Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: LA Galaxy 0-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

As João Pedro’s shot caromed off Andre Blake’s post, it appeared Philadelphia Union were on the precipice. Falling behind to LA Galaxy on the road had the potential to drain the last bit of fight from a team that has soldiered on despite bad luck, bad play, and bad results. But the shot skipped across the goalmouth, struck the far iron, and rebounded to Blake, who hugged the ball close.

Escaping the StubHub Center without a loss was necessary for the Union. LA is a team without an identity right now, and losing to them would have made the Union out to be MLS’s practice squad — a team who’s appearance on the schedule gives other clubs and their fans a positive, hopeful feeling. Here comes Philly, our chance to get back on track.

By keeping a clean sheet and bringing a point back to the east coast, the Union can draw confidence as they prepare for a New York Red Bulls team that will be far more aggressive (and unforgiving) than LA’s languid, low key attack.

All Union defensive actions in the Galaxy half.

Slow buildups, still effective

Gyasi Zardes’ injury allowed new Galaxy manager Curt Onalfo to move to a three-man midfield after Seattle spent 40 minutes spinning Jermaine Jones and João Pedro in circles last weekend. Baggio Husidic was introduced and Jones moved into an attacking role as LA looked to control the ball and provide outlets through Philly’s expected high press. Like most opponents this year, the Galaxy targeted Philly’s right in attacks with long diagonals or by shifting the Union’s first line of pressure to the left then cycling the ball around to Jelle Van Damme to pick out passes through the lines. Though the Galaxy were slow to build play, they committed players deep, and the Union rarely caused problems with pressure. In the entire second half, Philly performed two defensive actions in the LA half: Alberg’s 47th minute interception and Bedoya’s 69th minute tackle. 

The above play came after slow side-to-side passing from the Galaxy that was aimed at creating space on the left, but as the half wore on, Jermaine Jones consistently found that he was granted huge spaces at the top of the Union’s half. Jones isn’t necessarily a playmaker, but he can spray the ball around when granted practice walk-through amounts of space. Above, he advances nearly 20 yards, then patiently waits for Ema Boateng to slip out from behind Haris Medunjanin’s shadow and starts an attacking move.

This clip highlights a major flaw with Philly’s defensive structure that needs to be solved immediately. Watch how the space changes around Medunjanin as Jones advances. The Union midfield collapses toward Medunjanin’s line, forming a flat shape from Sapong to Bedoya. Simultaneously, the back line retreats, seemingly respecting a potential chipped pass over the top. This leads to a huge band of space behind Medunjanin and in front of the defense. This band is so large that Boateng can drift around in it looking for the best passing lane, then can turn and find a pass before any pressure reaches him. This, needless to say, is a huge defensive issue.

Philly’s flat line allows Jones to bypass the entire midfield with a single pass, and once that happens LA has a scary 2v3 at the far post. Most worryingly, this all happens without Los Angeles needing to pull the Union defense out of shape after moving past the first line of defense. Jones simply moves forward, feels no pressure from Picault, who was playing in the striker role, and picks out a pass behind the midfield.

Ideally, as the Galaxy move forward, the Union should compress their defensive shape across the board, retaining at least three horizontal lines of defense. Instead, Medunjanin forms something of an offsides line in midfield while the defense continues to monitor the long pass. This lack of coordination allows Jones to disappear the midfield with a single, straight pass. It is moments like this that remind us Haris Medunjanin is not an answer at the deepest midfield role, and the Union will be structurally problematic as long as they continue to use him there.

Fractured back line

Along with vertical spacing issues, Philly’s defense also struggled horizontally. A tight back four is a foundation for a strong defense, and the Union have been unable to establish good spacing this season (a fact that seems to have temporarily cost Keegan Rosenberry his starting job). Ray Gaddis and Jack Elliott provided few answers Saturday, with LA able to pull Gaddis away from Elliott and target both space behind the fullback and in the channel. Below, Jermaine Jones lofts a long pass into the right channel. There is no reason a back four should be spaced in a way that allows such a ball to land, let alone land with an attacker. Yet:

The clip below may do the best job of highlighting Philly’s defensive struggles right now. Both Kevin Kinkead and Matt Doyle have argued the Union are soft through the center, and few plays make that point as well as this one.

