Analysis

A closer statistical look at the Union’s first half

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Editor’s note: All stats in this article are courtesy fbref.com. Stats are accurate as of July 1 and do not include Sunday’s Union-Crew match.

May’s article looked at the statistics behind Philadelphia Union’s team performance in the 2022 season so far. The only individuals mentioned in it were Jim Curtin (naturally), Andre Blake (obviously) and Daniel Gazdag (of course) but it didn’t go into any depth on which players were doing what well.

This article should remedy that, looking at players who already stand out and those whose stats suggest there is perhaps more to come from them as the season progresses.

A Santos breakout?

Going straight to the business end of the pitch, the only player in Major League Soccer with more expected goals (xG) plus expected assists per 90 minutes (not including penalties) than Sergio Santos (0.81) is New York City’s (them again) Taty Castellanos (0.82).

One thing to point out here is that Santos has only played around half the minutes (608) of Castellanos (1132), though it’s not an overly small sample size and is an indication of the type of threat he offers when he’s available.

The problem at the moment is, he isn’t available, and Union are suffering due to a potentially valuable team member (all roster spots are valuable in MLS!) having visa issues.

Mikael Uhre’s numbers for the same stat are also high, and though they dropped somewhat following the loss to Chicago, his still comes in at 0.72. This puts him 8th in MLS for this stat, which you could say measures overall goal threat.

This hints there is more to come from both these players, more pertinently from Uhre as he’s actually able to play and is a new Designated Player signing who everyone wants to succeed. The stats show they are finding the right positions from which to score or contribute to goals even if the ball doesn’t always find the back of the net.

Sometimes xG could be compared to PDO in hockey which is expected to always even out at 100 over time. Soccer players with a high xG who aren’t scoring much may be expected to score more in the future, while players with a low xG scoring lots might see the goals dry up eventually.

Some players are just excellent finishers who will score from low xG shots, but the encouraging thing for the Union is that their forwards are getting high-value chances in front of goal.

Incidentally, when looking at expected assists in isolation, Santos ranks highest in MLS on a per 90 basis with 0.50. They could do with having him available for selection sooner rather than later.

Who’s creating chances?

Looking further at the chance creation side of things, Union’s creativity comes as much from their style of play as it does individual players, at least at this moment in time. They are in the top half of the league for shots that occur as a result of winning fouls or as a result of their defensive actions high up the pitch.

There’s a lack of more traditional creativity, i.e. from a playmaker or from full-backs, when compared to other teams, especially as MLS is a league that loves its No.10s.

But Kai Wagner and Gazdag do create some chances from these positions. Gazdag is perhaps more of a second striker than a playmaking No.10, but there are signs there could be more to come from him in terms of creativity.

One way to create chances, take opposition players out of the game, and get your team into good goalscoring positions is through dribbling, but this is something the Union don’t do much of at all.

The stats show they lack effective, or at least willing, dribblers. The 4-4-2 diamond formation could play a part in this, as there are no orthodox wingers in the forward line — something teams who play 4-3-3 of 3-4-3 are able to utilize more.

As a team, Union have the fewest successful dribbles in all of MLS in 2022, and the third-fewest dribbles attempted. Their leading player in this area in 2021 was Jamiro Monteiro, who is now doing his dribbling for San Jose Earthquakes.

This again ties in with their overall style which can lead to a low amount of possession and quick transition play which prioritizes moving the ball rather than players moving with the ball. The stats back this up as Union are bottom of the league for total carries and for distance carrying the ball.

Even in this article that’s supposed to be about individual players, we’ve ended up talking about the team again, but where Philadelphia Union players can really come into their own is those defensive actions high up the pitch, putting pressure on the opposition.

Even though the workload has been spread out in the forward positions, with Julian Carranza, Mikael Uhre, Sergio Santos, and Cory Burke all having played over 500 minutes this season, the player who has played the most — Carranza on 1008 minutes — is 8th in the league for total pressures in the final third.

Looking at this on a per-90-minutes basis paints a clearer picture, with Sergio Santos once again standing out. He is top of MLS for attacking third pressures per 90 minutes among players who have played over 500 minutes.

Santos is obviously the ideal Union forward, if only he were currently able to be a Union forward. That the Brazilian rates so highly in all of these underlying statistics makes his enforced absence even more frustrating.

Pressure under pressure

When it comes to pressing and applying pressure in midfield Leon Flach is the standout player in MLS. He leads the league for pressures applied to opposition players in the middle third of the pitch as well as for the total number of pressures. He’s fifth in the league for overall successful pressures.

Carranza also ranks highly for total pressures when looking at this data on a per-90-minutes basis rather than the totals.

Nathan Harriel deserves a mention here too, as he’s fourth in the league for tackles and for the number of pressures applied to the opposition in the defensive third. He’s also sixth in MLS for interceptions made.

A few more points of note in the stats for individual players:

  • Mikael Uhre leads MLS for percentage of shots on target (68.8%)

  • Kai Wagner tops the league for passes made from dead-ball situations ((249) corners, free-kicks, and throw-ins).

  • Jose Martinez is second in the league for shots with the highest average distance from goal (29.5 yards, Tom Edwards of New York Red Bulls is first on 31 yards.)

