Photo: Paul Rudderow
Who: Philadelphia Union (6th place, 42 points, 11-13-9) vs. New York Red Bulls (1st place, 54 points, 15-9-9)
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Sunday, October 23 at 4 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Kevin Stott; Kermit Quisenberry and Craig Lowry; Sorin Stoica
This is certainly an opponent Philadelphia Union and their fans know well by now. New Jersey Pink Cows close out the 2016 season in Chester on Sunday, and, as Jim Curtin said in his midweek press conference, they are likely to come in full force.
With a bye secured, this is the last chance for Jesse Marsch to get his team in a playoff mindset before a lengthy layoff, so the Union will be looking to find their footing against a strong visiting side that will try to impose Marsch’s signature press on their struggling hosts.
Since we have recently done plenty of analysis of Marsch and the Jersey Boys (see here and here), let’s just briefly dive into a few key elements of their game before these teams meet for what might be the final time this season.
Make no mistake: the ersatz New York team is not filled with faux stars. But the big names — Kljestan, BWP, McCarty — succeed because they excel in a very specific, well-rehearsed system.
The Cows stay compact, which means that everybody from Wright-Phillips back to Aurelien Collin must position themselves on the field relative to both the opposition and their teammates. Check out the replay below of Mike Grella’s goal against Columbus last weekend.
The first clear indication that Jersey is in rhythm is a high turnover after isolating a wing player deep. This is of particular importance for the Union because they have a tendency to play the ball to wide areas early in buildups when faced with pressure. The fullbacks don’t get up the field as far as they should, and the result is situations where Fabinho has to either beat his man deep in his own half or play long to Pontius, who must win a 1v1 battle with his back to goal.
Second, once the ball pops loose, notice how many players in white are nearby. Alex Muyl quickly puts in a challenge, and when the ball is once again free, Sacha Kljestan is already behind Tony Tchani, and Grella — the far side winger — has come across to compress space and is running down the center to finish the move. The entire play happens so quickly that Columbus, which prefers to spread the field, has no chance to recover defensive shape.
Also notice that Corey Ashe pauses and puts his hand up after the Muyl tackle instead of pressing the ball. That is far too reminiscent of the Union turning off and lightly pressuring the ball when Orlando City nearly snuck one past Andre Blake in the first half last weekend.
Combating the press
In the past, Philly has found success by quickly switching fields and attacking as the Jersey defense transitions across the pitch. Although this is a useful tactic against a team that seeks to compress the pitch, it is also a weakness that NJ knows they have, and one they can look to limit.
Below, you can see how Marsch’s men attempt to use vertical compression to make crossfield balls in the attacking half less dangerous. The first key is how the back four follow the movement of the ball vertically. As soon as Columbus plays a negative pass, the defense steps forward to compress the pitch. And while it may seem like a small movement, the effect can be quite large. When the crossfield ball comes, the right outside back is now nearly five yards closer to the opposing outside back than he would have been. This allows him to reach Corey Ashe as the ball settles, meaning Ashe hasn’t had time to look up and scan the pitch. As a result, Ashe takes the most salient option available to him, which is Justin Meram making a run to the corner.
Meram has been affected by the back line stepping. He takes five steps backwards as Jersey steps, meaning he is that much closer to Alex Muyl as the winger sprints across to offer help. Thus, even though Meram has successfully dragged a centerback out of the middle, he never has an opportunity to turn, face, and take on Aurelien Collin.
One final aspect of this situation should be noted. Mo Saied appears to be free in the center for a pass when Harrison Afful plays the ball across the field. This is a NJ trap, and one that presents a bit of a riddle to the opposition. Notice Alex Muyl’s slight inside movement before he sprints wide. Muyl, along with Felipe, is anticipating the central pass to Saied. If it had occurred, Muyl would quickly try to force Saied to turn back toward the right side of the pitch to prevent him from finding Wil Trapp (top left of screen). Felipe approaches while shadowing a passing lane, meaning that if Saied turns back to the right, he will have zero options except to take somebody on, which is exactly what Jersey wants.