The way Philly currently sets up, Medunjanin occupies a defensive line behind Bedoya and Alberg but in front of the back four. He sets up almost like a stopper would in a sweeper-system back line, shielding the central channel and the dangerous area in front of the box. When opponents establish possession, the Union drop into a deep 4-1-4-1 shape, with one member of the attacking band of four tasked with triggering a press to force a loose pass or long ball.

In this case, Alberg doesn’t drop or put strong pressure on the ball, and he doesn’t push play out of the middle. Medunjanin doesn’t rotate across quickly, and Jermaine Jones — again — threads a simple, direct pass through the entire Union midfield. Further, LA then gets behind Philly’s defense without playing wide. This, unfortunately, is as soft as a center gets at the professional level, with Gaddis late to support Elliott on the right.

Center back coordination

A final issue for Philly’s defense is the coordination between Richie Marquez and Jack Elliott. Just as they did last season, the Union are relying on a rookie central defender and Marquez, who plays a reactive style by default. Furthermore — again, like last season — they have not prioritized protecting those center backs.

Thus we get situations like the one above, in which poor attacking movement becomes a bad decision in back becomes a 2v5 breakout that is one touch away from a clear chance between the center backs.

Elliott’s body position immediately stands out, as he shapes to move outside despite the absence of a runner. Equally confounding, however, is Marquez’s movement, which shows him caught between two minds once Alessandrini makes a run across him. Marquez halts his movement toward Gio Dos Santos, creating a gigantic hole through the middle for the Mexican striker. Meanwhile, Medunjanin has moved toward a good position but then stayed a few steps off of Jones, recognizing that he doesn’t have the defensive tools to combat a driving run forward. Jones, then, is granted time to pick out his pass. This reactive defending implies that Philly doesn’t have a clear sense of the spaces to prioritize on breaks. Medunjanin gives Jones the central pass and the center backs oblige Dos Santos. The Union may have kept a clean sheet on Saturday, but it is easy to forget that they nearly gave up two goals in the first four minutes of the match, and survived due to a mercifully poor final third display from Los Angeles.

Sapong, Alberg, Pontius, and Picault – all attacking contributions… all match.

Going forward

In attack, the Union never asserted themselves. Fafa Picault’s introduction did little to help a team that stretches its own offensive shape to the point of losing the numerical and positional advantages gained by moving the ball across the back. Furthermore, Roland Alberg’s strikeresque final third sensibilities continue to cause problems on a squad that remains completely devoid of a creative presence in the attacking half. Alberg had one forward pass beyond the center circle and took one shot (on frame). Pontius had one key pass, one forward pass in the attacking half, and two shots (none on goal). Picault had a key pass in the 5th minute and one forward pass in the attacking half. Sapong completed three passes total in the attacking half. 

In the clip above, the Union’s attacking movement is quite stagnant overall. But there are particular issues to be highlighted. First, the movement of the three Union players on the LA backline is static. This is problematic since Bedoya is a deep presence here and Medunjanin also hasn’t moved forward. Between Bedoya and C.J. Sapong, then, is nobody. You may have noticed in the above clips that LA would occupy this space with a striker or a winger: Boateng checking off the left or Dos Santos dropping off the back four. Neither occurs for Philly, with Sapong never moving into the deep lane and Picault offering only the slightest of runs into the space to drag Van Damme out of the center.

Once the ball is moved to the left, note how Alberg presents himself on the touchline, which will limit his options on the ball unless somebody is checking into the central lane. Nobody has yet this season, so Alberg be a more dangerous presence offering inside for Fabinho.

Philly’s attacking movement has lacked nuance and deception all season, and Saturday was no different. The Union are prone to playing the ball into corners for runs that would be very effective as decoys but function to put the receiver in a lonely spot as primary runs.

In the above clip, there are numerous opportunities for a hard checking run that would drag a defense around, but it appears the Union do not know which spaces they want to target, so they do not make the runs necessary to open that space, nor do they make the movements required to then occupy those spaces. In short, they target nothing.

