Analysis / Union

Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 4-1 D.C. United

Photo by Marjorie Elzay

The Union dispatched DC United handily Saturday night, sending the capital side home with nothing for the 7th time in a row in regular season matches.

There is plenty to unpack in this match from an analysis standpoint:

  • A goal directly off of a corner kick, something statistically unlikely in soccer anyway and basically the Bigfoot of Union goals (in that someone believes he or she saw one once, but everything about the memory is fuzzy).
  • Many line-splitting and brilliant passes, most notably by line-splitter extraordinaire Haris Medunjanin’s replacement Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, whose turn and ping through the teeth of DC rush hour traffic broke United’s pressure and set Sergio Santos free down the left side.
  • An efficient game by Brenden Aaronson, who didn’t see enough of the ball on the night but did basically everything in his power with it when he did, including scoring another nutmeg goal.

However, this analysis is about the power of the pass, or specifically, the power of one particular pass out of the back.

I’ve got the power

If the reader is not familiar with the Twitter account, When Playing It Out of the Back Goes Wrong, here’s a summary: someone created an entire account dedicated to mishaps while being coy with possession in one’s own defensive third. Saturday night’s MLS slate gave the account a great example of why this modern craze of on-ball-boldness can be risky.

Real Salt Lake will want that possession back, and Atlanta United fell victim to this trap on the night as well, with Orlando City finding their third goal from a similar set up.

The Philadelphia Union have fortunately almost never fallen victim to their own boldness in the final third, largely because they have rarely been so bold with the ball in those scenarios as they are in 2020. Favoring a style where a 50/50 ball in the opposition’s half is more palatable than possession in one’s own territory, Union goalkeeper Andre Blake has spent a career knocking these very passes forward and waving his backline to follow.

Until he didn’t.

In the 19th minute, the Union were amidst a decent run of possession. After a few attempts to get forward were snuffed by DC’s high line, the ball returned to Andre Blake’s feet. Union fans of any history expected the only possible outcome: the tenured keeper hoofing it aimlessly forward.

Frankly, the reader can’t blame Blake for the basic instinct: it’s hard to score on a goalkeeper from midfield, so if the ball is up there, it feels safer. Moreover, though scrumptious bouts of possessing soccer have become more and more common in Chester, echoes of moments like these still haunt long-time players and fans alike.

But back to the pass.

Other than the aimless hoof, the only clear option Blake has available to him (because DC’s attackers have eliminated Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Olivier Mbaizo with their bold positioning) is to central defensive midfielder Jose Martinez. This might seem like a reasonable option given Martinez is directly in front of Blake and in a pocket of space with a few steps between him and his nearest man.

As Admiral Ackbar realized in a metaphorical soccer match a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away however, this oasis of a pass is… well, “It’s a trap:

Getting out of trouble by getting into trouble

DC wants Blake to play this ball to this spot, that’s why they’re offering it to him.

The pass into the middle forces The Warlock to conjure something from Blake’s ball with defenders in every direction: to control and turn, play a quick pass to a center back stepping into space, or to switch the ball into what he hopes is open field on the far side. Each of these options carries its own risk profile, and requires coordination and guile from both the passing player and the potential receiving players.

This pass has to be the first in a sequence of brave passes, because even the best midfielders in this scenario have to use all of the tricks in their bag to make possession useful over the course of a match. As soon as they show their hand, the defense adjusts and closes that option down.

Author’s note: Speaking of bags of tricks, the Union’s third goal comes from a very similar scenario, this one ending with Martinez turning out of trouble instead of passing through it.

It is, after all, a trap.

Andre Blake has to be brave in this moment too, to trust his feet, trust his midfielder, and trust his defense in the case things go awry. He has to put the ball into a dangerous spot so his team can create danger the other way.

Blake makes the bold move. He makes the pass.

Once he does, suddenly beauty unfolds, a bride in her gown down the grand staircase to her gawking and gathered masses.

Martinez’s first touch isn’t great, but it does put his defender off balance. The left side of DC’s pressure inexplicably drops off a few steps precisely in the moment when taking two steps forward might doom the Union altogether. The decision makes Martinez’s potentially troublesome touch less impactful, and though it opens space for the Union to move the ball wide, it certainly doesn’t leave the Boys in Blue in the clear; United’s defense contracts again.

Thus, the aforementioned Mbaizo, Alejandro Bedoya, and Sergio Santos all have their own high pressure, low visibility, high risk pass to make for this sequence to play out in the Union’s favor. Each makes the right decision, and more importantly each has a passing option near enough to do so.

It’s brave and rehearsed, graceful and choreographed, improvisational and creative, all at the same time. It’s The Beautiful Game as a proper noun, so much so that even el Pachyderm would be proud.

Maybe.

Brenden Aaronson then finishes the sequence by making league villain Felipe foul him outside the box instead of lose him in it. Considering where possession started and how many forays it took to come through in the end, it’s a very favorable outcome for the home team.

It all started with one brave pass.

What does it all mean?

It’s been more than three years since this piece was written about Blake’s passing deficiencies, and almost a year since last season’s review of the net-minder. One of the longest tenured Union players has dealt with his share of criticism amidst his professional development, though such is the life of a Philadelphia sports icon.

Last season when the Union defeated Atlanta United 3-1 in a stadium shaking, statement making match, Blake made a similar pass to the one he made to Martinez on Saturday straight past highly regarded Atlanta midfielder Darlington Nagbe. In the press box, more than a few Union beat writers agreed it might have been the best pass of Blake’s career.

Bold, brave, and disruptive. THE PASS.

That Blake has said pass in his arsenal now means the Union are a better team, he’s a better keeper, and that maybe the Jamaican is in fact the answer between the pipes.

One Comment

  1. Having a fully dedicated Goalkeeper Coach again this year has done wonders in reviving the Blake we all know and love.
    .
    I’m definitely still weary of his passing, but I think the ‘Boot the Ball’ default helps out with making some of these short passes. Too many teams force their way out of the back ~every~ time. It’s good to mix it up some, and certainly better in Blake’s case to boot more than pass. But it is nice to see these gems pop up occasionally.

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