Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union
There are a lot of potential takeaways from Philadelphia Union’s breathless, solar plexus-throbbing defeat in New Jersey Saturday evening. On one hand, you could point to a five-match winless streak during which Philly has given up 10 goals and only scored five. On the other hand, you could say Philly fell asleep at the wheel against Chicago and have since given up only four goals from open play in the last four games.
You could jump on the train (a train PSP has admittedly been riding for quite some time) of pundits coming up with new ways to put C.J. Sapong’s goal-scoring slump in perspective. Or you could try to figure out how a team that has given up 51 goals is one of only two clubs in a playoff position to be without double digit goals from the striker position. (The other is Colorado, who have given up eight (!) fewer goals than the next stingiest MLS defense.)
You could also argue that Philly is simply showing their true colors, and that the early season march up the standings was driven by a collection of statistical bubbles bound to burst (and there is some level of undeniable truth there). Or you could ask whether something more was at play during the pre-summer success: Was Jim Curtin’s team doing something different than they are now? Were other teams treating them differently than they are now?
Those last two questions are key to understanding last weekend’s 3-2 loss. Because Philadelphia Union have never had objectively first place talent, but that does not necessarily mean the success they had was a statistical bubble that was bound to burst (or if they did have one, that it was the singular driving force in their success). In 2015, Jim Curtin liked to say that everybody needed to play well for Philly to have a chance at winning. That was true and rarely occurred.
But 2016 is different, and better
In 2016, the Union do not need everybody to play a great game to compete. That narrative is wrong, and to the extent that Curtin and his coaching staff embrace it (which they haven’t done often this season), they are abdicating responsibility. To win in 2016, Philly simply needs to execute their system — the system that they specifically built a roster around in the offseason.
That system was based on a few key tenets: First, and contrasting the 2015 team, they needed to be able to build possession out of the back. Early in the year, this change in approach was evident: Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Joshua Yaro were all clear upgrades in confidence and ability on the ball. The Union focused on moving the ball quickly across the back line in order to find fullbacks with space, and when the fullbacks were pressured, Yaro’s unique skillset meant Philly could play through pressure with longer passes. This even held true with Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle, both of whom are below average at opening up in midfield, playing at the same time.
The second tenet was counterpressure. This is a specific type of aggression designed to make it difficult for teams to execute transitions and establish possession off of turnovers. The popular heuristic is that a counterpressing team applies relentless pressure for six seconds following a turnover, with the goal of forcing a turnover near the opposition goal or a long, low percentage pass. The Union did this well early in the season by pressing as a unit, with a clear idea of when and where to apply pressure, and with the confidence that a compact defense could overcome the risks it created.
The third tenet was getting three players into the box. And of the three, this is the one the Union have done most consistently.
There were other more minor goals: Foul more (uncheck), but also foul smarter (uncheck), for example, and improve set piece attacking (check) and set piece defense (very uncheck). The overall point being that Philly didn’t plan to have a “great” roster: They planned to have a roster that fit a system and to use that system to overcome any pure talent and experience deficits they faced.
This is not a bad plan. In fact, it’s a good one. It’s the same plan good managers at smart clubs are using right now to compete against big spenders in the Premier League (oh hey, Mauricio). Jim Curtin may not be a Pochettino or a Klopp, but that doesn’t imply that he’s a bad manager. And the Union aren’t competing against teams that can outspend them by tens of millions (at least not in theory).
The point of all this being that the big takeaway from Saturday night’s loss should be that when the Union played the way they say they want to play, they were fine. And when they didn’t, they were never in the match. Jesse Marsch may be whiny and more than a little petulant, but his team is successful because they rarely stray from their system. More than Bradley Wright-Phillips or Sacha Kljestan, the system is the source of their power. And while Philly executed their system for all of perhaps 15 minutes on Saturday, the Red Bulls rarely strayed from theirs after an opening half hour spent being far too direct.
The good start that wasn’t
On first viewing, it certainly seemed as though the Union started out on the front foot and the Red Bulls struggled to respond. But that’s not quite true. While Philly did have more possession in the opening five minutes, they completed all of one forward pass in New York’s half during that time, and they did not manage to achieve any control over the match.
The biggest influence on the first 30 minutes of the game was not the Union’s strong defense, but Red Bulls’ flabbergasting willingness to settle for direct, long passes even when simpler options were available. Below, you can see Felipe pass up an open Alex Muyl (ahead, angled right) in order to loft a bad pass forward to Wright-Phillips.
Although New York made a lot of these confounding decisions early on, the worrying aspect of that video is how well they are set up to succeed. Felipe has time to make a decision, he has Muyl open, with Fabinho too deep to intercept, and Chris Duvall is moving up the right flank and will be an easy option for Muyl. Furthermore, Sacha Kljestan has already taken up his position behind the Union midfield and will look to slide into the space Muyl abandons after making his pass. In short, this is what NY wanted to see, they just didn’t take advantage of it early because they were focused on playing into Wright-Phillips and letting Kljestan collect knock-downs.
