Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: San Jose Earthquakes 2-2 Philadelphia Union

The spotlight will settle on Josh Yaro’s last-second mistake, but the Union’s inability to maintain possession remains a far more worrying problem as the club allowed two points to slip away in San Jose. Additionally, Philly once again looked constantly stretched defensively and created very few chances that did not come from set pieces and/or long balls out of the back.

No line breaking

In Josh Yaro and Jack Elliott, the Union have a pair of center backs that have the ability to change a game with their passing range. To prevent Philly from switching fields, San Jose pressed the center backs often, forcing the fullbacks to be playmakers. This proved troublesome for the Union since they remain frustratingly incapable of accessing the center of the pitch from defense. The Quakes used Tommy Thompson to track Haris Medunjanin in the center, and this effectively meant that the Union were attacking against a touchline nearly the entire match.

Below, you can see the Union work the ball up the right without any chance to access the center. The team’s shape is extremely stretched across the pitch, with only Ale Bedoya available through the middle. It is worth asking why the Union would have Giliano Wijnaldum, Roland Alberg, and Fafa Picault on the same vertical up the left side. If Alberg moved wide when the ball was on the left, the Union need somebody moving onto a more interior vertical (imagine a series of vertical lines running parallel to the touchlines of the pitch; solid spacing would involve players moving so that they occupy different verticals).

Union CB passing first half (L) and second half.

The Union did not help themselves with their offensive movements out of the back. Both wingers and fullbacks tended to stay very wide, even when the ball moved to their side. This meant that only Ale Bedoya and Medunjanin were options through the middle (with Roland Alberg opting to remain high and central as usual). Philly was often fairly successful at switching the ball across the back, but then found that they had essentially outkicked their coverage and stranded a fullback with only a return ball or vertical pass as options.

Philly’s most successful buildups involved dropping Medunjanin and, after a delay, dropping Bedoya into the opposite channel. With Alberg pushing a holding midfielder deep, this opened the center of the pitch.

The home side employed Tommy Thompson in an attacking role in front of two destroyers, and the diminutive midfielder proved invaluable dropping into buildup play and overloading the Union’s wingers. Similar to successful buildups for the Union, Thompson moved into a deep position that put a winger into a difficult defensive position. If the winger protected the wide lane, it opened space through the center (particularly on Medunjanin’s side, where the Bosnian played a hard center-left zone and granted space anywhere around that area).

San Jose complemented these moves by exploiting the gaps left by the Union’s quick-retreating defense. Chris Wondolowski and Vaka both dropped into giant holes, but a lack of playmaking ability when the ball was off Thompson’s foot made it difficult for the hosts to find their best attackers. Below, Wondolowski drags Elliott far deeper than the rest of the defense, allowing Sarkodie to sneak in at the back post. Fortunately, Salinas can’t pick him out (but remember: that run mirrors those Toronto’s wingbacks make with purpose, and that Victor Valdez will easily find). 

Thompson’s movements, along with the Union’s extremely loose defensive shape, meant San Jose could break Philly’s lines with ease, while the visitors rarely did the same to their opponents. In the first half, the Union simply could not find feet in the center with any regularity, and when they did the ball was nearly always returned to the back line.

As a result, nearly all of the Union’s offense came up the wings (with two exceptions, both coming when Philly was able to rotate the ball quickly and find a central midfielder behind the the Quakes’ first line of defense) or through long, direct play. And it was not much offense. Both Union goals came off set piece scrambles, and the best opportunities from open play usually arrived when Pontius headed goalkicks into the right corner for Sapong to track down.

In short, this was an offense that worked extremely hard to generate very few good chances. This is likely part of the reason it generated only two shots after going ahead. The first was a drive from just north of Jupiter by Alberg, and the second came off a horrible kick from Andrew Tarbell in San Jose’s goal.

What’s the plan

The Union have become a team that struggles to put numbers around the ball in attack. Whether it be in buildup play or when going long, they remain reactive and do not move in response to the movements of their teammates until it is too late. Additionally, their movements have begun to lack the intensity necessary to cause real problems.

