Tactical Analysis / Union

Tactical analysis: Chicago Fire 3-2 Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union have been consistent this season, but consistent in many of the wrong ways.

  • They consistently give up goals in the final 15 minutes of matches.
  • They have consistently implemented defensive adjustments on a game-to-game basis.
  • They have consistently undone their defensive work with errors that surprise and stun in equal measure.
  • And, of course, they have consistently failed to turn good positions into good chances.

Against a Chicago side missing two major players (at least one, Bastian Schweinsteiger, a crucial piece of the club’s renaissance), the Union delivered a performance befitting their season: Exhausting, unremarkable, and, ultimately, pointless.

Own the center and don’t make mist — ah, crap

Philly had the right plan. For the second straight meeting, they aimed to close up the center against a Fire roster that struggles to play in tight spaces without Schweinsteiger and Juninho on hand to orchestrate movement. The Union initially played Fafa Picault and Chris Pontius high alongside C.J. Sapong to narrow the pitch, basically daring the Fire to rein in their advancing fullbacks.

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Chicago’s response was to pull right back Matt Polster inside to create another angle for advancing through the central vertical of the pitch. Polster — and Brandon Vincent at times — could occupy Ilsinho and Bedoya, shifting them around to open vertical lanes to Nemanja Nikolic and the AWOL Luis Solignac or diagonal lanes out to the wings if nothing was on.

The Union usually handled this well. Chicago’s wide attackers were often tempted to drop inside with Nikolic an inconsistent member of the buildup play. This meant the Fire lost their width entirely, and it freed up Fabinho to be aggressive and Picault to stay high and look for transition chances.

Chicago’s tedious ball movement meant that even with Ilsinho playing as a true midfielder with important defensive responsibilities, it took an hour for the Fire to wear down Philly’s midfield. Even then, it’s hard not to look at the Union’s own inability to retain the ball as a key member of the team of thieves that sapped Philly’s energy. Haris Medunjanin’s smart reads also created turnovers in midfield that the Union broke from well in the opening half.

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Philly put extremely low pressure on the ball in the first phase of Chicago’s buildup, but collapsed well on passes into the middle.

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The Fire’s coordinated wide movements were designed to move a winger into the lanes behind Bedoya and Ilsinho, but throughout the first half, Medunjanin was on hand to close down those spaces.

A huge issue for the Fire, and one that Veljko Paunovic remedied at halftime, was that Drew Conner and Djordje Mihailovic were unable to occupy Medunjanin and keep him from patrolling the central vertical. Even when Bedoya was caught high or Ilsinho was caught flat-footed, the Fire were unable to find players in midfield with space to turn until the Union tired after the hour mark.

And yet the Union still gave up a goal. Out of absolutely nothing.

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Fire follies

A large part of the Union’s early success was the Fire’s inability to connect long diagonals and bypass the midfield. This allowed Philly’s wings to remain in high positions for transition play and meant the Fire were unable to pile bodies around the ball to slow Union counters.

As a result, Chicago’s midfield was pushed deep in the early stages of the match covering Philly’s three- and four-man counters. This meant the Union could find Medunjanin with time to create near the final third, and when this happens, the Bosnian is generally a very effective creator (though one must ask what Ilsinho was thinking making that first aerial pass toward Bedoya).

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Combined with Chicago’s impotent central attack, this tilted the match toward Philly, provided the visitors could get enough bodies forward after they won the ball.

Another strange aspect of the first half was how stretched the Fire became vertically when defending. The Union’s central defensive duo stayed predictably deep, and Chicago continually got dragged high chasing the ball without support. As a result, fans were treated to the weird and wonderful world of Richie Marquez dribbling around the first line of defense, looking up, seeing little, and trying to figure out what to do next.

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Certainly, the Fire are not going to complain if Philly’s key buildup player is Marquez, but the space in which the defender found himself after rounding Nikolic and Solignac was far too large and forced Chicago defenders out of position closing the ball down.

Elliott and “that” mistake

You know, the mistake Josh Yaro already made this season. The one in which a player with no route to goal is needlessly fouled in the box. The one that draws forth rage and sympathy for the young offender in equal measure.

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Elliott had no business competing for the ball with David Accam in the box. He knows this. Accam is so quick that he can show you the ball and still beat you to it every single time. And that’s exactly what he did to Elliott. But it would be wrong to ignore the incredibly low pressure on the ball that allows a pass deep into the box to be played from inside the Union half. If you give the man on the ball that much space, your defense has no choice but to drop deep and play into Accam’s hands.

After the tying goal, the Union, so often castrated by a second half mistake, showed life. They were aggressive, threw bodies forward, and found good positions around the edge of the Chicago box.

Ilsinho and the same mistake

But remember: Philly does not have a final third creator, or really anything close. Instead they have a 30+ Brazilian winger who has no business dictating play around the opponent’s box.

If those words seem strong, there is now nearly a full season’s worth of evidence to support them.

There is simply no reason to expect Ilsinho to produce in the final third. Zero. None.

What he does well, he does in 1-v-1 situations with all the time that he will never find in the middle of the pitch. What he does poorly is, unfortunately, everything the Union have asked him to do this season.

I mean, you just cannot choose a tight-window through ball to Ray Gaddis in the box over a 3-v-2 at the far post.

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This is one of a number of instances in Sunday’s match in which Ilsinho either chose the wrong option or selected the right one and played a poor ball. It is unfortunate that it feels like piling on to point out these issues once more, but as long as the Union stare into the sun, it makes sense to point out why it’s a bad idea, even if it seems as though they are perfectly happy to scorch some retina.

You think the kids should play?

Alright, now it does feel like piling on Ilsinho… but it would be impossible to make it out of this analysis without wondering why the Brazilian was still on the pitch after Chicago tied things up.