In the images to the left, you can see how it worked when New York simply played around Philly’s disjointed pressure. First, they dropped a player deep to create a 3v2. When the Union overcommitted to the players with the ball, play went wide where now a Union winger was defending both a fullback and a NY winger. When Herbers cuts off the inside pass, the ball goes wide to Kemar Lawrence who can easily advance it since Bradley Wright-Phillips has intelligently drifted over to keep Rosenberry deep. Now a Union midfielder must come over to cover Mike Grella, and the other deeper midfielder must track Sacha Kljestan. This leads to a situation in which the Union are essentially watching four players with six defenders, and it is elementary for Lawrence to find Felipe open in the middle. In each phase of the buildup, the Red Bulls had the numerical advantage they wanted. You can watch the whole thing play out below.
The setup above was less the exception than the rule. Whenever the Union — often willingly — stretched out their defense, Red Bulls could pass through it with ease. The catch is that, prior to the Yaro injury, they rarely took advantage.
Remember: the Union are only as good as their system, and any system built on pressure requires compactness. In fact, almost every modern system is built on some kind of compactness, be it deep banks of four near the box or a short distance between defenders and strikers. Whenever Philly has not playing their system as it should be played, and as it has been successful in the past, they were toast (or at least bread sitting in the toaster waiting for someone to apply heat).
But when Philly did play the system well… it tended to work. Below, you can see the Union apply five-high pressure off a goal kick. It is well-organized and effective.
Again, in the 17th minute (during the Union’s best period of play), you can see what Philly’s defense should always look like.
In this instance, Tranquillo Barnetta and CJ Sapong are not isolated from the rest of the team. Felipe’s initial move to drop in can be tracked by Barnetta. And when the ball is played wide, Pontius can easily close it down. Now when NY uses three across the back during buildup, they may not have as much pressure on the ball, but there is nowhere to go because the center is filled with bodies. CJ Sapong can actually chase down the passes between Perrinelle and McCarty, forcing a bad turnover.
During the first half hour of the match, there are plenty of examples of NY going long when they have shorter options. After the Yaro injury, Marsch and his team clearly identified that they Union were susceptible to overcommitting men forward (particularly with Bedoya at less than 100% with a rib injury). And after that, Philly was simply chasing.
Going forward has a plan too
Last time Philly and NY played, Jim Curtin talked about blind switches to beat the Red Bulls press. The logic behind this is that a press — particularly a good one like Red Bulls’ — looks to trap when the ball goes into certain areas. Trapping involves pressing the ball and players around the ball in order to force a specific pass or a long, aimless pass. At that moment, the defense will be even more compact than usual, and a smart pass can open the field for an attack.
An offense that can move the ball quickly and intelligently, then, can pull the defense in and attack the other side of the pitch. This is what the Union planned for in the offseason. With Yaro and Rosenberry on the ball, Philly should be able to confidently move the ball out of pressure. Yaro, despite all the stops and starts to his season, remains supremely confident with the ball at his feet. During Philly’s brief ascendancy from around the 12th minute until Yaro’s injury, the rookie center back twice showed what makes him such a valuable commodity. The entire buildup to Fabian Herbers’ goal is worth watching because it is one of the few times the Union were patient enough with the ball to overcome New York’s defense. And Yaro makes the key pass that allows Philly to create a big chance.
In the buildup to the goal, the ball starts on the left, moves all the way to the right, then all the way back to Fabinho. The big moment comes when Bedoya checks deep to give Rosenberry an outlet, then plays Yaro who first-times the ball past the onrushing Wright-Phillips to Marquez. Now the Union can attack, and when Chris Pontius brilliantly pulls away from a static Duvall, Philly creates an early lead.
Wouldn’t it be weird if Philly’s second goal also came off a quick and efficient switch of play?
Above, you can see the ball move from the inside, out to the right, then back through the center and quickly wide again. Pontius makes a great run that pushes the back line deep so that even if the ball is knocked down, Philly should be able to have players following up, oh, about where Kljestan was when he scored.
Nothing is easy against New York’s defense, but there are more effective and less effective methods of attack. Philly capitalized on very direct transitions in their last meeting, but they will see more consistent results — and hold better control of the game — by concentrating on moving the ball side to side.
Returning to the defensive side of the ball, the Union have a major problem defending transitions. And this needs to be every bit as much a focus going forward as set piece defending.
But first, a look at how transition positioning should work, courtesy of an Olympic-level diver:
Felipe is in the hole between Herbers (who arrives near the end of the clip) and the rest of the play. This means that to find Herbers a clearance must a) clear Felipe and b) not go so far that a central defender can get to it first. Dax McCarty, meanwhile, is positioned in the center of the pitch to both stop transition breakouts by stepping forward and to punch the ball back in if it pops out.
Transition positioning is rarely highlighted, but it is incredibly difficult. You must keep abreast of play in front of you while shadowing the lane to the outlet player. Below, you can see the Union fail to execute in a similar situation.
New York is able to pass out of the back instead of clearing the ball, but they still have oodles of options. Warren Creavalle is caught between Kljestan and Alex Muyl, and Tranquillo Barnetta has barely moved since the quick restart that sent Herbers upfield.
