Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Minnesota United 1-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

No matter where I throw a tennis ball, my dog will bring it back to me. Over and over without fail until she’s tired.

So I have some idea of how Philadelphia Union felt when Minnesota returned the ball seven times in a row without getting out of their own half between the 1:58 mark and CJ Sapong’s goal. That’s seven consecutive own-half turnovers for the Loons in a 2:22 span. Philly’s defensive chart has more actions in Minnesota’s half in the first five minutes than show up in most full games.

Union defense first 5 minutes

And although the Union had some influence on the home side’s decisions with the ball, the truth is that Adrian Heath’s side seemed to be searching for new and creative ways to return the ball to their opponents.

In the end, it took a very poor defensive play — allowing Fafa Picault to break away when in position to bring him down out wide — that finally let the Union break through.

And from then on, the match turned into the most belated preseason contest ever held in MLS. Both teams looked defensively confused and unconfident going forward. Simple passes were misplayed, space that should have been taken was left empty, and eventually the Loons tied things up by bumrushing the goal as the left fullback executed a FIFA98 spin move in the Union box.

Within the chaos, there were a surprising number of interesting tactical wrinkles. Jim Curtin moved Fafa Picault to the right and tried to pin Francisco Calvo deep. Adrian Heath had Kevin Molino pulling out into space behind the fullbacks while Abu Danladi tried to figure out how to balance occupying center backs and dropping into Molino’s space. Giliano Wijnaldum followed Ethan Finlay around like a little brother at practice, leaving an entire wing empty for long stretches; Jerome Thiessen had no interest in advancing from right back, however.

The key adjustment of the match came from Curtin. In the second half, Philly abandoned their attempt to use Haris Medunjanin and Warren Creavalle as holding midfielders. Medunjanin moved further forward and turned the team’s shape into something like a 4-1-4-1 defensively. This change simplified the game for Creavalle, and he spent the remainder of the match smothering everything coming through the center. And while the tactical tweak meant Medunjanin could push forward, it did little to enhance the creativity of a team that oozes uncertainty in the final third.

Minnesota passing – first 5 mins

The first five

If you can, go back and watch the first five minutes of this match. Minnesota looks like a practice team brought in to help Philly prepare for a real game. It’s incredible.

Minnesota finds its feet

Ideally, the Loons want the ball out of their defensive third as fast as possible. They don’t have a very structured attack, but they leave players high and try to capitalize on the chaos of transitions. After the match, Jim Curtin said Heath’s side likes to attack with four players, and this is true. But what they look to do with those players gets interesting. Multiple times, Minnesota sought to create numerical advantages on the wings as they advanced. Kevin Molino drifted wide to find space, and when the ball moved forward, Danladi shifted across from the center to help, and Sam Nicholson pushed up to create a tight triangle. Ethan Finlay would then move from the right wing to the center, but Thiessen remained deep. Thus, Minnesota narrowed the field on themselves, but counted on the skill and speed of their attackers to still produce chances. If they could push Philly’s defenders deep and draw midfielders to the wing, one of the two holding midfielders — Collen Warner and Ibson — would stride forward, with Calvo also stepping up from left back.

In the first half, these forays up the left flank gave the Union fits. Keegan Rosenberry would get caught between stepping to an open man and leaving Calvo open wide. 

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Whatever Rosenberry is doing here, it is not good. He’s deep in his own box but so far from the ball carrier and the wide man as to be unable to close down either one. It’s an incredibly cautious position; so cautious that it actually creates more problems than it solves.

Minnesota’s goal, predictably, came up the left. And it demonstrates the advantage of having men around the ball at the expense of covering the width of the pitch.

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Following a turnover, Minnesota forces the ball back to Rosenberry. He plays it to Picault on the touchline (as Jim Curtin gestures for a longer pass) and the Union winger fails to use his body and is easily dispossessed.

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From that moment on, it becomes a mad scramble, with Molino driving down the left channel then bodies flying within the box. The key breakdowns come when Calvo is able to spin through two defenders and take a nifty touch away from Creavalle to shoot.

Rosenberry’s response to the spin move is extremely disappointing; first he pulls back from a challenge, but then he simply turns off for the rest of the play. Finlay, the eventual goalscorer, does not turn off and is rewarded with a goal. Meanwhile, Jack Elliott plays deep, holding two players onside during the madness.

It’s a mess. But it comes from Minnesota’s strategic decision to attack up the left flank and put numbers around the ball so they could quickly counter if they won it back in that area.

Wijnaldum and Finlay

The most intriguing aspect of how Philly defended was The Roaming Wijnaldum. From his left back position, Giliano Wijnaldum followed Ethan Finlay all over the pitch. Minnesota tried to find the empty space a few times, but mostly they ignored it (Onyewu was very alert covering, too). This is one of the more daring tactical moves the Union have employed this year, and it was fun — if weird — to watch.