It’s important to remember that just because a player is a square peg in a round hole in Philly’s current system does not mean they are a bad player in general. Alberg is a perfect example. When involved in the attack in ways that fit his skillset, the Dutchman becomes a dangerous weapon around goal. But as a creative hub or linking player, he is woefully unprepared for the task.

In the above clip, there is nothing inherently wrong about Alberg’s movement. But given the Union’s options and attack, he makes them one-dimensional by remaining in the center instead of moving wide. Alberg can make a hard run across the back line toward the corner to drag Steres out of the middle, or he can check short to either side of João Pedro, looking to receive the ball and find Medunjanin moving forward or create triangles with the wide players, or simply draw a foul. Instead, he remains in the center, virtually ensuring the Union move will end in a cross.

And then there is the above moment, when Philly is once again trying to penetrate with very little movement. Here, Alberg does provide runs, but they are best described as decoy runs that open space rather than as runs looking to get involved. As the Union rotate the ball, Alberg finds himself on the opposite side of the field, suggesting he’s either out of sync with the aim of the ball movement or is making runs that will allow him to find space later in the move as a recipient of the final pass. If this is Philly’s plan, so be it. But evidence suggests they will continue to have chance creation issues unless they find a link between the deep midfield and the front line.

And finally, there is this darkly amusing moment when Alberg twice takes himself out of an ongoing play to complain.  

Bedoya emerging

Though he remains anchored to the right side as a defensive assistant, Alejandro Bedoya looked far more comfortable than he has in past games, and he provided the Union’s best off the ball running all night. Below, he creates the Union’s best chance with a wonderful run out of midfield that recognizes Van Damme’s slow rotation when Ashley Cole follows Chris Pontius high.

In fact, Bedoya was at the heart of the Union’s best attacks because once again the team seemed to have few ideas about how they wanted to get forward. Picault was a non-factor after getting forward in the 5th minute, and Pontius is far more effective in combination play than in vertical running. Bedoya’s runs were necessary for the Union to attack, and unfortunately the team’s defensive issues and problems advancing the ball out of the back kept him in a deeper role most of the evening.

Still, it is encouraging that he was influential since the other two members of midfield continue to look uncomfortable in roles that fit them poorly.

Fewer goals, but few fixes

The Union remain a team with glaring problems and no clear fixes. They likely are not as bad as their record right now, but they are clearly nowhere near competing for a playoff position. MLS is a forgiving league, though, and if Philly can get on track they can still put themselves in a position to succeed with a solid midseason transfer window.

But it’s one thing to get back on track. It’s another to realize you were never on it. The Union currently have a number of flaws that they cannot seem to fix. Jim Curtin must be proactive and creative to save the team’s season. And he has to act quickly.

57 Comments

  1. This posts are fantastic.

    I am happy to see Bedoya at the 8 now, but still angry at Curtin it took him so long.

    I think Jones needs to start. He is like a much better WC. He can win the ball and still be enough of an offensive help to contribute. He needs to be on the field.

    • The Truth says:

      With Jones on, who’s off? That’s the pickle.

      • Move to more of a 4-3-3 shape and get Bedoya and Jones and Medun all on the field at once.

        Or I would even entertain trying Medun at the 10 for a half to see how it works.

      • I’ve been thinking the same thing about trying Medunjanin at the 10. Why not?

      • John Ling says:

        I recall from preseason that he doesn’t like having to be so far up field – that he prefers the deeper role with the occasional foray forward.
        .
        Assuming we don’t push him forward anyway, I think the options are the 4-3-3 we saw at the end of the LA match, or move Bedoya to a wing, drop Jones into the 6, Haris into the 8, and… somebody (Najem?) into the 10.

      • Seeing that one dribbling run Medun had in the game, I’d want to try him higher up based on that.

        I know we had issues of playing players in positions they publically admit arent their best.

        But maybe MEdun is so good this is a case where even if we play him at the 10 where he doesnt like as much, he is still effective.

    • Yes. Jones needs to be on the pitch. He’s the one to help shield the backline and start cementing the soft center. He is indeed like a much better WC (or a much younger and more agile BC). And to answer The Truth’s question, with Jones on, you put Bedoya on the wing, which is his second-most-apt position, and obviously a place where we need some damn help. So the person off is either Pontius or Ilsinho, neither of whom has provided much of anything so for this season. This clearly makes sense to me (and I am, overall, a big fan of Chris Pontius).

