Commentary / Union

The growing pains of the 4-4-2 diamond

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union’s Saturday season opener against Toronto FC gave the impression that the Union knew exactly what they wanted to do but weren’t able to do it.

Granted, it’s week 1 with a new system, so there are more questions than answers at this point. There hasn’t been nearly enough time to draw conclusions about whether or not the new system, formation, and tactical philosophy work.

However, it is fair to ask whether or not the Union were able to successfully do what they set out to do in implementing their new approach. As with most things related to the Union, the answer is a half-hearted shrug and an equivocal “maybe.”

A wing and a prayer

The big Kahuna of the new system is the promise of a dynamic Union midfield that can transition seamlessly from defense to offense, and vice versa.

Cornerstones of the system are the wingback and outside back hybrid defenders that are being called to be offensive springboards while being pacy enough to recover defensively to guard against counterattacks. This is the role that Kai Wagner was brought on board to fill on the left side, and it is the role that Ray Gaddis is being given priority over Olivier Mbaizo in fulfilling on the right side.

At first glance, it seems like Wagner was able to execute his position effectively. He had the most touches on the Union squad, which speaks to how vital the outside backs will be for the Union’s success going forward.

At the same time however, the right side of the pitch with Gaddis was overexposed and served as the seedbed for many of Toronto’s attacking drives. This is a natural byproduct of Wagner being forward and Gaddis having to shift centrally to provide cover. Without the Union midfielders tracking back to provide effective reinforcement, the Union were doomed to fail.

The statistics from Saturday’s match paint the clearest picture. The Union outnumbered Toronto FC in touches with 686 against Toronto’s 497, while at the same time, Toronto had more shots on target and, obviously, triple the goal count.

The essential component of the Union’s new strategy is to transition quickly enough to generate high-likelihood goal-scoring opportunities, while minimizing the overall exposure risk defensively. If the Union end up unable to convert possession into goals, then it’ll be very hard to see how they’ve matured from last season, especially if their defensive exposure means gifting goal after goal to their opposition.

The most glaring problem that manager Jim Curtin will have to break down and analyze from Saturday’s match is understanding why the Union were unable to convert their 62% possession into goals, while their opponents were able to easily do so.

Strike partners

The new two-striker system was meant, on paper, to give more latitude to the strikers to be offensive threats, but the statistics show that it played out very differently on the pitch. If you combine the on-target shots of the Union’s strikers — Cory Burke, Fafa Picault, and Sergio Santos — you number you get will be zero. In fact, Marco Fabian was the only player to have more than one shot on target. The coaching staff will need to troubleshoot that going forward unless they want a repeat of last season’s early goal-scoring drought.

While there is a lot that the Union have left wanting, the new formation and approach still have the potential of bringing out some attractive football and putting points on the Eastern Conference table. One bright spot to the Union’s attack was the utilization of dangerous lobbed through balls down the center of the pitch. That approach, in addition to the work of the team along the corners, drew a sizable number of set pieces, which will likely play an important role for the Union this season. While Fabian’s penalty goal was the highlight, it is important to note all of the other set pieces that the Union were able to collect. They had eight corners to Toronto’s one, as well as six attempts originating from free kicks compared to Toronto’s zero. If the Union invest the time and work into honing in on their set-piece execution, it can become a significant strength going forward.

Attempts to judge the Union’s play in the coming weeks will be confounded by an unusually difficult opening month of fixtures and the relative inexperience of the squad with the new system. The Union have a lot to prove this year. Whether or not they capitalize on their opportunities will make the difference.


  1. The growing pain is that Curtin is an idiot and started Ilsinho at the 8 and Haris at the 6.

    • New player signing at the 8

      • That solves half the problem. Now Curtin needs to solve the other half.

        We don’t know quite enough about Montero yet. Word is that he’s a box-to-box guy. If so, he slots in as the #7, and Jones need to be the 6.

        Alternatively, if Montero can function well as a #6, then leaves the possibility of trying Haris at the 7 (though I’m skeptical).

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    The Union did lob a lot of passes forward on Saturday. I would argue that’s more the fault of the midfield and forwards not checking to the man in possession enough and leaving said-player without other options (there were plenty of moments, particularly in the second half, when the Union had 4 players flat with Toronto’s 5-man back line and no one in the spaces in between). It can’t continue, even if it had moments of success.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    One thing that is missing from this analysis is the total shots rather than just shots on target. The Union outshot Toronto 17-8 but only had 4 on target compared with 5 for Toronto. 6 of the remaining Union shots were blocked leaving 7 off target. That means that the Union had almost as many shots off target as Toronto had total shots. What the Union need to find a way to fix is how to get those shots on target. A different formation won’t make that better or worse per se.

  4. Food for thought: Gaddis vs Rosenberry Gaddis was Offensively Worse and Defensively Worse in the same formation in the snow.

    Gaddis Stats



  5. Too generous to Gaddis that he had to tuck in because Wagner was up the field. There’s not tucking in on a 3 man back line. What happened is that he has no attacking awareness so he gets caught up the field in no mans land where he’s useless to help the attack and so out of position defensively he can’t recover. There was a reason Elliot had to make so many long recovery runs. The Gaddis as a starter era needs to end. He’s the most out of of position player in the new formation, including Medunjanin at the 6 and Ilsinho at the 8.

  6. A high pressure system requires midfielders who run well and don’t tire easily. That excludes Ilson and Haris.
    IMO they either need to play Fafa out of position as the left side of diamond or bring up one of the kids. Bedoya’s not young but he has a great motor and should be fine on the right with more defensive help as a partner and at the #6.
    Looking forward to seeing Mbaizo on the right too.

  7. Chris Gibbons says:

    Paul Rudderow is the hero here: he captured Ray Gaddis winning a header. A rare, rare feat.

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