Take, for instance, this play up the right. Bedoya’s initial run pushes San Jose’s winger into the back line, opening space for Gaddis. Instead of drawing in a defender, Gaddis waits for Bedoya to peel out wide and gives him the ball. Gaddis then makes a run into the San Jose back line and… stops. Then, when he checks back to play with Bedoya, he fails to put his body between the ball and the defender. Meanwhile, Alberg fails to switch fields upon receiving the ball and then makes a run into a crowd after passing it off. The low intensity of the movements after Bedoya’s initial run mean Philly never seriously threatens San Jose even after pushing two midfielders deep.

Similarly, Philly gets locked on the right in the play above. This play starts out with great movement by Bedoya. He times his checking run so that he sneaks deep just after Medunjanin has drawn attention doing the same on the left. Pontius is attempting to create space and Gaddis is offering an outlet wide. San Jose attempts to trap the Union on the right and succeeds all too easily. After Gaddis receives the ball, he plays Pontius into a difficult position. Alberg’s deep run is good for clearing out the center, but it leaves him in a bad spot as well. Yet notice that when the ball is dropped back to Gaddis, no Union player has moved over to offer a central option. Sapong and Picault are occupying the exact same space and Medunjanin has not moved in to create an overload either.

 

Bedoya and Medunjanin first half passing – very little in the opposition half.

Throughout the match, the Union were so short on options off the wings that it almost seemed strategic. But if so, it was difficult to understand what the strategy was. Jim Curtin is fond of saying that the club wants their best players on the ball in good positions; Medunjanin rarely touched a live ball outside of his own half in the opening frame and Bedoya was only slightly more involved.

Left out

Fafa Picault’s speed is a weapon of rare power. But his inability to be part of any other aspect of the attack is troubling. Picault has consistently had issues choosing when to isolate himself and when to recycle the ball. Furthermore, his final third decision-making has become an entertaining dice roll for anybody that does not have a stake in a match’s outcome. On Saturday, he blazed into space and lifted in an off-footed cross without ever glancing at Giliano Wijnaldum, who sat in empty space at the top of the box wondering why he was so unnoticed.

Picault was also loathe to use his speed off the ball on Saturday. In the clip below, Picault never notices the space he has to work with, and it’s only the glorious nature of Elliott’s pass that allows him to penetrate deep into San Jose territory.  

Defensively dangerous

The Quakes are one of only five teams with fewer than 30 goals this season, which is to say they are not an attacking powerhouse. And this is good, because a team like Toronto would have feasted on the space the Union left between defense and midfield.

Philly allowed themselves to get stretched chasing the ball in the buildup phase, then they left big holes in behind. A combination of factors created this problem, and most are familiar. First, San Jose — as most teams have recently — found that when Philly is stretched, Bedoya moves upfield and Medunjanin slides into the center. Below, you can see that when Sapong pushes too far out alone, he creates space that his teammates have to cover. Alberg, who does not rank defensive effort high on his list of favorite things about himself, ends up chasing Godoy across the middle and allowing San Jose to break through.

However, the Bosnian plays a central zone, and will not move far to the right unless he has to, or when it’s too late. Take, for instance, the play below.

This clip combines a few issues that have plagued Philly this season. First, they are slow to rev up after a restart. Gaddis is too far from the play and Pontius offers only soft, half-hearted pressure on the ball carrier. Second, this leaves Bedoya defending 1v1 in space, which is not at all his best attribute. Third, Medunjanin almost refuses to leave the middle, allowing Salinas to wander to the top of the box with only the trailing Gaddis to bother him. Fourth, Wondolowski — who laid down the tactical smack on Philly all night with his movement — pulls off deep, and the Union defense allows him to push them back. This leaves an enormous hole in the middle, and a better team (see: Toronto FC) would have a runner off Wondolowski to finish this move off.

Defensive depth

Once again, it was difficult to understand why the Union’s center backs played so deep so often. Given the team’s penchant for pressing in the first line of defense through Sapong, playing such a cover-focused defensive system in back means leaving a lot of space in midfield. Yet, time and again, the Union’s central defenders dropped early and left holes that were easy to exploit.

Above, you can see how easily San Jose could run at Philly’s back line.

The depth of the backs also created confusion when the Union sought to close the ball down high. Below, you can see Bedoya waving the defensive line higher. However, Yaro is slow to rotate and Elliott remains deeper than his partner, allowing the Quakes an easy and direct breakthrough.

Focus

A final recurring issue for Philly is focus. On Saturday, it popped up on throw-ins. The Quakes created three extremely good situations off deep throw-ins in which the Union were caught half-asleep.

