Tactical Analysis / Union

Postgame analysis: FC Cincinnati v. Philadelphia Union

Photo by Paul Rudderow

On a rain-drenched evening in Cincinnati, Philadelphia Union earned their second well-deserved victory in a row. These points came from the home field of the debutant darlings of Major League Soccer, FC Cincinnati.

It was a thorough victory, one in which the Union dominated possession, absolutely stymied The Lions’ counterattack, and made the major qualifier of the evening, an unyielding and torrential downpour, a mere footnote in the match summary.

Sticking to the plan

The Union changed their shape in a 3-0 win against Columbus last Saturday, in response to some injured bodies and lots of international call ups. They changed back again against Cincinnati, bringing their diamond midfield to the Lion’s den.

That the Union did this once in a season is in itself noteworthy. That they did it twice, in back to back matches (and once on the road), should tell the reader something about the Union that has perhaps not been true during Jim Curtin’s tenure: there is real, genuine tactical flexibility in this high-quality side, the Union manager finally has enough rope or guile to implement it, and the team are playing for points every time out in a league where road victories are harder to come by than any other top flight in the world.

Though Cincinnati pressed from their “empty bucket” early in the match, something they had done with success in their prior two outings, they dropped their line to midfield for most of the match. The only consistent passing lane they tried to eliminate was the one from the back four to Haris Medunjanin (below). Cincinnati did this because they have observed that when this passing lane is unavailable, Union defenders have taken to hammering a long ball in response.

Cincinnati was right about that habit several times over the weekend, but more often than not the Union were able to rotate out of this pressure or split lines through it with the ball on the ground. Below is a great example of the former, and how the Boys in White blunted the Boys in Orange and Blue’s strategy and ultimately made them lose their shape.

  1. Medunjanin drops deep and wide, to the right of Jack Elliott and on his left foot so he can open to the midfield
  2. Bedoya shifts from his central role to the touch line, making the left side of Cincinnati’s defense pay attention to him and…
  3. Ray Gaddis, two thirds of the way up the pitch and forcing decisions to be made by Cincinnati defenders, checks inside and becomes a de facto defensive midfielder, patiently drawing Cincinnati out before moving the ball again. For what it’s worth, Gaddis had more touches and a better passing percentage than Medunjanin on the night.

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*The Union rotated in this manner more than once in Cincinnati and quite often against Columbus

Philadelphia was able to switch play after this, from Medunjanin to Accam, back to Fabian and around to Trusty. Though the slick and bouncy turf made this kind of rondo difficult, the Union didn’t back down from that challenge and won the match in part because of it.

Defending from the front to the back

The Union’s press requires every player to be accountable to his space and his cues. If one man fails in this task, the whole team is liable to fail as well.

Haris Medunjanin had some failings early in the season, and he responded to his critics last week with a solid outing against Columbus. Then he responded in a different way when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald that his own defense lapses have been more telling of the team’s overall imperfections than of one individual’s specifically. Given their chosen system, he’s partly right, and that part is something the Union are beginning to improve upon.

Last week against Columbus, the usually clinical Crew mustered only one shot on goal. This week against Cincinnati, the dynamic Lions found the frame just twice. Neither of these statistics are coincidental because the Union’s high pressure is starting to work. Especially in the first half (as shown below), the Union won defensive victories all over the field (with only a handful in their defensive third), stayed sound in their positioning, and dictated Cincinnati’s attack wide.

When that attack went wide, it found the in-form Ray Gaddis and Kai Wagner, forcing errant passes, drawing attackers offside (like Gaddis and company did during Cincinnati’s best attack), or winning the ball outright.

The much-maligned Gaddis deserved another mention in this context. Just as his defensive counterpart Jack Elliott started a goal last week with a brilliant interception and a difficult pass, Gaddis did the same over the weekend. His simple ball to Marco Fabian was the first turn of the key in unlocking Cincinnati entirely. Though it might seem like the obvious choice for Gaddis in the situation, perhaps that’s the point.

Soccer is, after all, a fairly simple game.

Quick final thoughts
  1. David Accam has certainly earned his place and should keep it assuming his groin injury isn’t something substantial. This writer questioned whether the Ghanaian even had a role in the side just two weeks ago. Clearly the answer is “yes.”
  2. Fafa Picault should keep his place too. He’s better 1 v 1 than any other known strikers on the team (Sergio Santos doesn’t have a large enough sample size to be included), and his passing ability, tireless work rate at the top of the defensive shape, and recognition of disruptive space on the field is extremely valuable.
  3. Cory Burke seems to be the odd-man out in this rotation, offering little this season in tangible contributions.
  4. The Union have a problem with depth for the first time perhaps in their existence, and they’ll need it as injuries mount and the Gold Cup looms.


One Comment

  1. Peanut Gallery says:

    Thank you for the analysis, Chris. Nicely done. Agree with you on the striker situation, though I would like to see Santos get minutes when healthy again to provide some rest for the starters.

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