Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Colorado Rapids 3-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

There was a moment late in the first half hour of Philadelphia Union’s 3-0 loss to Colorado Rapids when, on the Rapids broadcast, Marcelo Balboa complemented the Union’s ability to create pockets of space in the wide areas.

It’s true — Philly spent the first third of the match forcing the home side into aimless clearances, and they pulled wingbacks Marlon Hairston and Edgar Castillo into uncomfortable positions away from their center backs. But nobody attacked the space. The Union were content to hold possession far from the Rapids’ goal, and eventually Colorado found time for a first pass out of pressure. Then the Union shape became stretched, and control of the match slipped inexorably to the eventual winners.

In a tight competition for “most frustrating aspect of the match,” the Union’s inability to create chances from numerous turnovers near the halfway line may be the runaway winner. Philly has now created exactly one big chance against a full strength opponent in 2018, and it came against New England.

High press and keep it tight…

On Saturday night, the Union kept the Rapids on their heels early with decisive pressing and a compact, aggressive defense. Additionally, Philly showed a strong desire to be direct after creating turnovers, but they lacked the coordination in attack to punish their hosts. In the clip below, Haris Medunjanin immediately plays forward after winning the ball back and new signings Borek Dockal and David Accam flash their potential. Although the play comes to nothing, it should become a common sight if Jim Curtin’s men can get on the same page more often.

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Flashing potential has, unfortunately, been the Union’s modus operandi thus far in 2018. Accam can spin chaos into a defensive shape any time he has space to run at a back line, but those opportunities have been rare.

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That shot from Fabian Herbers was the only one the Union generated from open play in their mostly-dominant opening half hour (C.J. Sapong added two headers off corners and Accam had a shot blocked after another corner pinballed to him at the back post).

(Also, Dockal’s reaction to Herbers’ miss is… emphatic?)

For better or for worse, it is difficult to pin Philly’s offensive woes on a single player. Instead, there is a clear lack of rhythm in midfield, and the resulting spacing issues are making it extremely difficult for the team to generate chances. For instance, below Dockal pops out onto the left flank and draws wingback Marlon Hairston forward. Trusty makes a wonderful read to find Matthew Real, who has advanced into the space Hairston left behind. All yay so far.

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Another interesting wrinkle in Philly’s buildup play was Medunjanin’s positioning behind the first line of defense.

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Colorado’s pressing system is, let’s say, aggressive. There are elements that are very similar to Antonio Conte’s Italy at Euro 2016, in particular the way the No. 8s make long sprints out of midfield to suddenly change the numerical situation in buildup and press the ball. Early on, before the Union got a bit jumpy and started playing long, Medunjanin’s forward positioning helped dull these pressing moves. When the first striker went to close down a fullback, the second striker would get tight to the Bosnian midfielder, and this left a lane across the pitch for a skip pass to the far center back.

…but where are the chances?

The next sequence is where things get wonky. Accam drifts into the middle, opening the flank for a runner. Dockal, though, makes an inside overlap run and ends up in the same space as Medunjanin. The flank, in all of its glorious spaciousness, remains empty.

In the clip below, Philly rotates the ball well and creates an opportunity to isolate Accam against a center back (this is a ball that Accam absolutely needs to demand). However, the spacing is once again uneven. Dockal has checked in extremely tight, but he doesn’t clear a lane into the acres of space he has left behind. By moving square to Real, Dockal could have either opened a lane or forced Jack Price to cover that lane, in which case Dockal would have found space for himself. It is also something of a moot point since nobody threatened the gap between the center backs or the space behind Dockal.

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Alternatively, Dockal could sit deeper, opening the space close to Real for Medunjanin, who could take a pass moving forward and away from his marker.

Spacing was a consistent issue down the left, where Accam’s narrow movements paired with Real’s conservative forward runs to blunt the Union’s attacks. Below, you can see Real remaining behind Philly’s quick transition even as Accam pulls Colorado’s defense narrow.

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The Rapids have had real trouble this season when their high midfield pressure leads Price to step beyond the opposition attacking midfielder, and this is exactly what happens. Dockal’s attacking run is decisive and creates lots of room on the outside, but in the end this may simply be the type of learning experience Union fans have to live with as they watch the youngest back line in MLS history go through its growing pains. Additionally, Accam should learn to find dangerous spaces within the Union’s system as time goes on. Below, he once again remains too narrow when Colorado leaves him against a slower opponent with space on the far wing.

