Analysis / For Pete's Sake

Postgame analysis: Union 1-3 Toronto FC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Despite some shiny new pieces in the lineup and the promise of a new tactical system, once again the Union disappointed in a loss to Toronto FC — their ninth loss in an eleven-match winless streak against the Canadian champions.

One match in a new tactical system isn’t enough data to get a complete understanding of how the Union’s new 4-4-2 diamond shape, high-pressing tactics, and revamped personnel will end up working this year.

But even though it’s just one data point, there’s quite a bit we can scratch out of this match.

Like a window in your heart

The starting XI had its fair share of surprises. Some make sense due to injuries suffered in preseason — notably Sergio Santos, who missed several preseason matches, was left out for Cory Burke.

Other choices made… less sense. The newfangled diamond midfield seemed extremely bereft of steel (and I’m not just talking about Bethlehem products). Haris Medunjanin as the base of the diamond is fine if he gets some protection. Ilsinho is… not that protection. (More on the Medunjanin problem later.)

Here’s how Saturday’s lineup would look mapped onto a 4-2-3-1. Makes more sense this way, huh?

How to explain these choices? Think about it this way. Union manager Jim Curtin essentially deployed the same set of players he would have used in last year’s 4-2-3-1, just in a different shape. This seems to be, in essence, Curtin preferring the personnel he trusts over tactics. Ray Gaddis gets the start over Olivier Mbaizo, even though Mbaizo is likely a better fit in this system. Medunjanin and Ilsinho start in roles better occupied by players who have more defensive stability. Consequently, one open question after Saturday’s match is whether Curtin will in fact tweak his lineup to better fit the shape and tactics that he and Ernst Tanner have agreed to use this season.

And here we come to the Derrick Jones situation. It is clear, if you listen to how Curtin speaks about Jones compared to most of the players on the team, that Curtin does not trust the Academy product. He seems to hold him to an impossibly high standard in order to earn a start — something to the effect of “he needs to dominate in training every single day” on the Philly Soccer Show last week. Obviously Curtin sees Jones more than I do, but it’s also true that the Union won two of Jones’s three starts last year, and he was the best player in blue in the third game.

Despite the talk about a youth movement, Curtin still prefers an ancient midfield — the average age of Philly’s starting four was 31.5. If Jones can’t crack the 18 with the club this starved of players who have his skillset, something is seriously wrong. At the very least, he deserves the opportunity to either sink or swim.

That right side has to work hard all night

Though the finishing wasn’t there for the Union, there are positives to take away from an attacking performance that produced a decisive advantage in shots on goal (17 to 8).

Last year’s Union tilted pretty significantly to the right.

With two midfielders in Borek Dockal and Alejandro Bedoya who preferred to drift right, a tricky winger in Ilsinho, and a right back who loved to combine with all three in Keegan Rosenberry, the Union tended to find most of their joy down the right-hand side, with Fafa Picault seemingly isolated over on the left.

Combined heat map for Wagner (top) and Gaddis (bottom).

This pattern wasn’t as apparent in the Toronto game, and there are a few reasons why. One, of course, is that the fullbacks are different. Gaddis isn’t anything like Rosenberry offensively, and Kai Wagner looks to be an upgrade over Gaddis from an attacking perspective on the left. You can see this with a look at their heat maps, with Wagner much more involved than his veteran counterpart.

Another is that the two-striker system seemed to offer the Union a more diverse way of attacking a defense. Rather than pinging a ball to C.J. Sapong to then turn out to the wings, both Picault and Burke made themselves available as targets. Their heat map, too, is relatively balanced on both sides of the pitch.

Combined heat map for Burke and Picault.

Although Marco Fabian leaned slightly to the right side, it wasn’t as extreme as what we were used to seeing last year. These factors, taken together, led the Union to mount a relatively balanced attack at the Toronto goal, with 36% of attacks coming down the left side and 40% coming down the right side.

Hopefully, this is a sign that the 2019 Union will be less predictable in their attacking play than the previous edition of the club.

If you be my bodyguard…

Unfortunately, we now have to talk about Haris Medunjanin.

I’m not going to beat the point to death, mostly because Matt Doyle over at MLSSoccer.com summed it up nicely.

I’m not as inclined to blame Fabian here — in both goals, Bradley is clearly Medunjanin’s man, and he just switches off completely to allow fairly easy goals.

Medunjanin does bring a lot to the side offensively, and it seems from Curtin’s postgame praise that the Bosnian isn’t leaving the lineup entirely. Given that he’s not likely to suddenly develop defensive tenacity, the best solution is likely to bring in a different player at either the base of the diamond (shifting Medunjanin to the left and Bedoya to the right) or on the right who can provide something different. Candidates at the base include Jones and Warren Creavalle, while Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana are options on the right (as are Jones and Creavalle).

