Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Union 3-0 New England Revolution

Photo: Earl Gardner

The good thing about self-inflicted problems is that — if you survive them — you can fix them. On Sunday, Andre Blake and a friendly post ensured that the Union’s biggest errors did not come back to haunt them, and exquisite finishing did the rest.

At this stage of the season, in-conference home wins are great however you get them. With Ale Bedoya and two Revs starters on international duty (and Diego Fagundez suspended), Philadelphia Union knew this wouldn’t be the most coordinated of contests. Philly did not have a win without Bedoya in the lineup in 2017 going in, and since the Union wiped the turf with DC United on May 13, only Fafa Picault and Ilsinho had scored from open play.

In short, this was always going to be a slightly messy game, but that would not have been an adequate excuse if Philly had dropped points at home against visitors lacking three of their most powerful and well-calibrated weapons.

The Ilsinho thing

Messy but positive serves as a good description of the match as a whole as well as Ilsinho’s individual contribution to it. The Brazilian beat out Roland Alberg for the start in the advanced midfield role and brought the usual blend of sublime skill and scandalous shortcomings. Overall, however, the most notable part of Ilsinho’s game was his movement off the ball. Below, you can see him move toward the ball when Chris Pontius is at a numerical disadvantage, then he keeps his feet moving to find space. At the end, unfortunately, he takes an extra moment to make a decision and a chance disappears.

While remaining far from perfect, the two-yard shifts and early looks behind the defense were more prevalent than in the past. It’s worth remembering that criticizing Ilsinho (an activity I have surely participated in on this site) is criticizing a player learning a new position. The flaws, then, may smooth out over time. Below is a play that highlights how important those small movements are when you are the attacking central midfielder. Ilsinho scoots just a step to his right at first, but once the ball moves he checks his situation and sprints into a new passing lane. This leads JeVaughn Watson to shift toward Ilsinho and causes Gershon Koffie to slide right to cover the passing lane. As a result, a lane opens through the center and, one pass later, Ilsinho has the ball in space in a good attacking position.

Ilsinho was far better than in the past at moving toward touchlines to attract attention. Even if he doesn’t expect to receive the ball, these movements are instrumental in creating space in midfield for Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones to step forward. Additionally, with New England deploying three defense-minded players in midfield, it was important for Philly to pull those players out of their shape and ensure that they could not keep the game in front of them at all times. Ilsinho did these things, even if he did not always do them in a natural way. His goal came off a great run that, even if he hadn’t received the ball, would have been an ideal way to open a gap in the center while pulling a supporting defender away from Picault.

Of course, the frustrating side of Ilsinho-as-10 remains. His quick passing remains strong, but given time to pick out options, he often takes too long to decide or chooses big risks when small rewards would be better. Just before he was taken off, Ilsinho was able to collect the ball in front of the Revs defense with time. He elected to try a low percentage pass when recycling play and wearing down the opposition on a hot day was clearly the better choice.

Also, he missed an open goal.

Revs good success up right

Jim Curtin argued that the early goal may have led his team to take their foot off the pedal in the first half. That may be true, but New England’s buildup play was well-designed to maximize their strengths and pound Philly’s weaknesses. Unfortunately for the Revs, their system required Teal Bunbury to have a professional first touch and, on this day, he largely did not.

New England knew that they would be far less dynamic with Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, and Diego Fagundez out of the lineup. Rowe and Fagundez are fantastic attackers who draw second defenders, while Agudelo’s movement dropping off the back line is incredibly useful for creating 1v1s for Fagundez. Additionally, Rowe has thrived this year as a more important cog in buildup play, allowing Lee Nguyen more room to roam and taking the onus off Gershon Koffie to spread play around.

In order to start attacks without Rowe, the Revs spread their center backs extremely wide or presented a three-back system in which Andrew Farrell remained far closer to the center backs than Donald Smith on the left. In front of this unbalanced line, Scott Caldwell and Koffie were mobile outlets for a first pass while JeVaughn Watson remained central, moving the ball deep when pressed but looking to turn and play to the wings when granted time.

The goal was to encourage Giliano Wijnaldum forward so Kei Kamara could slip into the space wide of Oguchi Onyewu and initiate a Battle of the Big Fellas.

If Onyewu stayed close to Kamara, the former Crew striker would play the ball back and head toward the back post, seeking out a favorable aerial matchup with Ray Gaddis.

