Tactical Analysis

Post-match analysis: Union 2-0 Houston Dynamo

Photo: Earl Gardner

Three straight wins and four straight shutouts after a long winless streak appears to indicate some major shift in how Philadelphia Union play soccer. Jim Curtin has certainly made personnel changes recently, and he has tweaked Philly’s defensive approach. But largely the Union’s recent success comes down to two things: execution and connections in the center of the pitch.

Philly’s win streak looks like this:

  1. An effort-driven win over Red Bulls in which they gave up chances, stopped those chances, and finished their own.
  2. An utterly dominant display against a D.C. United side that was chasing shadows. 
  3. A calmly confident defensive masterclass against a Houston side that can’t defend its own box but can counter with speed and precision.

There is a growth of confidence at work here, but also a progression of tactics. The Union are finally playing with a sense of how a game should feel when they control it. By maintaining balance going forward and shape in defense, Philly can certainly make a push through an Eastern Conference full of shallow depth and inconsistency.

Executing the plan

Jim Curtin has never had a team execute his game plans this well.

Ever since the first half against New York City, the Union have spent at least 45 minutes controlling the tempo and location of the match. Against NYC and Montreal, they lost energy, focus, and control. But since then, their pressure has been smarter, control of the middle has improved, and the points have poured in. That is not to say Philly has been perfect, but they have found their strengths and played to them with a consistency that even the 2016 team never achieved during the heady early months of the season. (Jim Curtin has not had a three-match league winning streak since August-September 2014.)

At last week’s fan event, Earnie Stewart said Alejandro Bedoya was his prototypical Union player, and it’s plays like the one below that set a new tone for the team. Last season, a run out to the crosser late in the match allowed the ball to be put back into the mixer, where Steve Birnbaum scored a tying goal for D.C. United. This time around, Bedoya’s quick pressure means the ball can’t get back into a dangerous area.

Execution starts on defense, and — aside from wins — all three of the Union’s past three matches have led to the opposition’s creator showing up on a milk carton. While Sacha Kljestan and Luciano Acosta were squeezed out by a tight shape and defensive shifting, Alex posed a different dilemma on Wednesday night. The Dynamo’s offensive instigator can knock balls behind a high line, but he has also done a lot of damage by sneaking out wide when the ball is deep, overloading a wing, and attacking on the dribble. With so many weapons, teams can ill-afford to provide support, and Alex has freedom to roam with Juan Cabezas and (on Wednesday night) Rico Clark closing off counterattacks.

The Union locked Alex out of the match by quickly pressing Houston’s first pass out of the back on the counter and by using Ilsinho and Sapong to pressure Houston’s midfield from behind. With both wingers tracking back, Philly kept the Dynamo from playing the ball deep into corners where Alex could slip out wide and create individual battles in space.

By forcing Houston to play through the center, then, Philly asked whether the Dynamo could execute a Plan B and use their attackers in the buildup play. The answer was a comprehensive “no.”

Although Romell Quioto and Mauro Manotas were willing to come deeper for the ball, Philly tracked overlapping runs and prevented Houston from getting behind the back line. The Dynamo found a bit of success by pulling the wingers a bit wider and deeper to create space for Cubo Torres to dart into wider areas, but the reinvigorated striker is a finisher, not a creator. Even after pulling away from Jack Elliot, he had no interest in operating long on the wing.

Ilsin-who?

Philly’s defensive effectiveness was, once again, all about execution. As impressive as the understanding between the wide players was, the spine of the team had its best match of the year. One issue that has always dogged Ilsinho is his defensive effort (specifically, it’s inconsistency). It has always been clear that the Brazilian did not particularly enjoy tracking back below his own box, and his skillset was not exactly amenable to working out of counterpressure.

Defending from the 10 position has provided some additional incentives for Ilsinho to put forth effort.

First, speedy players aren’t simply sprinting away from him. Instead, the middle is often an ugly, physical, and messy area with little space. Players move the ball quickly but rarely take off on extended runs dragging a defender with them. Ilsinho digs that because it means he can make shorter sprints to press while also finishing those sprints in areas that put him in a good spot to lead transitions. No longer finishing long defensive runs below the box, he is now only a few smart steps from a good counterattack position after running at a defender.