The status quo, however, cannot stand.

Help you learn to help yourself

The Union’s 3-5-2 after both substitutions.

This iteration of the Union promised tactical flexibility, and we got it with the desperation switch to a 3-5-2 once Toronto had established a two-goal edge.

It’s tough to say much about the way this worked in practice. The Union drew a penalty from this shape and had a shot cleared off the line by Aurelien Collin’s evil twin, Laurent Ciman. They also looked mostly ineffective from the 80th minute on and ended up conceding the final goal thanks to a defender playing out of position. Some positives, some negatives.

A theoretical 3-5-2 where the destroyer slides into the middle of the defense and the left back becomes a wing back.

It’s worth pointing out here how having a destroyer in the midfield also tracks neatly onto a switch to the 3-5-2. The way the Union ran it on Saturday, Kai Wagner ended up playing as a third center back rather than as a wing back. This is where he was when Nick DeLeon forced him into a turnover that led directly to the third goal. If you have a player like Jones or Creavalle on the pitch already, one solution is to drop that player between the two center backs and play in a quasi-stopper role. The benefit is that this pushes a player like Wagner up to a more natural wing-back role, where he can both provide width in the attack and offer some defensive cover. The way the Union ran it on Saturday, Wagner is taken out of the attack, and doesn’t get much support from Picault in an out-of-position wing back role.

At this point, the 3-5-2 is quite an experimental look. It will be interesting to see whether the Union return to it as the season progresses.

Hello darkness, my old friend

From a macro perspective, this match continued two disturbing trends.

Last year’s Union tended to come up small in big moments — the U.S. Open Cup final, the two matches against NYC FC. A home opener isn’t on the same level, of course. But having brought in a record signing, promising a newfound tactical flexibility that would allow the Union to make a run to the top of the Eastern Conference, and facing an opponent that should have been ripe for the picking, the team wilted. Bad defensive lapses and an inability to finish cost the Union not just a result — but also a chance to start out on the right foot with an understandably skeptical fan base.

The specter of another slow start, too, haunts the Union. The 2017 and 2018 sides both started extremely slowly — the 2017 side started 0-4-4 and didn’t manage a win until May, while the 2018 team also huffed and puffed until the middle of May (2-5-2 for 8 points in nine matches). With a murderous schedule over the next few weeks that includes road dates with Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United followed by a home clash with the pesky Columbus Crew, the Union will need to up their level quickly to avoid digging a major hole.

16 Comments

  1. I like your 3-5-2, Peter, and might like to see McKenzie in the middle instead of Creavale.

    I think we all know the issue…. If this team is going to high press and play with a diamond it needs to have more pace and defensive quality.

  2. A slow start this season may not be as deadly as the last two years due to as you’ve said the difficulty of the initial part of the schedule. In past years we dropped points in some extremely winnable early season games (Orlando comes to mind) and then had to make up points against a backloaded schedule.

  3. McKenzie needs to play. Curtin needs to go if he does another Rosenberry to McKenzie. Try a 3-5-2 if you need to keep Elliot on the field, but McKenzie is in year 2 and needs to play now

    • I agree wholeheartedly. However, Curtin historically is reluctant to start the season with guys who dealt with injuries near the end of preseason. McKenzie and Santos were likely dropped for that reason. The question is whether he’ll be back in the lineup soon – Curtin’s preference is usually to keep using the same defenders until one guy “loses the job” or gets injured.

    • Jimmy bone says:

      Any reason for the urgency of the No 4 playing?
      Just remember the two games against the Pink Cows at the endl of last season.

  4. That ending 3-5-2 looks really awesome with Trusty – Elliot- McKenzie in the back and Bedoya – Jones/Fontana/Aaronson in the middle. That’s a lineup that’s gonna score some goals. It’s a shame we didn’t sign another CB though, depth is weak for a 3 man backline, unless the dude on Steel is ready if necessary.

  5. Here’s the line up that should be put out.

    Santos Picault

    Fabián
    Bedoya Harris/ someone else
    Jones

    Wagner McKenzie Elliot/Collin Mbaizo

    Blake

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Until Curtin makes changes… I’m inclined to think he won’t. He will be the weak link on this team. The roster is playoff caliber.

  7. If Curtin starts Haris on the road I’m just going to hope they lose the next three in a row so he gets the boot. That’s my hope for the season at this point. Curtin isn’t going to change. It’s the same ‘ol shit different season. So tired of this broken record.

