Photo: Earl Gardner
In desperate need of a result, Philadelphia Union put zero shots on frame inside the box, and only two shots from distance could lay mild claims to threatening New York City FC’s goal. Despite creating turnovers in the visitor’s half throughout the opening forty-five minutes, the Union never showed anything more than bluster and hustle as they sought to end what has become a haunting and heavy 14-match winless streak.
Philly’s approach was different from past matches, but the result was the same: A lack of focus, an unnerving inability to consistently build attacks from deep or in transition, and defensive frailties sniffed out over time by opponents that adjust and destroy.
Alberg as savior
Roland Alberg, by virtue of a hot patch over six matches in 2016, was touted as a potential creative hub prior to his start against NYC. Viewing the Dutch attacking midfielder as a creative force is strange though because, if anything, Alberg’s MLS numbers profile more as the shot-monster striker Philly needed and didn’t sign than as a player that can make shots for others. When he was rocking last season, Alberg took 21 shots over a five game stretch. His touch percentage — a statistic that shows how involved a player is while on the field — is on par with strikers who are asked to do more with fewer touches than with creative players who facilitate attacks.
So he can score, but the question has always been whether he can do anything else. On Saturday, Alberg proved he can man-mark a 40-year-old for about 50 minutes, but far too few of his other qualities showed through.
Above, Alberg basically exits the play after making a pass. This is not the movement of a creator, but instead of a guy who wants to fade into the background until the final moment when he strikes.
This is not a personal shot, it’s simply a reflection of the Dutchman’s lack of movement and energy in attack, coupled with the fact that he almost instantly became a defensive liability after NYC’s opening goal. Once the Union were behind and had to stretch their defense, Alberg demonstrated why it is so hard for Curtin to fit the 26-year old’s goal potential into his team. In much the same way Chaco Maidana offered tantalizing attacking possibilities paired with defensive frustrations, Alberg follows in the Argentine’s footsteps.
Could Alberg play as a second striker collecting second balls and blasting them into the stratosphere and, occasionally, the net? Certainly. But that requires a set of tactics that acknowledge taking a body out of midfield. And do the Union currently have the midfielders to accommodate such a shape?
The initial reaction of Alberg’s presence in the starting lineup was that Jim Curtin was searching for something different in the No. 10 role after watching Alejandro Bedoya struggle to impose himself on the first five games of the season. But it may be that Andrea Pirlo’s presence offered Curtin the first opportunity to build a defensive set suitable for Alberg. The Dutchman man-marked NYC’s Italian regista throughout the match, facilitating the Union’s successful high press.
In the grand scheme of soccer defenses, straight-up man-marking is the simplest assignment for an individual, but can be a difficult system for the rest of the team to execute. The other nine field players must recognize that even though they have a teammate in a certain space, he is not supposed to acknowledge that space so much as the individual man in it. So once Pirlo left a zone, Alberg would follow and that zone was empty and available to another player, and Philly’s defense had to react accordingly.
Both defenses dictate game early
By using Alberg as a man-marker, the Union were able to negate much of NYC’s ability to build attacks and spread the ball to their wingers in the first half. With Pirlo largely taken out of the buildups, NYC struggled to figure out how to work around high pressure. Both Alex Ring and Maxi Morales dropped deep and looked to play out through David Villa, but Jack Elliot followed the Spanish striker’s checking runs; the Union created a seemingly endless stream of turnovers that, incredibly, came to nothing.
After the first half hour, New York City made a defensive adjustment that so many teams have made before them, and it started the swing that would move the match inexorably beyond Philly’s reach.
Instead of dropping Ring and Morales deep to collect the ball, only Morales continued to come back and look to create overloads up the Union left, with Pirlo popping in and out of nearby zones to attract second defenders and open spaces. Ring stayed high, and snuck around behind Philly’s midfield, with Marquez and Elliot hesitant to follow him for fear of losing track of Villa.
Additionally, Ring could then put pressure on the Union higher up the pitch. Instead of receiving the ball in his own half with space to turn and assess, Haris Medunjanin was forced to move forward and look for passes in more congested areas just inside NYC’s half. His effectiveness plummeted accordingly.
In the second half, NYC continued in this vein, but now felt the freedom to knock long balls up the left to escape high pressure. Even though they rarely connected, those long outlets now found players in light blue around to hunt second balls.
Now NYC could advance without Pirlo. Now Alberg was a liability.
Union midfield falls apart
Although Haris Medunjanin’s speed is often cited as his defensive shortcoming, there are plenty of solid holding mids that don’t rely on zip to be effective. Medunjanin is unquestionably a smart player and he generally does a good job building his athletic disadvantages into how he plays the game. Thus, his defensive
movement often involves taking a safe option — such as retreating to the center — rather than looking to jump passing lanes. Safe is often smart, but it can leave opposing teams with too much time on the ball in midfield areas, particularly when the rest of the Union don’t recognize Medunjanin’s movements and respond.
In the second half, Medunjanin was dropping deep, Bedoya was trying to be everywhere, and Alberg was a lost cause after NYC went ahead.
