Analysis / Union

What do the stats say about Philadelphia Union?

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

We’re already over a third of the way through the 2022 Major League Soccer regular season and Philadelphia Union remain top of the Eastern Conference, albeit having played a game more than surging New York City FC.

The Union have also been hanging around the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings for much of the season so far, and currently sit third in that overall table, level on points with Austin FC and two behind Los Angeles FC.

It’s a strong position to be in at this stage but despite this, there’s a feeling among supporters, as well as those within the club, that the team aren’t quite firing on all cylinders just yet.

“We’re still in a good spot in the table,” said Curtin after the recent draw at home to Inter Miami.

“We haven’t played our best game yet, which I’m OK with. We’ve had some guys have very good seasons, we’ve had some guys have some average seasons, and some that need to do a little bit better for the group.”

“But the message is, if we get everybody going good, is there a team in the league that’s better than us?”

A delve into the underlying stats shows that this is, tactically, a fairly unique team, but one that is nevertheless effective, consistent, does indeed have room for improvement and, importantly, the quality to suggest it can improve.

Quality chances

One of the most popular underlying statistics that has emerged in soccer in recent years is expected goals (xG).

Rather than take the description of xG at face value as the number of goals a team should expect to have scored based on their xG total, when looking at a team as a whole it’s sometimes better to view it as the quality/number of chances a team has created.

You can rack up high xG by creating lots of what might be commonly termed ‘half-chances’ or by creating a smaller number of big chances, (or, if you’re a dominant team, by combining both).

The Union are 12th in MLS for total shots (158) but sixth for total xG. This suggests they are a team that create a smaller number of bigger chances as opposed to raining down a large number of lower quality shots on the opposition goal.

They are also sixth in MLS for shots on target, and fourth for percentage of shots on target (37%). This shows they are generally more accurate than other teams in MLS when in a shooting position.

The analytics company Opta have their own definition of a “Big Chance”:

A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one on one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter. Penalties are always considered big chances.

Union are joint-second in MLS with Austin FC for the number of Big Chances created (26). New York City are top of this particular chart with 28.

Austin have scored 27 goals, NYCFC 24, but the Union only have 18 — suggesting there is room for improvement in this team, particularly in attack.

Another suggestion comes when looking at those xG numbers at face value.

Philadelphia Union’s total xG for the season so far is 21.1. Given they’ve scored 18 actual goals, this suggests there is a bit more to come. (Austin FC, on the other hand, are outperforming their xG with 27 goals from an xG of 22 — maybe they’ll regress?)

Alongside all this is the comforting stat that in terms of xG conceded, Philadelphia Union are the best team in the league. They’ve allowed an xG of 11.8 and conceded just nine goals — both the lowest in MLS.

Here the stats back up what we see on the field — a very well organized defensive structure throughout the team, and a goalkeeper, Andre Blake, who has made some very good saves when needed.

Maintain the defensive organization and start converting some more of those Big Chances, and the Union are in business.

No ball games

Perhaps the most unusual underlying statistic for a team topping the table is that the Union have the lowest average possession percentage in MLS.

So far this season they average 40% possession, and have the lowest average pass success percentage in the league with 70%.

There was a time when it was considered that control of the ball meant control of the game — think Barcelona under Pep Guardiola or the Spain team that won the Euros in 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

That can still be the case, but there are other forces at play in the modern game that mean not having the ball isn’t always such a bad thing. If teams are set up in a certain way, they can now be at their most attacking in “defence” — at their most dangerous without the ball.

This brings us to another noticeable team statistic so far this season — the pressing.

Full-court press

Jim Curtin’s side are one of the league leaders when it comes to pressing. The statistics website FBref goes some way towards measuring this part of the game with their “pressures” data, which counts the number of times applying pressure to an opposition player when they are receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.

Perhaps the best or most high profile example of this style of play is the pressing tactic used by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

The 2022 UEFA Champions League finalists and English domestic cup double winners still enjoy plenty of possession but, as Klopp often says, counter-pressing can be the best way to create chances. Which is pressing in order to win the ball back quickly after losing it.

“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,” Klopp said in 2016. “If you win the ball back high up the pitch and you are close to the goal, it is only one pass away a really good opportunity most of the time.”

There isn’t really a team in MLS that plays like Klopp’s Liverpool. LAFC might be the closest with their combination of possession and final third pressing, but the Union are certainly one of the sides who like to put pressure on the opposition in a similar manner.

They are third behind New York Red Bulls and LAFC for pressures in the final third of the pitch, and second behind the Red Bulls for pressures in the middle third.

Going back to the possession stats, the Red Bulls also have low numbers for average possession (44%) and pass success (71%) for the season to date. There are similarities with the Union here, and the lack of possession will naturally lead to more work off the ball, but the Red Bulls are by far the most active team in MLS when it comes to pressing, as might be expected from one of Red Bull’s franchises.

Philly’s narrow diamond formation helps them press as a team and be defensively organized from back to front. This plays a big part in those good defensive numbers mentioned earlier.

To sum all this up, the best example might be Daniel Gazdag’s goal against Charlotte FC. It looks like an opposition error, but they’re forced into making this error by the Union’s organized high press.

It was Union out of possession pressing high up the pitch in numbers, and getting the greatest reward.

They’re a team who are thriving despite seeing less of the ball than any other team in the league, and the stats confirm there is enough underlying quality to suggest they can improve.

Data in this article is from FBref, WhoScored, and FotMob

One Comment

  1. Deez Nuggs says:

    Statistics make me feel warm in the belly this season. Like aged whiskey.

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