Barnetta needs to slide over and shadow Kljestan. It won’t be easy, because Felipe has enough time to pick out a pass so Kljestan can move out of the shadow. But without anybody in the lane, the transition is so easy that even a guy who plays like a cartoon villain and a guy who looks like a cartoon villain can do it.
Sapong’s long fall
This was perhaps the nadir of C.J. Sapong’s season. Not only did he play a second straight full 90 without a shot on target, but he was relegated to the wing for the second half (which, extremely oddly and surprisingly, nobody seemed to ask Curtin about after the match).
The misery was compounded at the other end of the pitch, where Bradley Wright-Phillips comprehensively outplayed Sapong in every way. He was smart closing down the ball, he created his own space in the box, and he proactively asked for the ball with early runs. The easiest evidence to point to is the scintillating goal scored just after halftime. With Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez turned off, BWP was first off the mark after Dax McCarty’s (and I can’t stress this enough) spectacular first time pass.
Not only is Wright-Phillips sitting in space before the pass, but he anticipates a chance and is willing to risk an offsides call to chase it. Because why not? It is important to remember that an early run forces the officials to make a call; they could get it wrong, or you could be just onsides. A late, reactive run gives the defense a chance to respond to the pass, and then it’s an even footrace. BWP is fast, but if you let him and Richie Marquez start at the same time and the striker has to dribble all the while, he will not win that race.
Contrast this with CJ Sapong’s play on the other end.
It’s tough to tell, but Herbers takes a quick look up after receiving the ball. What he sees is Sapong making a half-hearted run across the formation while letting Chris Duvall get goalside positioning. At no point does Sapong a) create separation, b) use change of pace to try and fool Duvall, or c) most importantly, do anything to suggest he wants a pass (e.g., calling for the ball, drifting off Duvall, bodying Duvall out of the play).
Although I have been pointing out Sapong’s goalscoring and shot creation woes for over two months now, I have also continued to believe that his workrate makes him the best option up top since Philly is getting an incredible goalscoring and creative return from the wings.
But Sapong’s lack of confidence in front of goal is seeping out into the rest of his game.
Here you can see Sapong marking… Brian Carroll on Dax McCarty’s winner. In the first half, Sapong was twice the deepest man back on corner kicks where he was wrestling with Aurelian Collin instead of pushing forward after the initial kick.
If Jim Curtin really believes in Sapong as much as he says he does, he absolutely must make a change up top. The man Curtin expected 10 goals from is not going to get there without an incredible change of fortune, and he certainly won’t get there playing 180 more minutes in the same hesitant, reactive fashion.
To be clear, Sapong doesn’t need to score like Bradley Wright-Phillips to be effective. But he needs to do the other things that BWP does so well: Stay connected to the shape defensively, make center backs respect the deep ball, drive at defenders whenever you get space to turn, create contact at times, but create space at others. These are not easy tasks, but they are the outputs of good dirty running. Jim Curtin has never given that term — dirty running — a valenced adjective. But it deserves one.
Dirty running outside of the Union’s system is just regular running, and it doesn’t help.
Curtin could move Fabian Herbers forward, but that means taking a player who has two goals and three assists in seven matches on the right wing out of his role. Is that really a defensible decision?
Instead, the Union should consider starting Charlie Davies against Orlando City. If he can’t go at least 60 minutes, how do we consider the move for him that likely involved sending versatile winger/striker Sebastien Le Toux to Colorado? Le Toux would certainly be next in line to move up top right now.
Andre Blake – 9
Yeah, this is a blowout without Blake.
Keegan Rosenberry – 4
A few odd decisions that point to a tired player. Rosenberry was quicker than usual to clear and to serve in a ball even when he wasn’t under pressure. Hopefully he can start making a bigger mark over the final two matches.
Joshua Yaro – 7
Was excellent before his injury.
Richie Marquez – 4
Went long too often and was easily pushed deep.
Fabinho – 6
Fantastic service on Pontius’ goal.
Warren Creavalle – 5
A solid first half but once Barnetta was separated from the rest of midfield, Creavalle didn’t have the positional strength to handle the 3v2s coming at him.
Alejandro Bedoya – 3
One completed pass in the attacking half after the 14th minute. Yeesh.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 4
Committed six fouls and lost his positional discipline trying to push play forward. Doing it himself is not what the Union needed.
Fabian Herbers – 7
Ran himself into the ground again and the finish wasn’t easy.
Chris Pontius – 7
CJ Sapong – 2
Ken Tribbett – 3
Tribbett’s confidence on the ball is at a low point, and he keeps losing focus while holding a higher line. These are correctable errors that don’t require him to suddenly get faster to fix.
Brian Carroll – 5
An injury sub. The match was already veering out of Union control when he came on. Good play to start the move that led to Pontius’ goal.
Roland Alberg – 3
Not zero impact, but minimal.
Geiger counter – 4
Juan Carlos Rivero was close to losing control multiple times. He was helped by the fact that nobody wants to be suspended to close out the season.