Perhaps no sequence sums up the 2017 Union season thus far (though there are, unfortunately, plenty of candidates) as well as this attacking move from NYC in the 68th minute. It begins with NYC rotating the ball to avoid CJ Sapong’s high pressure. Alberg moves off of Pirlo (who he still man-marked often, even down a goal) to press Chanot, but his angle gifts the defender space to advance play. After distributing the ball, Chanot immediately opens for a pass. Meanwhile, Alberg’s play is done. The ball is played into Pirlo, who moves forward unchallenged and plays into David Villa’s feet. Moments later, the match should have been 2-0 if not for Rodney Wallace’s too-cute finishing touch.
Broken down, there are a number of important aspects to this play.
- NYC’s recognition that they need to take Sapong out of the play.
- Alberg’s incredible approach to Chanot and Ilsinho’s quarter-hearted effort at providing support.
- Once Pirlo is free, the visitors immediately find him, and the other two midfielders both move away from the ball at angles, which means they pull defenders away but also change the lane those defenders have to shadow; Medunjanin and Bedoya both need to continually assess their positioning rather than finding a lane and approaching the ball.
- Pirlo doesn’t try to play the ball to those midfield runs (more on that later), understanding that they are decoys.
- David Villa responds to Ring’s run by checking around him and realizing that he can help by pulling the defense out of the center. He makes a quick feint at a deep run, and this simple five-step move draws the attention of both Marquez and Elliot. Meanwhile, Ring is behind Medunjanin, who now has to ask for help and doesn’t get it.
This is reactive defending. It takes thought, which slows down behavior, and it signals that the attackers are dictating space to the defense rather than the other way around.
A final note on that play is important to make: It started with Chanot, a central defender moving into the prime ages of his career, who NYC brought in last July. He only played in six matches last season, but at age 27, he has a lot of room to grow. Next, it featured Jack Harrison, who NYC traded to obtain in the draft. NYC brought in high-priced acquisitions Pirlo and Villa, and involved offseason signings Alex Ring and Rodney Wallace nearly scoring.
In short, it was a reflection of a modern MLS roster versus Philadelphia Union. Each player involved in the play was — price aside — a relatively low risk/high return signing.
- Chanot and Ring are both entering peak ages for their positions, and both were brought in to fill specific holes in the roster: A leaky defense and a Lampard-sized midfield gap.
- Villa and Pirlo were expensive, but sure as a sure thing gets.
- Harrison, like Keegan Rosenberry, is an example of using the draft well. With so many good players out of the draft system, it’s only worth spending resources on the draft if you are targeting a specific player for specific reasons. NYC thought Harrison was special and moved accordingly.
- Finally, Rodney Wallace was a known MLS quantity.
In short, NYC spent the offseason building on the foundation Patrick Viera laid in his first season in charge. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Union made high risk signings with uncertain upsides and retooling their system to fit a regista model. Different approaches, and far different results.
A strange aspect of the Union’s attack is how it rarely builds effective triangles on the wings. The striker is dedicated to remaining between the center backs, so the Union are simultaneously dropping one or more midfielders deep to instigate buildups and playing long passes out wide to get behind the first line of pressure. This results in many instances where the fullback and winger are on the touchline at the same time, both limiting their options when receiving the ball and making them easier to disconnect. The issue is exacerbated because dropping two midfielders means there is often a delay in central support for the wings.
Above, you see Elliot hit Rosenberry with a long diagonal pass, and Medunjanin moves up in support, bringing Pirlo out of the middle. This creates a 3v3 on the outside, and for a moment the Union have a positional advantage because Pirlo hasn’t arrived yet. But they make no use of it: Ilsinho doesn’t create space for himself, and even if he had there was nobody moving into the space Pirlo vacated to provide the outlet and dangerous drive toward net.
In contrast, NYC generated strong wing support as the match went on. Below, you can see Villa put Marquez in a difficult position by checking deep on a throw. Marquez decides to drift into the back line after his initial pressure, which gives NYC a numerical advantage on the wing and leads to a free cross.
Finally, you can see that NYC built an overload on the left in the lead-up to their opening goal. Maxi Morales joins the play late, creating a 3v2 and giving NYC the ability to counterpress and regain the ball when Rosenberry takes a very loose touch. The poor communication and spacing between Fabinho, Marquez, and Elliot provides the opportunity for Matarrita to easily find Harrison for the goal. One thing to notice in the buildup is that Alberg cannot drift over to help on the wing because his role is purely Pirlo-based. This means that once the visitors have a numerical advantage on the wing, they keep it and Philly cannot support their overburdened defenders.
There are certainly things to build on following the Union’s latest defeat. They executed the defensive side of the high press effectively, even if they looked hapless going forward off of turnovers. Jack Elliot proved solid with the ball, and offers far more upside than Oguchi Onyewu. Medunjanin showed, once more, that he can create isolations with his distribution, though he also highlighted just how poor Philly’s wide play has been once the ball gets out to the wings. Andre Blake continues to look more comfortable in the air than at any point last season, even if his distribution remains a struggle.
But overall it is hard to find positives in a home defeat that featured no real goalscoring chances. For the second consecutive week, a team came into Chester and attacked the Union right side relentlessly and effectively. And even with Bedoya deeper to help out, Philly had no real answers. Indeed, it’s hard to look at the Union’s roster, look at the results outside of the stellar scoring runs by Sapong and Alberg last season, and look at their recent play, and figure out how the future gets rosier any time soon.