Second, working behind Sapong simplifies defensive movements for the Brazilian. If Sapong pressures a center back, Ilsinho can react to the angle of Sapong’s run to close on the simplest pass. During the Houston match, Sapong — as well as Medunjanin and Bedoya — were demonstratively indicating defensive assignments, again simplifying or flat-out removing the defensive decision-making process for their attacking midfielder. This forced Houston to rely heavily on their center backs to start attacks, and that is not a strong suit of theirs. It also meant Cabezas had to stray forward looking for space, moving him out of transition lanes.

In attack, MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle is right in describing Ilsinho’s move to the center as counterintuitive, but not necessarily because The Human Right Stick is a bad passer. Instead, it’s about speed of play. Ilsinho’s standout attribute is his 1v1 skills, which rank among the best in MLS. Unfortunately, on the wing he rarely puts himself in positions where beating one man allows him to directly threaten the back line. Collecting the ball far from goal, Ilsinho would beat one man only to run into his support. If he did break through, he would meet a defense that was ready for him. At that point his distributive shortcomings came to the fore.

All of this points to a player that, on the surface, would struggle in the center, where time is shorter and turnovers more costly. But, as Curtin mentioned in his press conference, it seems as though Ilsinho always had the ability to play quickly. He just needed to feel like he had to do it. In the middle, defenders don’t sit off and make him probe on the dribble; they press hard and force him to make a quick decision.

Thus far, this has been surprisingly (read: counterintuitively) helpful for the Brazilian. He can still beat players, but now he isn’t slowing the game down to do it. He slithers away, runs into space, and then actually has the time to get his passing right (though he’s darn lucky to have C.J. Sapong around to clean up his Globetrotter balls into the box; see Doyle’s extended clip of the first Union goal for evidence). As long as Ilsinho is executing defensively and playing quickly in attack, he provides a solution in the center that Philly likely did not know they had.

Connections in the middle

Ilsinho’s defensive work with C.J. Sapong was only one locked-in pairing that helped Philly silence Houston’s counterattack. Jim Curtin has had to answer a lot of questions about the center of his midfield as well as his center back this season, but on Wednesday they were all towering presences. From back to front, Philly relied on coordinated movements between their central duos to ensure that the defense would not need to collapse to the middle and open the wings.

The Dynamo attack up the wings, but when they can’t counter quickly, they need to draw teams inside to establish advantages in wide areas. It simply was not happening on Wednesday night. Sapong’s pressing kept build-up play to a minimum, and Bedoya and Medunjanin slid in and out of a stopper role exactly the way Jim Curtin drew it up. Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliot (and Andre Blake, who has made huge strides in the air) were dominant in the box.

The second type of connections Philly formed with increasing regularity Wednesday were with the ball. Curtin has talked repeatedly about getting Haris Medunjanin on the ball quickly and often, but the message seems to be fully sinking in now. Houston, like D.C. before them, did not exert a lot of early pressure on Medunjanin. They backed off a bit and looked to cut off his long passes, effectively nullifying his ability to create from deep.

But Medunjanin is not a one-trick pony. He adjusted by becoming more patient, inviting a bit more pressure, then using his distribution skills to find passes that cut out defenders, freeing up Bedoya and Ilsinho to move forward with the ball. It helped that Sapong had perhaps his best day of the season holding play up. Not only was he beating everybody to the ball, he was turning, advancing, and bringing others into attacks.

It could get lost with the band of three behind him putting up stats, but Planet Lovetron’s number one export was as influential as anybody on the pitch (except perhaps Jorge Gonzales, whose decision to let Ray Gaddis stay on the pitch was pleasantly surprising, and wrong).

Still work to be done

At halftime, Curtin noted that Houston began shifting the match’s momentum after the 40th minute. He focused on pressure from his front four as the major cause. And he was right — the effects of Philly’s work up front cannot be overstated. As the match wore down, Houston’s ability to put balls in behind was a direct function of how much time and space they were granted in back. Below, you can see how Picault’s soft pressure provides the time needed to pick out a dangerous ball behind Fabinho.