That the Revolution did not score through this approach does not mean it was not effective. Numerous times in the first half, New England would look to draw Ilsinho out of the center then play long, low passes into midfield, where Bunbury would be checking inside. The winger would then simply return the ball and watch as it was lofted over his head to Kamara sneaking into the corner.

The disturbing truth is that Philly was severely exposed on several of these plays, but the Revs’ crossing let them down (and Jack Elliot’s far post positioning made the margins much finer for the crosser). Going forward, teams are going to notice that Wijnaldum is slow to close down crossers when they have established themselves in the final third. The Union fullback needs to be able to quickly close down wide men, which means he needs to know that a center midfielder or winger will slide deep to cover space behind him. (Onyewu has been fairly clear that he’s deep.)

Nguyen you gonna close this guy down

The other major issue Philly must address this week is the amount of space granted to Lee Nguyen.

In the first half, New England’s plan to go up the right and occasionally switch play left where Nguyen could find the ball and attack a disorganized defense rarely resulted in the all-important, well, switch. As time wore on, Nguyen began dropping deeper to become involved in play earlier, and he would then initiate switches on his own.

The problem, for the Union at least, is that Nguyen was allowed to do this. There are certain players who, no matter their form, should not be allowed to pick their head up and look for runners. Nguyen is one of those players. (Haris Medunjanin is another.) The Union were unable to close down Nguyen quickly, with both Derrick Jones and Giliano Wijnaldum often sitting too far off the man with the ball and allowing long switches of play to develop.

Was this a huge issue when New England was so poor in the final third? Nah.

Will it be a huge issue if it’s allowed to happen in Kansas City? Yeah, far more likely.

Celebrate C.J. Sapong

Right now, he deserves it. Sapong dominated the New England defense, dropping off into space, flicking on aerial balls, and pressing quickly from good angles. Below you can see one of his early knock ons to Picault, but this was his default mode throughout the match.

In the end, the Union deserved to win, but they still lack the 90-minute focus they will need to make any noise down the stretch in MLS. This team is, however, notably improving. When they play well, they get bodies around the ball defensively and transition with speed and danger.

Jim Curtin should get his due credit for this. Let’s give it to him.

8 Comments

  1. hahaha damn. that guy was not jim curtin

    • It even has DN as his initials on his shirt…ah Fox, could you be more disappointing in everything you do?

  2. Great analysis as always, Adam. I felt like the Union most definitely gave the Revs far too much time and space in the midfield in the first half — New England would frequently advance right into the final third, and leave Onyewu and Elliot and Wijnaldum with lots to do. That Blake had such a quiet match overall is a testament to how well those three guys (and Gaddis) did. It did not help matters that Medunjanin made 3 brutal midfield turnovers, one of which you highlighted above, and any one of which might have punished us had we been playing against a better-finishing team. (The second half was a completely different story, of course.)

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    Hehe, I guess people look shorter and younger on TV.

  4. John Ling says:

    We’re in section 104, so we had a really good view of all the space Nguyen had in the first half. I pointed it out to my daughter, and once she saw the acres he had she was surprised NE wasn’t taking advantage of it.

  5. Wait a minute, the union shut out their opponents, the fullbacks did not close down quickly to prevent a cross. Maybe this is the correct thing to do. Do not prevent crosses, keep it compact instead.. Crosses are the easiest thing to defend. Just stay compact and dare them to play thru the middle. This way you protect Gooch also. So , the defensive problem is solved, midfield is a little trickier.

    • Adam Cann says:

      This is a great point! And I hope I didn’t seem like I was advocating Gooch leaving the center. And I’m definitely not advocating flying out to the crosser in all situations.

      However, allowing time for a crosser to pick his head up and pick out one of the most dangerous aerial presences in MLS matched up against a short defender is trouble. I think Philly can both stay compact centrally and defend the back post without leaving the crosser alone whenever a winger is caught upfield. In fact, they are set up to do this with Jones dropping toward the space behind Wijnaldum. That’s why I highlighted this as a situation where Wij should read the play better rather than a more systematic, strategic flaw.

  6. I see your point. It rarely is black and white. The real danger in a cross is when the crosser is close to the endline and puts in an outswinger. That is statistically the most dangerous cross, so to close that down is critical. That would give Jones a little extra time to get there and hope the crosser is satisfied to cross in a diagonal ball 20 or 25 yards from the endline. Your analysis is always a fun read.

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