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The other big spacing issue for the Union came from the uncoordinated movements of Herbers and Dockal.

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Herbers constantly looked to move inside, but it was unclear at times if he was simply looking for free zones or if Philly was intentionally clearing gaps for him. The growing disorganization of the Union’s midfield trio meant that, at times, all three formed a wide band across the pitch and offered no routes through which to advance the ball vertically. In these cases, it made sense for Herbers to occasionally drift inside.

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Above, you can see that Philly has seven players behind Colorado’s shape. The Rapids played a zonal midfield, so stationing a body inside that diamond that develops just inside the Colorado half can create uncertainty for the defense when they need to decide who presses and who holds.

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Yet, there were also times when Herbers and Dockal seemed to be reading from different playbooks. Above, you can see them practicing the buddy system.

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And in the clip above, they press the same player and allow the Rapids to easily progress up the right flank. This is the type of thing that could be worked out in preseason, but instead was likely reinforced for Herbers by Anthony Fontana’s deeper movements in the attacking midfield role. Fontana’s all-action approach meant he would often check deep and leave the attacking midfield hole.

Herbers rough night in general

But this was undeniably a difficult evening for Philly’s right winger. Herbers was unable to read and exploit space behind Edgar Castillo, and he fell into the habit of checking in too tight for the ball, essentially closing out his own space.

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If Herbers stays wide, Accam has a 1v1 against a center back and Herbers can make an angled run into the space the defender left behind. Alternatively, the winger can pull wide to the touchline to make Castillo choose between stepping to Accam or keeping tight to his man.

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In the above clip, Herbers makes what is ostensibly a good check to the ball, but he comes so close that he takes away Rosenberry’s option up the line. Now the fullback must move into the center where Jack Price is waiting on him. If Herbers checks and uses his body to hold off his man, he can try to turn his defender — who is extremely isolated — or he can play Rosenberry up the wing.

With Fafa Picault coming back, Herbers’ spot is under threat. He offers an ability to combine up the wing that Picault lacks, but with Ilsinho shifted outside again Jim Curtin can afford to ride a hot hand. For the young German, this means even the occasional off-day can be costly in terms of playing time.

Colorado takes control

In the first half, the Rapids sought to attack by playing into the feet of a checking striker.

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The tactic was difficult to execute early on when Philly kept their shape extremely compact. But as the Union struggled to pressure the ball carrier in Colorado’s buildups, the defensive line dropped and the checking striker found additional space.

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In the clip below, the Rapids have spaced out Philly’s lines to the point where they can branch out from their main move.

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They use the checking striker again, but play the ball wide, and Mason curls off of his checking run to attack a gap in the Union back line.

Even though these plays grew in utility as the first half unfolded, Colorado found a far more effective approach in the second frame.

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Nearly all of the Rapids’ attacks in the latter half of the match came from dumping the ball into the right corner. Perhaps this was their attempt to target Matthew Real and Auston Trusty, but it appears more likely that Colorado noticed David Accam did not track his wingback, and this meant the home side often had an extra man if they could control the second ball after lopping it deep.

Indeed, the goal that all but sealed the match came from a long Tim Howard free kick that the Rapids turned into a clean shot — and a wicked, unlucky deflection — on frame inside the box.

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Biggest issues also the biggest opportunities?

Although the Union dropped winnable points to the Rapids, the truth is that this type of start was always a potential consequence of bringing in a key attacking cog at the very last moment. Even with the bye weeks they have had to find rhythm, Philly has had precious little real playing time with Borek Dockal. This is still a team that plays like they don’t have a true attacking midfielder, and that’s leading to frustration when good, high pressure thuds into the dull spear of a disjointed attack. Remaining committed to the press even when the ball isn’t hitting the back of the net is difficult, and Jim Curtin will have to manage the clear frustration players showed as they continually failed to turn good positions into real chances.

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Above, a Dockal error became a wonderful counterpressing moment, but Philly — from their captain on down — showed body language that indicates a focus on the mistake rather than recognition of an opportunity to win the ball back in a great spot.

Counterpressing is all about changing the perception of turnovers, and the Union need to stay locked into that mindset as they head into a matchup against a San Jose Earthquakes team that has a lot of talent but is experiencing their own growing pains in midfield.

But let’s not end on a sour note. Instead, enjoy this completely silly pass from Haris Medunjanin.