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Also, it was largely effective. The depth with which Minnesota’s holding midfielders played meant that they had a lot of difficulty switching fields (though there were exceptions).

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In the second half, Heath moved his midfield further up the pitch, but Curtin responded by using Creavalle as an uber-effective midfield sweeper.

Creavalle in his element

Earlier this season, Haris Medunjanin revealed that he calls Warren Creavalle “Kante” in training because he shows up everywhere, intercepting passes and poking the ball free.

In the first half, the man filling in for Ale Bedoya started well but quickly lost confidence as he and Medunjanin struggled to get their zones right as they rotated.

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You can see that Creavalle steps to the man Medunjanin is shadowing, opening a pass to the far side that allows Minnesota to attack the box.

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Here again the midfielders go to the same mark and leave a man open, continuing to struggle with their zones as they become too ball-oriented.

A few giveaways later, and it looked as though the ineffective, hesitant, second-late Creavalle was showing up.

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But no, the other Creavalle — the one that does all the stunt work all Marvel’s The Flash — emerged in the second half, warming to a role that let him sit deep and read the game rather than staying close to Medunjanin.

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That’s good closing.

Here is a gaudy stat line: 9 recoveries, 5 tackles won, 3 interceptions and a clearance. That’s Creavalle in the second half alone.

Additionally, sweeping the midfield gave Creavalle more time on the ball, and he used it to make lengthier passes out of the center; his only three incomplete passes of the second frame were two attempted throughballs and a long pass that should have counted as a clearance.

Creavalle’s performance is the perfect encapsulation of the puzzle Jim Curtin has been unable to solve all season. He has a roster filled with players that can excel in very specific roles. However, anything outside of these roles and things quickly break down. Want Roland Alberg to hang out around the box and piledrive everything he sees at goal? Yeah, that’s an asset. Want him to be part of a three-man midfield defensively? Nope.

Want Fafa Picault to stretch defenses when he has nobody near him? Can do, and can do well. Want him to create his own space or use his speed to create space for others? Not gonna happen often.

Want Ilsinho to dictate play and look off defenders? OK, he can do it. But he will also struggle mightily with decision-making.

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Very mightily.

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And he won’t make up for it defensively. Below you can see him shadow a passing lane to a marked man, leaving the pass to the middle free. 

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That’s just not his game. He’s a winger. Alberg is a shooter. Bedoya is a mover. 

There is no creator ahead of Medunjanin, and the Union let a beatable team slink away with a point once again.


  1. Every time I see Ilsinho run at a defender, I think of the basketball expression, “you reach, I teach”. The smart defenders just wait him out until he runs out of space or just makes a poor decision with the ball.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    “He has a roster filled with players that can excel in very specific roles.”
    Arigato, sensei. [Thank you, esteemed master teacher.]
    Are we seeing the hazard of a template with clear, specific defined roles? that is to say, the inability to improvisationally adapt to reality as it changes?
    Barnetta did that. Nogueira did that. Edu tried to do that when he got to play at the 6.
    Soccer does not fit pigeon-holed template roles unless your talent is overwhelmingly superior so you can impose you system on your opponent all the time. (See Barcelona a few years ago.)
    Thank you for the insight Adam Cann.
    Only thing I would quibble with is Ilsinho’s decision-making struggles occur when he is under pressure. In the first half against Dallas Maurop Diaz left him unpressured, and that was certainly fun for Union fans.

    • Unfortunately I think more often than not Ilson is being explicitly instructed to drive, bringing on that pressure. Jim can’t cultivate a free flowing system with his abilities and his roster. It’s been such a sad decay since Nogs left town.

  3. It’s an insult that WC got any minutes over Jones.

  4. truth made whole. says:

    Absolutely uhh sparring with the champ would be an honor.
    you know what Mr. Jergen’s,
    I wouldn’t take no cheap shot either.
    I’d be a really good sparring partner you know.

  5. One of the problems I’ve seen all season and maybe for two years is, that the U always play the ball outside to the outside backs and wingers when they are under pressure and when we set them up to become trapped on the side lines. They have to find a way to play through the middle a lot more when the outside backs and wingers are marked or when they have no pathway. Having said that, that takes a team to construct MOVEMENT!!! The movement on this team is horrendous. Curtin needs to address this. Another factor is creativity. This team is so predictable when trying to go forward.

    • @Union5 – Using the outside backs this way seems to be part of a strategy of rotating the ball and finding a winger before they can be closed down. Additionally, playing that ball outside sometimes leads to support from one CM (or the ACM) while Medunjanin drops into the back line on the far side. The U will then try to rotate back around to him with the fullback on his side pushed far forward and the winger coming inside to fill the ACM role until the ACM can get back across field.