In general, Jim Curtin’s use of subs has improved this season, and considering his options, he deserves credit for that. Curtin clearly doesn’t trust Jay Simpson, is wary of breaking up his back line, and must navigate a world in which his best attacking option off the bench has not shown any desire to participate in team defense.

But it is difficult to justify leaving Ilsinho on late in this game when at least one point was there to be had. First, Derrick Jones is on the bench, and leaving him there with Ilsinho in midfield is a worrying indictment of the trust Curtin has in Jones right now. Second, there is all the evidence from the second half that, while the Brazilian was willing to make his recovery sprints (after allowing the first pass out of the corner),

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he was clearly shutting down in basic defensive sets.

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Another oddity of the substitution choices was leaving out Keegan Rosenberry, who remains one of the better crossers and long passers on the roster. Jay Simpson, who is, by virtue of being on a roster, slightly more likely to score in a MLS game than me, was put in up top late in the match. Using Rosenberry as a late-stage wide midfielder might be more beneficial — particularly when going to three in the back — may have been a more beneficial option for a team that had more trouble retaining the ball than finishing.

One more time

Philadelphia Union played the entire 2017 season without a playmaker. By choice, remember.

So it should come as absolutely no surprise that despite playing reasonably well for most of the match, they generated exactly (deep breaths) three shots after going ahead 2-1, and only two shots after the 16th minute (neither on goal). The shooters? Richie Marquez and Jay Simpson.

That, quite frankly, is absurd. Philly got in good positions, broke well more than once, but generated nothing. Nada. Zip.

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And now, to compound the absurdity, they have a chance to close out the season with a tenth home win and finish with exactly the same number of points they secured on their way to the playoffs last year.

The difference — the fist-shakingly predictable difference — is that the conference is better now (hey, Atlanta!), and the Union are every bit as flawed as they were a year ago at this time.

That is not to say the Union are the same.

The club lost their best player. They replaced him with a far, far different player that, whether anybody at the club admits it or not, necessitated a far, far different strategy. Prior to the 2016 season, Jim Curtin could talk about a high pressure system with strength through the center: the energetic Tranquillo Barnetta flanked by Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu sounded quite nice.

But it never happened.

Nogueira was replaced with Ale Bedoya, who can execute a press. But after that? Medunjanin may be able to do it for parts of a match, but not consistently.

Strategically, the Union hit the reset button in 2017, just like they did the year before that and the year before that. The shape may have stayed the same, but the tactics did not. And instead of creating and building on a foundation, the Union never seem to get beyond a shaky base reinforced with surprises like Jack Elliott and short-term semi-solutions like Haris Medunjanin.

So this is where things stand going into the final match of the year: At the start of the 2016 season, Philly was determined to press and press well. Now, two seasons later, there’s this.

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  1. Can we get Adam and Peter and El Pachy and Old Soccer Coach and all the other PSP contributors in a room with the Union front office this off-season to help them understand their problems?? Please??

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I appreciate the compliment, MarkZ, but after the poor Union start my interest shifted to analyzing the Steel, and enjoying the Union when they played well and ignoring them when they didn’t.


  2. I believe that Curtin has taken the talent and gotten the least out of it, but that ending raises a good point: what was Earnie’s plan for the talent he assembled?
    Sapong, Bedoya, and Pontius are two-way talents, guys who will perform their basic offensive tasks but who provide much of their value from their ability to defend and pressure up the field. But there’s only two other guys on the roster with that profile, one who was never expected to play this season (Edu) and one was a second year player who spent much of last season as a backup and hadn’t established himself as a starter (Herbers). But the five of them together, and you can start to see a strategy form: Sapong up top, Pontius and Herbers on the wings, Bedoya supporting Sapong, Edu and a D-mid cutting out the middle behind him. Generate pressure, transition quickly to offense, and compensate for the lack of a true playmaker with getting the ball in dangerous positions/situations and 5 guys who can transition quickly. But that required having Edu and Herbers play this entire season, and that was never going to happen, so…then what?
    Alberg, Davies, Ilsinho, Medunjanin, Najem, Epps, Fafa, and Simpson were all known to be largely 1-way offensive players with weird skillsets (and in the cases of Simpson and Davies, it wasn’t clear they had any skills at all, which has unfortunately proven true). Carroll, Creavalle, and Jones were 3 D-Mids with overlapping skillsets. The presumed starting outside backs, Fabinho and Rosenberry, are valuable for their ability to contribute on offense, but the roster only has one target man on it.
    Like, what was the strategy? When Earnie put this roster together, how did he envision it fitting together? None of these pieces go together. It’s a team designed to lump in crosses but with only one target man. It’s a team designed to press, but with only 3 guys capable of actually executing it consistently. It’s a team designed to win 1-on-1 battles on the outside, but with nobody capable of helping turn those wins into scoring opportunities. There’s no rhyme or reason here. Curtin has to go, because he never tried to actually do anything with this group, but Earnie has to do a much better job of putting together a coherent roster this offseason.

    • I completely agree although I think you give Earnie too much of a pass here. Honestly who has been as advertised or better that was brought in under Earnie? Bedoya is as advertised but we wanted him before. Medunjanin is as advertised (but honestly is he much better than Nogueria?). Fafa and Gooch were decent decent. Elliot was a pure luck draft pick. So not only does the roster construction not work in terms of style, but the players have also been consistently bad. I’m sure some of that is on Curtin, but he’s also been able to get a decent amount of player to improve so it’s not like he’s ruining everyone so it can’t just be him.

  3. Bless you, Adam for continuing to do this week after week. It can’t be easy to remain motivated to do so, but it’s appreciated by many here at PSP.

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