This scenario is why teams that want to attack well-organized pressure need to have a rhythm of their own. The Columbus Crew of 2015 excelled at quick, lengthy combinations that sought to negate pressure by playing into and out of tight spaces quickly, with wide runners anticipating the next pass and forcing defenders into long retreats.
The Union do not have the offensive rhythm of a 2015 Crew. So how can they attack the Crew pressure?
Focus on the CBs
It is all about the center backs for Jersey. Jesse Marsch knows that is his team’s defensive weak point and the lineup is set up to protect the CBs in how it minimizes space in front of them and forces teams out of the center. Philly has successfully targeted the Cows’ central defenders in transition, but has often struggled to do so when retaining possession. Remember Chris Pontius’ goal against Jersey earlier this month, though: Once the Union were able to move the ball across the field from Carroll to Fabinho, Pontius’ run pushed the center backs deep.
Runs that force the center backs to hesitate before stepping forward are key to Philly’s attempts to break down New Jersey. Below, you can see (barely, thanks to some camera cuts) how a run in front of the center backs forces them deeper and allows Columbus space in the box.
Additionally, that run drags a center back from the middle, which creates a difficult situation for the Cows. A central midfielder can drop to cover — which McCarty often does quite well — if they are free, but Felipe doesn’t recognize the situation and leaves a gigantic hole around the six yard box. A good cross would lead to a fantastic opportunity for the Crew.
Chris Pontius has attacked the NJ center backs a different way in the past.
Below, you can see something similar from Justin Meram. Basically, the Jersey CBs have a tendency to stare down the ball in transition. In doing so, they often lose situational awareness and can be easily exploited. Pontius took advantage by making a late run in front of a center back in transition. Meram cuts back and dribbles toward the defenders, which causes both to try and face him while retreating. Adam Jahn, with all the speed of a recently retired lemur, is quickly free off the shoulder of Damien Perrinelle and nearly opens himself up for a good chance.
How to build on the touchline
One more aspect of NJ’s game should be noted before closing because it contrasts so severely with how the Union operated against Orlando City.
Below, you can see a buildup down the left that leads to a cross. Again, crosses aren’t exactly what a team wants to build towards, but they are better options when the defending team is retreating.
The big difference between New Jersey’s buildup and the Union’s is how much emphasis Jersey places on creating options around the ball when it is near the touchline. Notice how Kljestan’s movement actually closes off the pass to the fullback up the line, but the reward is an open passing lane through the center to Mike Grella, who has moved inside then dropped back off the defensive line to provide an option. A seemingly minor but incredibly important part of this buildup is Bradley Wright-Phillips’ positioning. The striker is between his defender and the ball during the entire development of the play, meaning that anything popping loose in the center will belong to him. Additionally, it means that if Grella has any time on the ball, BWP can quickly drop and provide an option in the center and force his defender to go through him, drawing a foul in a dangerous area.
Furthermore, as soon as the ball is played below the box, BWP sprints both toward goal and away from his man. He instantly creates separation, and in an attempt to both watch him and protect the goal, Nico Naess retreats all the way to the edge of the six yard box, leaving Sacha Kljestan alone in an area where he oh-so-recently scored against Philly.
Prediction: Union 1-2 NYRB
Philly should rebound after a limpid performance against Orlando City, but NJPC is in rhythm right now and will look to control the match and quickly put the Union on the back foot. If the Union have well-rehearsed passing moves that allow them to pick out quick combinations through the center, they can counter the visitors’ pressure. But after the OCSC match, expecting that level of coordination is more hopeful than realistic.
In short, the is a big moment for Jim Curtin. He likely has to benchrest CJ Sapong and move Fabian Herbers up top. This can negatively affect the Union’s ability to apply pressure to the opposing center backs, but it may also force Philly to focus more on a compact defensive shape. After all, opening up and playing a defensive 4-4-2, as they did quite often against Orlando City, will expose Ilsinho down the wing. NJRB’s wingers, no matter who they are, will be mobile and look to exploit the Brazilian’s low defensive awareness.
Despite recent results, the Union have been a good home side this year. And they can win on Sunday.
But to do so, Jim Curtin and his staff will need to institute decisive changes to how the team attacks and defends.
It’s a big test for a young coach heading into his first playoff appearance on the sideline.