      All that is just to say that there could be some logic to it, but it does tend to put the fullbacks into trapping situations if the rest of the team doesn’t take up good positions quickly. One of the issues this season has been that Fafa isn’t very active in this build-up phase, and when he rotates into the center as the ball moves L to R to Haris, CJ doesn’t vacate the center. So you end up with two guys essentially in cross-ready positions before the ball is in a crossing area.

      Lots of other things going on as well, but if the ball arrives at the fullback with everyone else in the right places, you can use this tactic to free up Haris, which is usually the Big Goal of build-up play this season.

      All that said, I am often confused when the fullback receives the ball and the winger is on the same touchline vertical instead of dropping inside to create an angle and draw the fullback forward. When they’re both on the touchline, it makes it hard for the winger to make the defense move (and to get involved in general)

      • Adam, I understand what you’re saying. Another way of saying this is that the fullbacks and wingers are getting closed down and the ball is still being played to them and or not having the ball played to them quick enough. I’m fine with playing the ball out wide and feeding the ball to the wingers. Yes this is a common and normal strategy when pushing forward. The problem is this team is extremely predictable and has limited creativity. Again, movement is key and players without the ball are not moving enough to receive passes, create new space and ideas when going forward.

    • Playing wide is fine provided the field is broken into smaller quadrants and numerical advantages are sought by proper cycling of off ball movement( the old how can I be constantly asking if I am thethird leg of a triangle… because if everyone is asking if they are the third leg of a triangle we are now collectively not ball watching but thinking in the future…wherever the ball is, in order to then properly shift a defense and switch the point of attack.
      In my opinion there is simply WAY too much (unused) space on the field for this team again and again which leads to many passes going wide into the abyss of counterproductive 1v3 situations which play RIGHT into a defenses hands. This is just ONE of the tactical failures of the coach IMO and speaks to his philosophy of play which I cannot relate to.
      Every single issue this team has from set pieces defense, to defense to build out to possession is laid directly at the feet of a overmatched manager… coaching a 20th Century version of this game. Newsflash to the masses who argue we do not have enough talent… I watch less talented and well schooled players across many many ages groups beat more talented teams…guess why? Yes, the coach is better than the other coach. Holy shit. I know. It’s heavy.
      More troubling to the points above regarding deficiency is how exactly is the sporting director relating to this style of play?

      • Can’t argue with much of this. My take from early this season has been that the roster is poorly assembled, not that it’s a roster of poor players. And that speaks to why the tactical side of the game is so interesting – done right tactics can take out talent, and that’s exhilarating and fascinating.

        The ability to form those triangles to move out of build-up play has been a worryingly unaddressed issue for multiple years now. It’s hard to see the advantages of an attacking shape that remains so stretched out that it makes it hard to get numbers around the ball. And for Philly, there is also so much space between the same-side winger and fullback that even a good diagonal to get behind a defense often leaves the winger without support.

        Anyhow, I liked the comment. And I really wanted an excuse to post this clip of Napoli’s spacing after winning the ball back deep in their own half, especially like the way the players off the ball push the opponents away once they’ve escaped pressure.


  6. Sorry, but nobody on this team EXCELS at anything. You have a group of average players, and some of them have some decent skills, but ALL have major weaknesses. How to hide these weaknesses is the problem. It is OK to have the fullback and wing on the same touchline. Moving the wing toward the middle creates a much more dangerous counter if intercepted, so staying wide is OK because it is safer for disorganized players. With Fafa facing his own goal, the pass is good enough, but Fafa, being LAZY, does not come to the ball and lay it off with one touch centrally to start a dangerous counter. (see the clip) This could be part of a 3rd man thru attack that I have NEVER seen executed by the Union. Rosenberry is not being taught anything, so he is not confident, and is playing safe, trying not to make a mistake. He gets close to the central attacker and correctly leaves the wide man unmarked. But you see there is no support, no system and seemingly no consequence if you are Fafa or anyone else ( Ilsino) who does not put in the effort. Sad to say I think the coach has lost his authority to control the players. There seems to be no consequence for not doing the right thing. Maybe the players do not know what the right thing is in a given situation.

  7. Another thing on the Rosenberry pass, Fafa , facing his OWN goal, tries to TURN with the ball and gets stripped.He should have been substituted on the spot for doing something so stupid .As you know, over 50% of run of play goals are initiated by midfield turnovers, So Curtin should say to NEVER turn in midfield with the ball if you are facing your own goal with any kind of pressure. Just lay it off, damit! Play smart for god sakes.

  8. PhilInWilmington says:

    It’s so hard to follow this team.

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