  8. Zizouisgod says:

    All of this talk about playing quickly and more direct just won’t work with players like Medujanin and Ilsinho in the line-up. As we all saw and have been pointing out, neither are very aware defensively.

    Sure, they each might be able to modify their style for a short period of time, but they will revert back to what is comfortable for them and that simply is a recipe for failure.

  9. Ilsinho cannot and should not start. He’s way better as an impact sub.

    Harris cannot play holding midfield. He’s shown us a dozen times he doesn’t care to play defense. He’d be a better fit as an attacking or center midfield player. But we just signed Marco? dump him.

    D. Jones must play central defensive midfield or this team will sink. It’s maddening how he doesn’t see the field, and more and more fans are beginning to notice Curtain’s cronyism.

    Bedoya out wide right like his USMNT days. Picault at left mid. Burke looked quite poor Saturday. Santos did nothing but foul and complain.

    The thoughts of playing a 3 man defense are almost comical. In order to play 3 in the back you must have 3 well trained center backs. Only the best teams in the world can pull this formation off.

    Perhaps 5 in the back with wing backs makes more sense and will keep us from conceding and losing matches? draw more often? Who knows, this team is known for an inability to finish or make use of set pieces.

    Curtain is the problem. Don’t expect anything to change people until the proper adjustments are made.

  10. That was one piss poor game of soccer, but it was just that: one game. I’m about as far as you can get from being a Jim Curtin apologist, but I’m willing to exercise a little patience here.

    .

    We all knew, despite what we may have hoped for or what anyone may have hinted at otherwise, that Jim was going to go with his guys in the opener. The only thing I’ll admit to being more than a little surprised at is Derrick Jones not even making the 18, but aside from that, we knew this is what we were going to get from ol’ brown shoes. And we saw it fail, pretty spectacularly.

    .

    With the issues now obvious, the onus is on Curtin to show that he’s willing to adapt and adjust. That he’s got what it takes to recognize things that didn’t work and make changes accordingly.

    .

    To me, the measuring stick for the next month isn’t necessarily wins and losses, although those certainly matter. The measuring stick is the process. Is Jim holding guys accountable for their performances? Is he adapting and adjusting his lineups and his tactics? Is he playing with the pieces to find the right fit, or is he falling back on his tendency to rely on his guys and trusting them to come good, regardless of their fit in the system?

    .

    Ultimately, if we have to spend the first month of the season kicking the tires on a couple of different line-up combinations until we figure out what works best, and end up taking a few knocks along the way, I’m ok with that. But if six weeks from now, all we’ve done is kick the same tire down the same road, over and over again, then it’s time to pull the plug.

    • I’ll concede it was one game, but the Union were one of two teams to lose at home and the only team home or away not to score from open play. So in the first game of the year I feel confident to say besides perhaps Cincy they were the worst team in the league.

  11. Jones not dominating every day in training? We talkin’ about practice man. Not games. Not games. Practice. Practice.

  12. Scottymac says:

    The Union will do well with these lineup diagrams as long as the opponent is blank.
    .
    So is Jim a “good young coach” and “does well with no FO support “
    OR
    “tactically inflexible” and “should go if he’s not playing Jones and McKenzie”?
    .
    Asking for those of us following at home. I’ll hang up and listen to the responses.

  13. I posted this comment in a thread a week and a half ago:

    “February 25, 2019 at 3:13 pm
    _
    I think this will be a pretty good squad, even if they haven’t net improved over last year (which assessment I agree with) because of the new tactics and tactical flexibility. But I really expect them to struggle BIG TIME in March and into April, for 2 reasons.

    On offense, they are just going to need time to gel. Fabián needs time to adjust to the league, neither he nor the strikers know how to play together, and we have no idea who the f*** we’re playing at forward anyway. This is gonna take some time to work out, and it’s not Curtin’s fault.

    On defense, I expect Curtin to try starting Medunjanin at the back point of the diamond, and I expect it to be a disaster. We are not set up to have a non-defense-playing regista in that position, and as long as Jim tries that, we will give up goals in bunches. As soon as he figures out that he needs a real destroyer in that position and starts Derrick Jones, and gives him time to mesh with the young CBs, the D will start to settle down — and then actually may get really good. But I am anticipating Curtin’s love of Haris’ left foot, and his stubbornness, will get the best of him for a while. I hope I’m wrong.”



    Match 1 — not wrong. Now it’s just a question of how long it takes before Curtin figures it out. Or gets fired. Unless it happens soon, expect the Union to be coming back from a deep hole this spring. Just like last season.

    P.S. This new guy they signed sounds very useful. If he can play the 6, great. But the word is that he’s more a Bedoya-type, and that he probably belongs opposite Bedoya on the left. Which still leaves the aforementioned problem.

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