  2. The Truth says:

    “Attack without movement” clip made me wince. Look how disinterested that front four look. CHECK TO THE BALL, DO SOMETHING, DO ANYTHING. Alberg’s attitude has always left a bad taste in my mouth. A player can only afford to act like the when they prove themselves (Zlatan, best example).
    .
    Thanks for the analysis as always but damn, I need to forget about this team for a few days.

    • holy shit

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Strangely, this has been the Union’s MO since Hackworth was here. I don’t yell much at matches, but one particular game several years ago I screamed, from 20 rows up, no less, “Check to the ball!! What are you waiting for?!?!?!”…. I spilled my fries that day.

  3. Also that “attack without movement” clip makes my eyes water. A midfielder has the ball, and our attackers form a stagnagt line 4 across against their backline.

    It’s pathetic. Does Curtin see this or not?

  4. Looking for everyone’s opinion here. There has to be a breaking point for some change to be made or for Ernie/Jay to finally address the fans. I don’t want to hear that he spoke to a few Sons of Ben members during the Montreal match. This needs to be bigger than that. What do you think this breaking point will be?

    • Very soon I imagine. I still trust ES to learn from his mistakes, and I’d be very surprised if he isn’t already making calls to out of work managers.

    • I’m in the midst of wedding planning and had to convince the fiance that our annual 5-pack of tickets was a good idea this year. I’ll just take that one on the chin! I don’t know what the breaking point is for Ernie/Jay, but I’ve just about reached mine!

    • John Ling says:

      My hunch is the gold cup break is when they’d make a coaching change.

      • About a month ago I said if this continues, it would come after the Red Bull match. If they are down two goals around halftime, I can see that place emptying out and you’ll hear nothing but Red Bull supporters.

    • Unionjacq says:

      When the stadium is regularly half full come summer time

  5. Adam Schorr says:

    These breakdowns are so damning. Bedoya appears to be the only chicken with his head still attached. Can’t do it all himself.

    • It took a while, and he still isn’t the type of player we need at the position we need, but that is credit to his pure talent and skill. We are still overpaying him for our needs, but he is showing why he is a DP talent anywhere in this league.

      • Bedoya would be fine since he replaced Nogueria. Unfortunately Medunjanin also replaced Nogueria and nobody replaced Barnetta.

    • Bedoya is not the problem. This is just what happened with Toronto: they went and spent big bucks to get Michael Bradley, only to find that Michael Bradley is not the man to carry you to the playoffs. He’s a glue player. An outstanding glue player, mind you, but a glue player. They didn’t hit it big until they signed Giovinco. The problem wasn’t that Michael Bradley was overrated. It’s that you need attacking talent too. Now we’re discovering exactly the same thing with Bedoya.

  6. With everyone walking around, might they be trying to conserve energy so they dont run out of gas in the second half? A few things. The defense does not push up enough when the union has possession, losing compactness and leaving huge gaps. Also, the entire team still does not get the idea of support, so the player with the ball must either hoof it, or risk loosing possession.Also , maybe Alberg is looking for a more rigid system or logic in the attack, so he can predictably know what he must do, as is done in Holland. You can see he is totally pissed off and not in the game. I will bet he is better than he is showing, But let us try to figure out why? The most dangerous thing here is that the player have no fear of not working. Maybe they see that their frustration with the poor system has no consequences. Forget tactics, if the coach has lost the players, which it seems like to me, then he must go yesterday. In this case, change is mandatory.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    So we read here about innumerable group defensive issues. Then we read about how the Union do not seem to understand as a group how they desire to attack…
    .
    .
    …and this is not fundamentally a coaching issue. Alright then.
    .
    A new manager comes in here immediately and says…okay I have no 10…anywhere, oh there’s one, You Adam, your going to play… stay central good to combine, spring a through ball. immediately problem solved in the midfield.
    .
    does this lead to wins directly, probably not. but Playing Well? Ahhhh.

    • Thats a good way to put it.

      This team sucks.

      Worse of all, they aren’t playing well. They are playing like shit.

