Photo: Earl Gardner
Despite his team’s increased preseason visibility in 2013, as compared to years passed, a shroud of secrecy still lingers over John Hackworth’s plans in his first full season at the controls of Philadelphia Union. In lieu of our traditional formation posts, this year’s tactical preview comes in the form of a discussion, as we try to look at the pros and cons of different formations and how best to deploy the Union’s current personnel. This feature will run over the next three days, so please feel free to join the conversation in the comments. If you have specific questions, ask them, and we will do our best to get them in the discussion.
Adam Cann: Last season, there was a minor chance the Union would try to run three in the back. There is no question of this happening in 2013. With four across defense, the major tactical questions for the Union will come in the midfield and up top. John Hackworth has been quite enamored with the 4-3-3 formation, despite the fact that it became an isolating 4-5-1 all too often last season.
With McInerney, Casey, and Le Toux available up top, Hackworth may be tempted to put a true 4-3-3 on the pitch. How would you feel about a lineup that placed Casey in the middle with McInerney and Le Toux running off him? Are the only players ever to lead the Union in scoring too similar? And will their desire to get in behind leave Michael Farfan too isolated when he’s looking for a safe outlet from the midfield?
Eli Pearlman-Storch: It certainly would seem that way. A traditional 4-3-3 puts plenty of responsibility on the wide attackers to work their way back into midfield to possess the ball and play defense. One problem with Hackworth’s 4-3-3 systems in 2012 was that they attacked in a 4-3-3 but defended in a 4-5-1. That may sound like nuance, but it’s a mentality problem that affects the Union’s ability to attack. When the ball is lost, the wing players dive bomb back into midfield channels, rather than maintaining high pressure. Once the ball is reacquired, they have to go tearing back up the field to get in position, leaving their midfield channels and making possession hard to come by.
As to your question about similarities, I think the Sebastien Le Toux must learn to accept that his role will involve more wide, midfield work than Jack McInerney. If he insists on constantly pressing high, McInerney will drop underneath, like he did at times when paired with Antoine Hoppenot in 2012, but to little effect.
Sticking to the 4-3-3, what would your desired midfield look like? Would it include a single holding player or a pair? How about Parke and Soumare, are they mobile enough to cover all the ground left behind the advancing Williams and Gabe Farfan?
Adam: Your distinction between pressing high and dropping into the channels is a good one. I used to be a believer in the “cover your bases” strategy of defensive shape, i.e. the idea that it was better to drop into a defensive shape then break out as a group than chasing the ball high up the pitch. Two things have changed my mind. 1) The Union have been consistently terrible about breaking out of defense as a group. And I don’t mean usually terrible or often terrible. I’m talking Roy Halladay throwing at the outside corner type of consistency. Without the ability to knock the ball around the midfield and move forward as a unit, Philly should rely on their forwards to press high, close off the field (make the other team play to one side), and make opponents play long. This strategy cannot be backed by a single attacking midfielder! If you want a team to punt, you have to press high and close off safety valves. If the strikers are chasing defenders, the midfielders have to be high enough to chase their counterparts. Last year’s formation, with two sitting middies, left so much space that Kyle Beckerman cited John Hackworth as a reference to Jurgen Klinsmann.
In short, a high press system is going to require two midfielders to play higher up the pitch unless you use holding midfielders with passing ranges that scare the opposition into holding back numbers. So yeah, Madrid can do it.
Looking at a different issue, Conor Casey doesn’t completely alleviate the Union’s lack of height in the final third. What can the team do tactically to provide more options for wingers in the final third, so that a cross isn’t the first, second and third option for a team that should have the skill to move the ball around the box?
Eli: If Casey and McInerney are on the field, that’s plenty of aerial ability from open play. The Union cannot magically expect to become Houston. Keeping the ball on the deck and allowing guys like Le Toux and McInerney to run through a defense will always be a better option for this as constructed. Hack will hope that Baky Soumare is healthy and in-form enough to win a starting spot alongside Jeff Parke. With Okugo in the midfield and Parke-Soumare available to be brought forward for set pieces, the Union suddenly look a lot less like boys vs. men.
Adam: MLS teams don’t do well when forced to take secondary routes. If you take away what they want to do, few teams can transition to something new. If you close off the middle on RSL, they become much less effective. If you keep the ball off DeRo’s feet, DC stagnates. If you force KC to stay central, their wing strikers will often continue to run the wings as if little has changed. Effective high pressure is the magic bullet that knocks out first options.
Eli: When it comes to a secondary strategy, I feel like we’ve already kind of hit on it. The overarching game plan is (and should be) to keep the ball on the deck. If and when that fails against certain opponents, then using Casey as the battering ram becomes your next option. MLS is chock-a-block with big, powerful center backs that can be exposed for pace. That is where the wisdom in trying to get Torres and Mike Farfan on the pitch simultaneously lies. McInerney is an excellent off-the-ball runner, and so is Le Toux. Le Toux’s offside count in 2011 and McInerney’s in 2012 can be far more easily attributed to slow distribution from midfield than poor running lines from the forwards.
Here’s one for you, is there any reason Roger Torres can’t be a big-time contributor this season? Obviously he’s been great in the preseason. Two years on from 2011, with greater fitness and maturity, it seems hard to peg him as “not a 90 minute player” anymore. Si?!?
Adam: Roger Torres belongs on the field. Whether he gets a full 90 to start the year is debatable. Obviously, everybody who has been watching how he changes the flow of the game in preseason wants to see Roger Torres putting the Union’s speedy wingers through in league play. The major issue remains the same for Torres: Where does he fit in? Michael Farfan is the default playmaker, Amobi Okugo earned a spot on the field with his play last season, and Brian Carroll was just named captain.
While we can all cross our fingers that Hackworth is flexible enough to change his midfield depending on the opponent, Torres will likely have to earn his time the way Antoine Hoppenot did last year: By playing 20, then 30, then 45 minutes per match.
We are looking at a team emerging from transition. Under Peter Nowak, the Union were tactically reactive. With Torres and Farfan, they have the opportunity to force teams to react to them.
Let’s look to the back four: Where should the Union’s fullbacks be? As 2012 wore on, they were relied on for width going forward. Will that continue, or will Williams and Garfan be able to join the attack as support for the wide players instead of providing that width themselves?
Eli: Before we jump to the back four, do you have confidence that Hackworth won’t be just as tactically reactive as his predecessor? The Union rushed out of the gates for Hackworth in what felt like a euphoric sense of relief. But once the dust settled, Hackworth was back to playing a very deep sitting formation with two holding midfielders and a bunch of other players that really didn’t fit together. The lack of fit is certainly not his fault, it was his inheritance, but until he consistently gets numbers forward, proactively trying to win games, I still consider him to be a conservative, reactive manager.
As to your question, width will remain the fullbacks main concern. Whether it is a 3 or 4 or 5 man midfield, the likelihood suggests that there will be two holding players. Add that to the fact that most of the Union’s wide players have been placed there out of necessity rather than preferable positioning, and you get a very narrow attack. None of the Union’s six strikers can be truthfully considered a wing-style forward, so whether its Williams, Gabe Farfan, Gaddis, Anding or Kassel, the Union’s fullbacks are going to have their work cut out to burn tracks up and down the touchlines.
Agreed? How about what happens when those fullbacks attack? The coaching staff seems to preach a philosophy where the center backs split wide to cover extra territory and Carroll drops in between them, forming a three man group to hold down the fort while the fullbacks are off pillaging. Is that really the best way to cover up at the back?
EDITOR’S NOTE: That’s a good start for day 1. If you have questions to add, please do so below. Then look for them on Thursday and/or Friday.