We can’t go without giving Gazdag a mention. He leads the team in The Only Stat That Matters — goals on the board, with seven. He also has the highest total xG in the team (7.9).

This reinforces the idea that he’s a support striker rather than a No. 10 playmaker, but if he can add a bit more of the latter to his game he’ll be up there with the most productive players in the league come the end of the season.

The stats leaders is something we can revisit at the end of the 2022 campaign, and also refer to when looking at the individual elements of the team’s tactics throughout the rest of the season. In the meantime, it would be nice if Philadelphia Union could get Sergio Santos on the field.

11 Comments

  1. Great read! Thanks for putting this together.

  2. This is in the running for the best sentence about the Union attack ever written.

    “Santos is obviously the ideal Union forward, if only he were currently able to be a Union forward.”

  3. I do agree about Santos. For all his flaws, he has elite MLS physical tools. And he seems to be our only forward who is able to consistently use his physical tools to threaten the defense. Either by making runs or holding up the ball.

    I am not sure if he is being asked to play differently, but for example Uhre is supposed to have speed too but he does not seem to be able to stretch the defense like Santos does.

  4. Great stuff to think about. Martinez’ stat for shots from distance not surprising.

    I think Santos has been the biggest miss of late. Of all the players who you can bring off the bench to change a game in the final 30, he’s the guy. Just when a defense is getting leggy, you add Santos with all of his pace and physicality, it can really change the dynamic of a game. I think all of us who were most high on Santos thought his only major flaw was lack of finishing quality. That and his durability get in the way.

    I have to say, too, that I do not like this 4-4-2 diamond whatsoever. I think at its best, it aspires to be Liverpool with Bobby Firmino in that #9, I’m really more a #10, and two forwards who are among the best in the world and can collect longballs with a touch that defies physics. For us, with players a lot closer to Earth, it adds up to a lot of frustration in the final third.

    I’m going to remain optimistic that Uhre, Carranza and Gazdag will grow as they get more familiar with each others’ rhythms. I hope it happens sooner rather than later, just for the sake of the spectacle, which is taxing at the moment.

  5. Great article!
    All these numbers reinforce the eye test – the U need an midfield player that can attack defenses on the dribble.
    Beating a player on the dribble forces the whole defense to readjust, creating more chances.
    I think Gazdag at #8 can be that guy.
    IMO, for this team to get to the next level, Gazdag goes to #8, and either Paxten emerges as a legit #10 or they need to go out and get one.

  6. Great article!
    These numbers support the eye test – that the Union are sorely in need of a midfielder that can attach on the dribble. Beating a man on the dribble forces the whole D to shift, creating opportunities. Ilsinho was a master at this.
    I think Gazdag could be that guy at a #8, but then either Paxten needs to emerge as mls quality #10, or they need to go out and get one.
    Love the fire and effort from the Captain, and the defensive work from Flach, but there is just not enough attacking power from the corners of the diamond.

  7. Tim Jones says:

    Given the flak that Flach takes for his offense, I appreciated the insight into his defense because it explains why he plays.
    .
    Thebsustance was top of the league in midfield pressures.
    .
    That will get you playing time if Jim Curtin is the Coach.
    .
    Upcoming Academy U-17s, heed those words. Union II pros as well.

  8. Deez Nuggs says:

    I love stuff like this, because the players that people like to complain about stand out in the numbers as some of the league’s best. Puts the lie to all that negative noise.

  9. Thanks for compiling that data. I will look forward to a comparison at the end of the season. I like the stats and they support the team as a hole as being better than the eye test may show. The play on the pitch seems up and down quality wise. But the results are keeping them on top or close to the top of the league consistently. So pretty tough to be too down on the team. Yes they could have/ should have won a couple more games but thats due to the expectation factor of a fan base that sees the team getting better year after year and wants more. So Doop on!! See y’all on Friday!!

  10. Liked your article.

    I will be the first to admit, I dont like the Unions offensive style. Its too predicable and therefore becomes easier to defend against. Curtin does not mix his stlyes at all. Its mostly counter attacking with either long balls over the top with forwards racing at full speed hoping they get a great first touch from a a perfectly lofted ball or Kai Wagner executing the perfect cross into the box.

    There is rarely play through the middle in the final two thirds with short accurate passes and offensive players making diagonal runs to draw the opposition out of position.

    You are correct there is no “offensive” playmaker on the team.
    They Union desperately need to have a couple of different styles of attack and be able to transition into that style during the game.

    Thats why a keep screaming for them to get an an experienced highly skilled 2 way midfileder start him and sit Flach on the bench until he is needed.

    If you do this you free up Gazdag to get into better positions or actually utilize him to create better opportunities for Caranza, Uhre or Santos (if he ever returns).

    Nolan Ryan was one the best. most effective fastball pitchers in MLB. but he had a curve ball and change up to keep the batters guessing.

    The Eagles had one of the fastest and productive wide receivers ever in Desean Jackson but they did not throw him the bomb every third play. It would not be effective. If they did teams would eventually double team him or play him deep.

    Right now teams don’t have to guess what the Union are going to do. We have no versatility in attack.

  11. I guess all the above means nothing regarding Santos since it is rumored he wil be traded to Cincy. Losing him, Findlay (also reported on the move) and DeVries may signal another buy by Tanner?

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