      That’s on the coach.

      It’s one thing to play well and lose. It’s one thing to play well and get unlucky and go on a winless streak.

      It’s a whole other to look totally ineffective for so long, look like you have no plan, and continuisouly fail to get the most out of your players.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        totally ineffective. you can’t bad luck yourself into 16 straight games without a win.
        .
        I said it last week and it bares repeating…Marion Campbell the worst coach in Philadelphia history could park the bus to greater than 5 points in 42 or 6 points in 45 now.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        For Marion Campbell to have been a soccer coach, you would have started with a Lombardi-like, “Marion, this is a soccer ball.”
        .
        But with no sarcasm at all.

      • UnionGoal says:

        Richie Kotite.

      • They have started every game playing well except Orlando (I would say Vancouver and LA weren’t great either but they we playing for a tie and got it even if I am against that mentality). The team doesn’t adjust well and that’s on the coach but it’s also on the players. We literally have no playmaker on this team. Just adding Barnetta back would make us so much better. Once the opponent figures out what we are doing they lock us down and our player just kinda stand around. Now I agree there should be plans in place for this but what kind of professional attacker just stands and waits for the ball. I can guarantee the coach isn’t saying just stand in this area even if there’s a guy marking you.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I recognize this solid rebuttal… thing is, the attackers on this team have stood around for this manager’s entire tenure. .
        It has not just started happening this year.
        .
        This goes back to Hackworth honestly but manifested most significantly in the 3 years this management has been here and I’d argue the ONLY time it stopped was in the rare instances when The Calm and Vincent Noguiera were on the field together.
        .
        We didn’t even touch the defensive lapses, breakdowns, and general poorness in this same tenure.

      • This is true. The standing around pisses me off more than anything. I honestly don’t understand it. I don’t think the coach is 100% to blame, but damn I would be berating and benching the players for it. Give me the young guys because at least they seem like the want it.

      • No, I don’t mean playing well for 30 minutes at a time once in a while. No. I mean a consistent play style that highlights the growing quality and understanding within the team. We don’t have that.

        If this was the beginning of Jims tenure, I would be happy with these 30 minute spurts. But Im not.

      • I’m just pointing out that the 30 minute spurts always happen at the beginning of the game, meaning the original gameplan usually is successful. I’m not happy either and honestly the apathy has kicked in, which is probably the worst spot for a sports team to be.

  8. Atomic Spartan says:

    Stagnant. Static. Reactive. Devoid of creative presence. Lacked nuance and deception. One dimensional. They target nothing. Few ideas. Out of sync. Continue to look uncomfortable in roles that fit them poorly. Glaring problems and no clear fixes.
    .
    These are the Union’s search engine tags.
    .
    #mlspracticesquad

  9. Thoughts on trying Sapong on the wing? He played there a few times in KC and a few brief stretches here in a pinch.

    • Our wing play has been so horrible so far I’m willing to try anything.

    • Good God no. Playing on the wing is what killed his productivity in KC and led to them trading him to us. He’s one of the few Union players playing where he belongs and playing well. Please let’s now screw him up too. Put Derrick Jones in at CDM and move Bedoya to the wing instead.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        D. jones has played one game in his professional career at DCM. One. Once. A singularity. A literally unique event.
        .
        It was two weeks ago with the Steel. It was not an especial success.
        .
        If you are going to start Nowakian experimentation, put Jack Elliott there. He looked good doing it in one game in Bethlehem, good.

  10. Phil in Wilmington says:

    I heard a certain “someone” on the KYW soccer podcast last week who really put the season into perspective for me.

    This roster has been assembled to be dis-assembled when the time comes for youth to take their place. It’s committed to a system that requires a well-knit midfield triangle that is saddled with a roster that thus far has featured an incomplete/inadequate midfield triangle.

    It’s up to the front office to decide if they are willing to spend to address that. However, without the threat of relegation, there is no real need when it comes down to it. More than calling for Curtain’s head or benching player’s, the voice of the fans should be crying out for an acquisition of a true #10.

    So with all that in mind, I am accepting that, this roster is NOT built for 2017, but to make way for what 2018 or 2019 will bring. I’m also not convinced that a change is coming to make the team more competitive, as it would involve either trading away some assets that will continue to pay off over the coming seasons (Bedoya or Blake), or require a significant influx of new capital, which kind of goes against the current plan.