And below Rico Clark has plenty of time to select his pass in the closing minutes, as he picks on Rosenberry.

Going forward, Philly will need to work to solidify their low block/counterattacking system to close out matches. Currently, when their legs tire, they allow teams to keep them in their own half and create late drama. The Union were the better team Wednesday, just as they were for 45 minutes against New York City and Montreal. Philly got the win against Houston, but clubs that have more dangerous, thoughtful build-up play will pose far greater challenges in the dying moments of matches.

13 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    It’s funny this notion of quick thinking as it relates to Ilsinho… he’s always been one of the quickest thinkers on the field and displayed this in spades last season when he, Noguiera and Barnetta were on the field together.
    .
    He also understands space and the need to slide in and out of it at the right moment.
    .
    Kudos to Jim for putting him central. I argued to invert him because I thought his tendency to cut in on dribble would then put him in the middle more often than not as he destroyed the defenses shape.
    .
    Haris, Alejandro, and Ilsinho could provide a very strong and quick thinking midfield combination indeed.
    .
    The settle to touch as pass by CJ on the high ball that ilsinho then plays to Pontius in buildup to first goal is arguably one of the most beautiful things ever to happen at Talen Field.
    .
    Good news.

  2. Fantastic and educational as always Adam!

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Nice to read about how Union is doing things well. Gotta be a drag otherwise.

      • This whole thing is fun again! During the first 30 mins against Houston, I was thinking “the movement, the fluidity, El P must be loving this!!!” 🙂

  3. i know you get this every week, but this is a great analysis. your columns are always informative and insightful, but your description of ilsinho’s counter intuitive adaptation is downright enlightening

  4. The Truth says:

    We’re so lucky to have these analyses. Big thanks.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    Agreed with many of the sentiments above. These analyses are much better (more positive) than those from the games 3-8 this season 🙂

  6. I have to agree with what El Pachy says in his first comment above — I find it funny to be surprised at Ilsinho’s speed of play. I agree that he has always been a quick thinker on the pitch.

    For me, the issue is a slightly different one. Ilsinho is not a prototypical #10 because he does not primarily look to involve his teammates in the play. On the wing he loves to dribble at people 1-on-1 so much, and then he gets isolated and has no chance to mix it up with anyone else. Adam, you say his move to center has forced him to play quickly, but what it’s really done is force him to play with the other children! He’s always played quickly. You can’t make MLS defenders look foolish unless you’re playing quickly. But now that he is stationed in a high-traffic location, he is starting to share his favorite toy — the round one with the black-and-white pentagons all over it — instead of keeping it to himself all the time.

    • I agree that Ilsinho doesn’t look first for his teammates like a “typical number 10” but we developed those ideas whille in a 2 forward lineup. As the playmakers started sitting deeper, there became more of a need for a more attacking number 10. One of our biggest changes from last season to this is that Nogueira was more of a linker who set the tempo and moved the ball rather than a Harris who makes that one killer pass that completely changes the possession. It’s a massive change in philosophy that gets lost in the shuffle IMO. I’m glad Curtain finally found the way to put the pieces together cause I never doubted we had the right pieces, just we were trying to fit them in a way that they didn’t naturally fit.

  7. Adam Schorr says:

    I mentioned this in the player grades thread, but I think the real key to making this whole thing work is Fafa. Sapong often comes back to find the ball on both offense and defense. Every time that happens, Fafa sneaks up into the striker role – you can see it in the press breaking video here. Earlier in the season, there was a clip posted where the Union front 4 were standing static against the back line. Fafa works really hard to win position and get to dangerous places and breaks the static. I’d argue that he’s really not a winger at all, he’s actually a second striker who is asked to defend the left flank. Whatever he’s doing, he should keep doing it.

    • Jim Presti says:

      +1. He’s the only “winger” we have that really stretches the opposing defense when CJ drops deeper to collect the ball or put pressure on the far CB.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Adam – I pause at “the real key,” but I agree with everything else. His ability to stretch the field, and his central runs in behind specifically, have done wonders opening up the field.

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