Commentary

As Ernst Tanner era begins, several changes mark a move from Earnie Stewart

The Earnie Stewart era is over. The Ernst Tanner era has begun.

When Philadelphia Union announced their replacement for parting sporting director Earnie Stewart would be Ernst Tanner, comparisons between the two immediately began. Both men had very successful tenures in various director positions with European clubs. Both men’s track records emphasized a sort of “moneyball” approach to soccer — a combination of developing youth, buying and selling players for the right price in the transfer market, and gaining an edge through innovation. Both men were attracted to the Union, in part, by the challenge of building a successful club with limited resources in player acquisition.

After holding an end-of-season press conference Wednesday afternoon, however, Ernst Tanner made several comments that indicate that the Union have moved on from the Earnie Stewart approach in several significant ways. Tanner, of course, never addressed the matter directly, but examining his comments makes several key differences very clear, differences that should benefit the club.

Staying flexible

Fans have heaped criticism onto Jim Curtin for his refusal to deviate from a 4-2-3-1, possession-based system. Ignoring for a moment that said 4-2-3-1 system often shifted to look more like a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, this rigidity falls not on Curtin’s shoulders but on Earnie Stewart’s.

Stewart not only refused to change tactics, but his entire directorial philosophy depended on it. He said as much from his very first press conference, and he continues to say it with the USMNT. The basic argument looks like this:

A club that changes formation and system has to waste time, energy, and money on constant trial and error until they find a few groups that work. In contrast, an unwavering system allows a you to:

  1. Find players that fit a system, rather than search for a stylistically random assortment of players and hope that you can create a system around them.
  2. Train the Academy and Bethlehem Steel players in such a way the system is embedded in them and they can plug in at whatever level their talent allows. This elevation in playing level then helps to improve their skill even further.
  3. Develop as a team around one unified system. Becoming masters of one style is better than becoming adequate at several.

It’s a good argument to make in theory, but it fell short in practice. Tanner personally noted this in his comments Wednesday. ““I find that we are a little bit too easy to reckon,” Tanner said. “Especially when everyone knows that we are playing in a 4-2-3-1.”

For all the benefits that Stewart’s steadfast commitment to philosophy provided the Union, it had the achilles’ heels of predictability and poor matchups.

Opposing teams will play better against you if they already know what you are going to do. This maxim holds true of any head-to-head sport. Sure, if you play your game well enough, it sometimes doesn’t matter whether or not the opponent knows your plan ahead of time. Perhaps this was the case with many of the teams whom the Union beat this season. For the most part, those teams finished at the bottom of the table. The Union struggled against the top-tier clubs, the clubs that stand in the way of trophies. These are the clubs against whom the Union cannot afford to play predictably.

Adherence to the same style also becomes incompatible against certain opponents and in certain conditions. In the Union’s three biggest games of the year, they fell short. Very, very short. These losses were largely chalked up to bad matchups and poor conditions:

“The Union are a better team than Houston in MLS rankings, but playing them in the Open Cup Final was just a bad stylistic matchup.”

“The Union might have beaten NYCFC at Talen Energy Stadium, but their style can’t work at Yankee Stadium. They just got unlucky.”

Even if that’s true, that’s a huge problem. A soccer club can’t simply pick a playing style and hope that luck hands them favorable matchups in key games. Tanner instead envisions a club that has a “Plan A, Plan B, and even a Plan C” that they can implement if their possession game doesn’t seem to be the best tactical matchup.

The change may sacrifice some of the advantages of Stewart’s one-system philosophy, but it solves problems that pose a bigger threat to success.

Allegiance, but not blind allegiance

Earnie Stewart chose his staff and personnel in much the same way that he organized his club’s tactics and strategy – that is, he often refused to make changes. It was a kind of “devil you know” mentality. Again, his reasoning looked something like this:

  1. Good managers are hard to come by anywhere in the world, let alone in MLS
  2. Therefore, a club that changes managers is likely to wind up with a poor manager
  3. If the manager you have is improving, then he may improve to be the type of manager your club needs

Jim Curtin has improved with each season, so Earnie Stewart never saw reason to let him go. Had Stewart stayed with the Union, he likely would have given Curtin a multiple year contract.

It should also be mentioned that Stewart has the stated goal of growing “The American Soccer Coach.” Finding young American coaches and having them learn and improve is a part of that mission.

Ernst Tanner probably does not have that mission. Curtin certainly had his flaws this season as a coach. He would admit as much. At the same time, he has proven his abilities to develop young talent and to change styles with the changing of management — two things Tanner views as key to the Union’s success right now.

It’s reasonable, then, that Tanner and the Union gave Curtin a one year extension to continue improving without the sort of allegiance for allegiance’s sake that Stewart might have shown.

Staying open

Aside from tactical flexibility, Tanner’s most notable divergence from Stewart is his candidness.

Earnie Stewart was not particularly open with the media, likely because he saw no benefit in being open. The club was going to make the moves they were going to make regardless of what they said to the media, so why let anyone else know beforehand?

Again, it’s an okay argument to make for the team. Perhaps the sporting director should do only that which benefits the team. Anything else could be viewed as a risk — exposing team secrets, letting the competition on to the club’s means of operation. But it’s infuriating for a fan base that existed before the team itself and that pays money to support their club.

Stewart’s solution was to hold closed door meetings with small groups of season ticket holders who were not allowed to leak what was said. Tanner’s solution is to speak openly about the club’s intentions.

In his press conference, Tanner called out the team’s flaws directly, addressed exactly the means by which the team plans to correct those flaws, and clearly defined the club’s goal: Win trophies.

It’s an openness that the fanbase and the media alike are sure to appreciate.

Tanner did emphasize one thing that even he admitted might harken back to a more frustrating aspect of the Earnie Stewart era.

“We might have quite a challenge in front of us, which demands a little bit of time and patience,” Tanner said. “That’s what you might have heard before, but… if you do changes, [they] will not happen within a couple of weeks or months.”

8 Comments

  1. Earnie Stewart was who we should ahve had to start the Union. Tanner seems like the guy to take us to the next level. It’s a shame that the seasons before Earnie were basically wasted from a standpoint of making the organization into a professional one. It does seem to me in hindsight that Earnies philosophy is too elementary to achieve real success at this level. Hopefully Tanner can build on the foundation and make it completely professional.

  2. Desh Bouksani says:

    I’ve spoken to Ernst Tanner four times over the last several months and like what we appear to have in the man.

  3. I am sure he is a fine man. He opened up with a huge swing and a miss in retaining Curtin.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      The fact nothing ever is positive from you negates your opinion 100%.
      .
      Food for thought. Unless being a complainer only ….. is the intention.

      • I look forward to having positive things to say.

        Let me know when there is something.

      • Not wanting Curtin to return/thinking it was a mistake for them to bring him back is a fine opinion to have shared by many on this site. Having that as literally the only thing you post isn’t. Don’t you get bored typing the same thing multiple time a day?

  4. I keep going against hope that someone will listen.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

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