Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: New Jersey Red Bulls 0-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Over the past two seasons (at least), Philadelphia Union and New Jersey Red Bulls have shared an odd dynamic. The Bulls have always been the more talented and organized team, yet even when they find their rhythm, Jesse Marsch’s men look frustrated. As if they assume beating the Union will be so easy that even minimal resistance upsets the Eastern Conference power.

This narrative resumed on Sunday, with Andre Blake in a starring role as a very, very good goalie and Chris Pontius as a player at least 12 goals shy of where he thinks he should be.

It says a lot that the Union and Red Bull could have put out the same post-match highlight reel and nobody would have blinked.

Jim Curtin said the first half was the worst his team had played without giving up a goal, and unfortunately it is hard to argue with him. Even more unfortunately, the defensive issues shone brightest

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only because the offense continued to look hesitant

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and uncoordinated in transition, and counterattacking was the only real option for Philly.

There were two broad problems with the defense in the first half, one common and one rarely as prominent as it was Sunday. The first issue was the spacing in the back line amongst the center backs and fullbacks. Richie Marquez and Jack Elliott are both late-round SuperDraft picks that have defied the odds to become legitimate MLS options. Ironically, one aspect of their play that has both helped them succeed and hindered their development (particularly for Marquez) is an overriding desire to keep the game in front of them. Both players are highly reactive and extremely responsive to opposition runs. This allows them to, at times, jump in front of long passes and anticipate good throughballs, as Marquez does in the second clip above..

It also makes them extremely susceptible to good space-creating runs,

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and worryingly susceptible to even mediocre runs in behind.

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Marquez and Elliott react to the intent of a striker, which can mean that they often practice a form of appeasement: In order to keep that striker contained, the Union center backs are willing to concede space and retreat with the run. This creates pockets of space in the center behind the Union’s two holding players, but it also create ginormous holes behind the fullbacks, who often follow checking runs forward aggressively.

Below, Fabinho is eventually pulled upfield, and two defensive issues are exposed at once: The gap between the center backs and fullbacks, and a lack of pressure on the ball.

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There are a litany of problems to address in the above clip, but a lack of pressure on the ball is a first step toward allowing the defensive line to step forward, which should allow either Marquez or Medunjanin to rotate into the empty space when Fabinho steps forward.

With Ilsinho’s defensive ineffectiveness opening up acres of space behind the overly aggressive CJ Sapong, the Union constantly left players in positions that forced them to choose the least bad option. Wingers with two players to shadow, central midfielders with so much space behind them that if they were a step late to pressure, they simply ran themselves out of the play trying to close down the ball carrier as he easily bypassed them.

Below, you can see huge gaps left between defense and midfield that almost leads to a 3v1 against Fabinho on the far side (3v1!)

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Then you can see Epps get caught ball watching and sitting in a spot that both leaves the man closest to the ball uncovered and keeps the rookie from being an option on an outlet.

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Perhaps most worryingly though, New Jersey was consistently able to create situations like the one below, where a central midfielder drifted into space vacated by the Union defense and was entirely unrecognized by, well, anybody. This was not an isolated incident: It was a feature of how Red Bull attacked and the Union defended, and it shows an open space that Nemanja Nikolic will feast on this weekend if left unguarded.

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In the second half, Jim Curtin made a simple but effective change by dropping Warren Creavalle behind Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. The defensive midfielder is an excellent sweeping player with truly elite closing speed, and his presence allowed the Union front five to put more pressure on the ball even if the centerbacks remained deep. Below, you can see a good counterpress from Chris Pontius but a lack of support from Bedoya to close down the only outlet pass.

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Additionally, Creavalle pushed the other central midfielders forward, creating opportunities for runs beyond the the striker.

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Still, though, Philly struggled to be effective in transition. In the first half, Ilsinho’s off-day meant counterattacks could be stamped out before they ever began. The Brazilian has always been an inconsistent passer, but his current lack of confidence has showed through in increasingly frustrating ways recently. The pass below is incredibly ambitious, which is a euphemism for “extremely low chance of success.” Furthermore, it’s a ball in behind to Sapong, a player who, for all his qualities this season, remains unwilling to dictate play to centerbacks by making proactive early runs to stretch a defense.

