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Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 0–1 New England Revolution

Photo: Howie Pollard

Last week, the Union took on the New England Revolution, hoping to turn their offensive fortunes around. Sadly, it did not happen, and New England was able to take the game with a Matt Polster goal from a set piece.

This was a tough game because, in some ways, the Union were much improved. With many enforced absences, Philly was forced to rotate and play the kids, and the hope was it would kickstart something. It sort of did, but ultimately the Union had many of the same issues that they have dealt with for months.

Rotation formation

Both teams had absentees, with seven Union players and three New England players away on international duty. Jack Elliott also served a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. This meant that the Union were without its starting keeper, half of its starting defense, three quarters of its starting midfield, and one striker.

With Sergio Santos returning from an injury and Matheus Davó still to make an appearance, the formation was forced to change, and it took on a youthful profile: 4-2-3-1, with Nate Harriel making his first appearance of the season, at right back; Jack McGlynn partnered Ale Bedoya in a double pivot; Leon Flach and Quinn Sullivan flanked Paxten Aaronson; and Kacper Przybyłko was alone up front. At first glance, it might be a surprise that Flach was not pulled to the base of midfield in José Martínez’s absence, but as others have noted, McGlynn shines as a deep passer rather than a wing, but lacks footspeed, so partnering him with the experienced Bedoya made sense.

Qualitatively, the shape wasn’t particularly meaningful, but it did allow the three homegrown midfielders to share the field together, and it was they who provided most of the excitement, with their deft turns and touches, and McGlynn’s excellent long passes. Flach and Bedoya helped hold down the fort defensively.

The story is in the data

After watching the game, I was left with the conflicting notions that it was both a much better performance and yet still totally the same story for the Union. To get a better handle on what happened, I decided to dive into the data, looking at the match stats on mlssoccer.com, fbref.com, and whoscored.com. The results were revealing.

In many statistical categories, the Union were, indeed, “the better team.” They owned over 60% of possession, outshot New England 18 to eight, had eight shots on goal to NE’s three, and forced New England to make 34 clearances.

Diving into the passing stats, the lowest passing percentage for any starting outfield player was Przybyłko, at 72.4%. All five midfielders had completion percentages above 77%. Indeed, Sullivan and Stuart Findlay were the only other starting outfield players who completed less than 80%. This is a significant improvement from many earlier matches, and showed a much higher level of comfort holding the ball. It wasn’t simply possession passed around the back line, either; the Union spent a significant portion of the match in New England’s half.

And yet, when we look at expected goals, we see that New England generated 1.0 to Philly’s 0.7. In short, New England created more with less. Looking at the shot charts and heat maps, we can see why. While Philly had eight players spend the majority of their time in New England’s half, there’s basically an invisible wall outside NE’s 18-yard box. Philly controlled possession, but found it very difficult to get into the box, resulting in shots from long range and crosses (28 crosses, to be exact, with Kai Wagner responsible for a whopping 16). New England didn’t control possession, but when they got chances, they were much closer to goal, with five of their eight chances coming inside the box. Polster’s goal came from two yards out, and Scott Caldwell’s big missed chance was from just outside the six. They did to the Union what the Union used to do to other teams.

The goal and the red card

The goal was the result of a set play opportunity given up by Harriel. Harriel had a good game overall, and it’s hard to fault him for the foul, where the attacker simply ran across where Harriel was running and either got clipped or sold the ref that he did. The free kick was from far enough out that you would generally expect the Union defense to deal with it. However, not for the first time in the last few games, Flach lost his man, Polster, who scored. One does wonder whether the missing Elliott might have dealt with the situation better than Findlay did, but this one is mostly on Flach’s poor marking.

Arnór Traustason was ejected in the 59th minute for stopping a breakaway attempt and earning a second yellow card. In recent matches, an opponent’s red card changed the game in a way that did not help the Union. In this case, the nature of the match really didn’t change. The Union were already controlling possession, with New England looking to break.

Takeaways

This game ultimately didn’t change the overall issues facing the Union:

  1. The Union don’t generate enough high-quality chances.
  2. The Union must do a better job finishing the chances they get.

Regardless of the personnel, the Union still lacked an incisive final pass, and resorted to wide play too often. Wagner cannot simply dump in a dozen crosses a game; that is not an offense. Jim Curtin needs to do more to get the Union playing in a more effective and structured attack. And the forwards, perhaps Przybyłko more than anyone, need to find their shooting boots. Getting shots on frame isn’t enough. They must be well placed and have pace.

Davó’s late introduction gave hope that he may grease the wheels a bit, as he took up different positions than our other strikers tend to do, and thus changed the passing angles and movements in a meaningful way. But the jury is still out, given how few touches he managed in his cameo.

In the end, it is very difficult to see the Union turning things around against Club América in a couple of weeks. There is still time to get things going by the MLS playoffs, but the Union can’t afford too many more poor results if they want to participate in them.

6 Comments

  1. I know it was a B Team lineup and NE specifically has no issues sitting back and playing defense but I thought the early parts of the game in the 4-2-3-1 looked good with us creating better chances than normal.

    If Curtin and Tanner decide that the 4-4-2 Pressing Diamond should go on ice, or at least that we should mix things up for a bit, then I wouldn’t mind continuing with the 4-2-3-1 with the first team with McGlynn as one of the ‘2’ playing as a DLP with Martinez cleaning up next to him.

    I think McGlynn has a future setting up passes where ever he wants, and I know in this game he has two great little passes into the box that with a better striker would have been great chances created.

  2. If the “A” team cant (or doesn’t want to) play in tight spaces to break down the defensive blocks of bunkering teams, then maybe we should see some more from this “B” team that played against NE. The kids are technically gifted, fearless and can play in tight spaces.
    Our wing play with pointless cross after cross is the definition of insanity.
    I like James’ idea above with Martinez/McGlynn partnership and would be interested to see Miro/Aaronson/Sullivan(Gazdag) as the AMs. (once Miro is back)
    Maybe even give Davo a try with that group. Footwork in small areas is not a strength of either Kacper or Sergio.

  3. So the question is, and has been: Why do the Union fail to create quality chances. I keep asking myself if it’s the players or the tactics. Probably safe right now to say it’s both. I tend to like to think that problems like this can be solved by finding the shape, tactic and plan to suit the players and that Curtin just hasn’t found it yet, but perhaps the players on hand just don’t make that possible. This past match was clearly a case of too many defensive (and slow) midfielders to really generate anything.

    • People are down on Bedoya (for age-related decline) and Flach (for lack of offense), and maybe there’s something to both of those criticisms, but they do both contribute meaningfully in various ways. Perhaps it’s a case of one or the other right now.

      • How meaningful can those contributions be when the team is in this run of form?
        But I agree both provide good qualities, AND they should no longer be played together.

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