an issue for a Philadelphia side that operates without a true holding player protecting the back line.”
    One such started for the Steel against Pittsburgh and played 45 minutes. He may fly with them to Orlando and play longer, perhaps 60, in Florida on Thursday. Neither team plays again till September 9 after that,
    Maurice Edu is such a holding defensive midfielder. For a while, use him to give Medunjanin some rest. Then, cross the bridge of who plays the six, the eight, and the ten in October.
    We have never seen Bedoya and Edu on the field together. I would like to see that combination.

    And Ironman Haris deserves some relief.

    • Edu has done a good job playing within himself in both 2017 appearances, IMO.

    • Adam Schorr says:

      Edu replaces Bedoya at the 8. Bedoya to RM. Pontius to LM. Fafa to the bench. Seems easy to me.

      • Chris Gibbons says:


      • Fafa to the bench ?? For what ? We need that speed and hustle. He’s only one of a few that move with and without the ball. This team loses so much and has no creativity because of there lack of movement. My opinion, fafa is fine where he is. Could he work on that final pass , touch or shot ? Most definitely.

      • I like the idea of trying Edu + Medunjanin together, with Bedoya on the wing. I think we could have either Pontius or Picault play LW, depending upon whether we need more speed or more defense & aerial presence.

      • Man I would love to set up with Medunjanin at the 6 with both Bedoya and Edu playing box-to-box in front of him. Granted this forces a formation shift that we all know won’t happen (and I have maintained as not really an issue), but that gets your best players on the field together.

      • Hey, maybe if we plug in this guy who hasn’t played in two years into this lineup and shuffle a couple of other pieces, that would work.


      • Worked when we inserted Gooch? I also think you forgot the part about him being way more talented than whoever he replaces.

      • A – If that’s the direction that the Union would be willing to go, why wouldn’t we just do want Adam suggested and plug in Derrick Jones at the 8 instead of Edu? That seems more plausible to me.

      • Because DJ isn’t very good yet and Edu is? I don’t know. Clearly it’s not the route they want to go, although I have no idea what that route is. Honestly this roster is so flawed to really any system and losing your second highest paid player for 2 years never helps.

  2. Zizouisgod says:

    So when Earnie said that some players struggle to understand a change in tactical set-up, I’m sure that he was referring to this type of stuff. We can’t even manage the assignments and reads in a base formation that we’ve been playing since Curtin took over. Just incredible for this to continue to happen at the professional level and it’s a failure on all fronts (recruitment, coaching, tactical set-up, etc…)

    Great stuff as always, Adam. Thank you.

    • Because we have been blessed with young CBs being protected by no defensive midfielders, being protected by lazy and unaware #10. This roster was built with terribly through the middle defensively (if the goal is to win this year) and doesn’t have dynamic attacking players on the wings or up top to counter it.

    • @Zizou – this is definitely worrying. Whenever I start thinking about this, I start to wonder about why the Union have made player acquisitions that almost force tactical changes. As much as Curtin has struggled to implement and tweak a system over the years, it’s been almost a full reset in terms of how the team wants to play each season (and that can get lost in the discussion of shape).

      This is not to excuse the lack of tactical development the team has seen, just something that always nags at me.

  3. You know, there are 4 video clips in this piece, and I see crappy Alberg defense bearing a good amount of the fault in 3 of them. Just saying.

    • Yep. Makes me rethink my initial assessment that Alberg played well. I like that.

      • @John – this is awesome not because I think I made any particularly great points, but because the responses to these tactical pieces make me rethink my initial assessments all the time, so I’m super happy it goes both ways.

  4. So I love CJ’s incredible work rate, but it almost seems from the above that his deep pressure contributes significantly to the problem of too much space in the midfield – particularly when we have the sauntering Dutchman playing #10.
    Could this be solved by limiting CJ to a 3/4 field press unless the union are behind in goals?

    • @wbev – Yeah, I think that’s one potential solution for sure. Could also offer him more support up top (they used to do this by having the wingers press the ball more, but it was hard to close the ball quickly and they kept leaving the touchlines open) or by bringing the defense higher so the space behind CJ isn’t so extensive.

  5. Always an excellent analysis, but WAY too complex for the reality on the field. You can show clips to support your thesis, but giving this team the possibility of logical movement with any real intention is a real stretch for this team. In reality , they are going thru the motions and have essentially reverted to schoolyard soccer. They do not believe in any system and can only hope to get lucky occasionally. Adam , I love the effort but you are analyzing a hollow team.

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