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  1. Love the analysis as always. Did Medunjanin hit that with the outside of his left foot?! I love watching sports plays I know I could never, ever replicate. I mostly follow the U and not the rest of MLS, but does everyone turnover their roster each year? Late signings and lack of playing time together are my biggest complaint, rather than whatever moves Curtin does or doesn’t make.

    • Yes, he uses the outside of his left because even at that ridiculous angle and lack of space from his defender’s feet, it is STILL better than trying to use his right. It’s remarkable really how he will hit passes 270 from a natural path just to be able to use his left – does it all the time.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      To break a defense’s lines with that type of pass is really fantastic…the vision, technique…wow.

  2. One point I noticed several times and is shown well in the “Real needs to be wide option – COL collapses well” clip:
    I would also like to see better movement between Accam and CJ. Accam makes a simple vertical run and CJ is in-between minds. I’d rather see him either pull out wider right or make a more decisive run in behind Accam’s space to the left to open up options for Dockal. Instead they all look indecisive which freezes Dockal and give COL time to organize.
    The success of your #10 is based in large part on early decisive runs in front of you that demand a pass. Instead it looks like they are all waiting to see what Dockal does. Hopefully this will improve with some more playing time together, but it’s troubling.
    I 100% agree about Herbers. Besides his usual frustratingly inconsistent technical ability, he looked completely tactically lost. Whether that is on him, Dockal or Curtin, I don’t know, but it was painful to watch.

    • “CJ is in-between minds. I’d rather see him either pull out wider right or make a more decisive run”

      I can’t wait to see this more and more. CJ’s major flaws are always super overlooked because “he plays defense” and he had a lot of tap ins last year.

      But he is just a one trick pony that get’s taken out of games all the time. You watch clips like the one you describe and realize thats who he is! We are stuck with this nonsense forever.

      • Adam Cann says:

        @spugger & james – I’m with you that there needs to be more movement on those runs. The Union definitely use CJ to occupy the center backs, and on that particular play I think it’s fine for him to make a pretty direct run to push the defense back. Then, as you said, it’s up to the other guys to figure out how to use the rest of the space. Accam probably needs to change direction at some point, but it also would be nice to see Dockal use a either a shot or pass feint to freeze a defender. He’s waiting on Accam, and Accam is waiting on him. Hopefully that’ll shake itself out in the near future?

  3. The spacing on the field between players is terrible in every clip. Some of them do not have any idea whether to cut in or out or back or forward. They either lack conditioning or are really not to sure of when and what to press. In the second half clips, any coordination regarding pressing had disappeared. The lack of defensive effort by Accam is criminal and the Union should expect to be attacked on their left side all day long. Looks like Accam will give up as many goals as he gets. They had weeks to get organized, and they still show no signs of it. Good intentions are not enough to create a winning team.

  4. Richie_the_Limey says:

    They are just not organized well at all. Guilty party is Jim Curtin. He clearly doesn’t know how to do it but apparently we are stuck with him.

    I am sick of this shit already and it’s only three games in.

  5. Zizouisgod says:

    Watching the Union play as well as these individual clips, you can’t help but wonder whether the players truly comprehend the system that they are trying to play or just don’t buy into it. I’m not looking at it from a standpoint of this player stinks or that kind of thing. Just more along the lines that as the match proceeds or if they don’t see positive results, the players appear to lose their focus on what they are trying to achieve as a group and start to revert to what they are comfortable with (e.g. – Herbers drifting inside, Bedoya and Dockal moving out to the right side, etc). It’s somewhat concerning because they don’t have a unique player who can turn a match with a moment of brilliance from the run of play and need all of their players working together in order to generate quality chances.

    Adam – I always enjoy your analysis. Thanks for taking the time to put the clips together to illustrate your points.

  6. Here’s some analysis. Why not sub Bedoya and have D Jones or Creavalle mark badji the entire game ???? He was the only offense Colorado had. Yes, there are many many more problems to dive into with this team like MOVEMENT And POSSESSION but I’ll save that for later. Overall, that would have been at least one of my solutions. Curtins reign should be finished here.

  7. Fafa coming back if the one thing I’m looking forward to. Aside from it’s bleak as could be.

  8. This was some of the most enjoyable reading (all while sending me into a fit of frustration) I have had in awhile. Great analysis and I agree with just about every point you made. Look forward to reading more of this as the season goes on.

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