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Although Ilsinho exited at halftime, the lack of movement when Medunjanin was on the ball remained problematic. The Bosnian can be a hugely effective transition-starter with his passing range (even if it was a bit off on Sunday), and his accuracy and range should prompt runs behind the defense or into wide areas that work beyond New Jersey’s powerful counterpress.

There were, of course, positives. Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Union’s second half play was the effectiveness of Ale Bedoya’s deep runs in opening space through the center. Bedoya has always been able to make these disruptive movements, but his defensive duties and Philly’s lack of final third possession have limited their influence.

By playing further up the pitch, Bedoya could begin his runs earlier, meaning that he could clear more space for the winger or fullback to move inside, and he could pull defenders off of Sapong. Below, Bedoya makes a good supporting run through the center and is let down by incredibly disappointing movement from Pontius and Sapong, who do nothing to move the defense.

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In the next clip, Bedoya makes an early run into the back line that not only opens a huge hole (that Creavalle doesn’t take) but also pulls a defender off of Sapong. These are the runs that no player in the 10 role has made consistently since Bedoya was moved deeper.

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(For an example of how good movement from advanced midfield positions can be beneficial in tight spaces, see Kljestan below.)

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If they were not already in dire need of wins, this would have been a good result for the Union. New Jersey was more active and spent most of the first half probing the Union defense, but Andre Blake made sure Jim Curtin had a chance to insert Creavalle before it was too late. The change in midfield shape was both necessary and, in broader terms, far too late. It has been clear for a while that the Union are not getting enough production or protection out of their number 10 role to justify its use. Inserting Creavalle and pushing Bedoya and Medunjanin forward is a fairly simple and natural switch. In attack, Jim Curtin must decide how he wants Medunjanin to get on the ball and where, because moving the Bosnian forward could expose him to quicker pressure. This is doable, though, and it will be disappointing if the Union return to their typical setup going forward.

Additionally, Creavalle’s passing range and consistency is a real limitation, but it can be overcome with good spacing. Even if Creavalle operates mostly to play simple passes back to defenders, doing so quickly can shift a defense and allow a quick switch of play to Medunjanin.

None of this is ideal, but it is likely a more effective use of the current roster.


  1. PhilinWilmiington says:

    Adam, thanks for such consistently good work – week in and week out. If the Union played half as well as you write, they’d be a lock for the playoffs…

    • Thanks so much for saying that, man. I sincerely appreciate it.

    • I know I said see you all next season, but I’ve been here reading, at least. So, never wanting to miss a chance to compliment Adam, I second Phil’s comment. Funny thing is despite the great analysis the most telling is the last three paragraphs. Sad. Great job as always Adam!

  2. Just more proof that this roster build is bad up the middle. Should have gotten a true 10 and only 1 of Bedoya and Medunjanin. Creavalle and Jones and Edu (ha) is enough to handle the 6. It’s the same thing that happened last year. It kills our connection through the midfield.

    • If we get a real #10, we can still use Medunjanin and Jones (or Creavalle) at DM, and put Bedoya out on the wing, where he should be able to have more consistent influence on the offensive game.

  3. Section 114 (Former) says:

    This piece, like Tim’s piece earlier today, lead me to try to mock up how the Union should stack up next season. And it really becomes clear that our two best, and most expensive, non-keepers play the exact same position, and it happens to be a position with incredible cheap depth on the roster.
    I see three possible solutions:
    (i) trade/sell one of Bedoya/Haris,
    (ii) switch to a 3-4-3 or 3-1-2-3-1 scheme, or
    (iii) push Bedoya wide right
    One of these seems much easier than the others. And the fact we haven’t tried it is Exhibit A — or 934 depending if we are going with importance or a running count — on why a new manager is needed.

    • Looks like we had the same idea at the same time…

    • Honestly, I’d be ok with selling both of them. Positionally, both of them create very weird heat maps that are hard to play off of.
      Someone with a decent set of tactical acumen (ie nobody that we have running the team currently) could build a team around one or the other, but having both really skews our shape.

  4. NEW MANAGER!!!!!! Please Please Please get someone who has done this before.

  5. It is very difficult to analyze Brownian motion.

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