    But in accepting this, I am suddenly much more interested in Bethlehem Steel. Additionally,I’m much more willing to watch this current team play without wanting to throw things at the screen or on the field, but instead wondering who will remain relevant for next season with their current play.

    Accepting that this is the plan makes me much more able to let this season be the shit-show it will continue to be.

    My only fear is, when you add young players to a roster that is on a downward spiral, do you risk that player’s development?

    • I see your point, but what ownership is missing is that the Union is an MLS franchise. The Sixers can tank for years but their fanbase is established and generations have been attending games. There is also no Embiid or Simmons on the horizon for the Union, especially since they traded their first draft pick for Charlie Davies, who can’t even make the eighteen this season. They don’t know what they’re doing.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Phil articulates what I have been wondering since the beginning of preseason.
      .
      I can no longer find the unfinished research, but with my data having been incomplete, there were an awful lot of Union players playing 2017 on the option years of their contracts. And many of these were not starters.
      .
      MLS’s level of athleticism demands that players coming from outside the league be two-way players. As we all review our mental lists of Union imports over the last four to six years, some have proven out but others have not.
      .
      What other leagues demand that players have the two way player mentality? The English, the German, what others? We do not pay money comparable to the English or the Germans.
      .
      Earnie can only target players who are available. First team scouting needs to expand. They are experimenting with statistical models to do the first winnowing. So far the experiment seems not to have found much success. Continue to experiment, but as a transition, hire some old fashioned scouts, please.

      • “What other leagues demand that players have the two way player mentality?”
        .
        How about Central America?

      • kenzo-lo says:

        When I see CA soccer I see more relaxed possession- it’s not high press which is what is meant by two way in my mind.

  11. Zizouisgod says:

    “In modern football, the full backs have to make a difference.”

    Zidane on Marcelo’s performance this past weekend.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Yup. One can argue your defenders need to be the best, most highly technical players on the team.
      .
      Course Zidane could say pretty much anything and I’d agree so that is a factor.

  12. el Pachyderm says:

    These are my demands.
    .
    I want Derrick Jones as the destroyer 6
    I want Haris as regista in the 8
    I want Adam Najem in the 10
    I want Jay Simpson in the 9
    I want Alejandro Bedoya on the wing.
    I want an UmpaaLumpaa Daddy.
    .
    I’d like but do not need a CAM signed in the transfer window. If you are not changing the formation…. this is the best expression of the 4-2-3-1. Tired of doing the thinking here skipper.
    .
    .
    .
    If you are steadfast in not switching to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 which is obviously the case are we going to maximize what we have in the roles best suited for their game?…..Is it this weeks line up tinker, next weeks line up tinker— is it any tinker in the future before 20 games without a win is breached?

    • Phil in Wilmington says:

      “I want an UmpaaLumpaa Daddy.”

      t-shirts. this needs to be on t-shirts.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Well put.

    • scottymac says:

      Fresh out of Oompas, but maybe time for another Studs Up article

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Then you have to retool D. Jones. Right now he’s not a 6. My own guess is it’s too soon to give up on him as an 8, although he has a glaring, major flaw as an 8, namely offensive distribution at distance..
      .
      He plays the 8 the way BC used to play the 6 before ES arrived. There has been noticeable improvement in that dimension of BC’s play over the past year and a third, distinctly noticeable. So leave Jones alone for now in the hope that he undergoes similar learning.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Wait until Adam Najem begins to dominate on the pitch in USL before you covet him too much.
      .
      It was interesting to note that he drew increased defensive attention from Cincy in the 2nd half Saturday at Lehigh.

  13. Other than my comments above, I only want to add this: Roland Alberg makes me want to tear my hair out. I don’t know why he is even on the squad, much less starting, much less being paid $345K. He doesn’t even remotely fit our system and never will. Playing him at the #10 makes about as much sense as playing Oguchi Onyewu at the #10. It needs to stop.

    • I personally would have cut him when he showed up to camp so outta shape this year. I’m in better shape than him and that’s pathetic.

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