First, there was Wondolowski’s sneaky run that created more finger pointing than coverage.

Then there was Salinas’ run (see “Intensity of Pressure” clip above) into the center.

Finally, Vaka nearly scored when he waltzed through the box and lost a duel with John McCarthy.

But all of these pale in comparison to the biggest play of the game, where three Union players put half-hearted defense on Shea Salinas (including Keegan Rosenberry’s extremely dangerous dragged leg) and Josh Yaro stepped in to finish off an ugly sequence with an uglier foul.

Overall

Philadelphia Union scored two goals in an away match for the first time since mid-May, yet it wasn’t enough. For Jim Curtin, there is a lot to work on before facing league leading Toronto FC on Wednesday. 

For everyone else, Haris knows how you feel.

11 Comments

  1. phil in wilmington says:

    THAT FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE!

    DOOP = Duped

  2. All of these clips show how deficient the Union are in their play, but the first one really jumped out at me considering it was in the 24th min and there’s no reason for the players on the opposite side of the field to not pinch in. That’s such basic stuff.

    Adam – Are you missing a GIF? You mention one where Bedoya is waving the defense forward below and I don’t see anything that resembles that.

    What’s astonishing to me is that despite all of these mistakes, if Yaro doesn’t trip Salinas (or Epps & Rosenberry actually defend correctly), the Union get three points out of this match.

    • @Zizou – Fixed! Clip should be there now, just above the “Focus” subheading.

      And yes, it’s a deeefinitely bit worrying that the best chances created were mostly set piece scrambles.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Thanks, that one was illustrative. Yaro feverishly sprinting up & across past his mark while Elliott stays deeper (along with Wondo and other SJ attackers). No coordination at all.

  3. Adam I’ve been asking why the Union can’t hold a line for so long I think it’s part of their philosophy. What are they being told by their coaches? Why is Curtin screaming at them? I just don’t get it.

    • My totally-has-no-info guess is that the back dropping is as much symptom as cause of problems. When the CBs see that players have time to pick their head up, they should be prepping to drop. And without pressure on the ball, the backs are forced to constantly play on the back foot and drop early. Add to the mix that it makes sense for young players to fall back on heuristics like “is there pressure on the ball” rather than trying to anticipate how a particular player/team will play, and you get the Union’s consistent issues squeezing out space on the pitch.

      Also a chance that Philly really does want to restrict the amount of space the goalie has to cover.

      It could also be strategic, but if so I’m a bit unsure why the first and second defensive lines press the ball while the center backs retreat.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A central midfield channel of Medunjanin, Alberg and Bedoya has only one person in it who will force an opponent’s head to go down, or to stay there if it already is. The Bosnian will shield space, but does not press the ball. And Alberg has been discussed and re-discussed to a fare-thee-well.
    .
    While nothing in soccer is a foregone conclusion, my primary interest in Wednesday’s game in Toronto is to discover who is on the Union bench.
    .
    The medium-term tactical issue to begin to consider is how the central midfield would work once Maurice EDu reaches 90 minutes fitness.

  5. Adam Schorr says:

    Man, you read something like this and the only question can really be “how does Curtin have a job?”. This is really high school level stuff. I’ve seen better tactical play at my pickup game. If these types of issues happened once or twice in a game, it would be reason for concern. When it is the standard offense and defense, it is inexcusable.
    .
    I think this also does a good job highlighting three players:
    .
    Bedoya – A lot of people have said that he is not worth his salary. Yet you see him *always* making the right runs and passes, opening space for others, defending, playing a complete two-way complementary game. I really don’t think we need better talent to make him good, but there needs to be a system. He’s basically opening the door for others to walk through, followed by them either saying “nah” or just running facefirst into the door frame. It’s pathetic.
    .
    Medunjanin – Earlier this season, I wrote about how Medunjanin needs to be benched if he doesn’t play defense. This was one of those games that led me to write that in the first place. The Union this season have basically been as good as Medunjanin’s individual effort level. In these games where he doesn’t work to get open on offense and doesn’t work to actively cover on defense, the team completely collapses, and it was only San Jose’s ineffective offense that stopped this from being a bad loss. While guys like Alberg get lambasted for their effort level, Medunjanin has been extremely hit-or-miss, and when he’s miss, he may as well not even be on the field.
    .
    Alberg – Speaking of him, he’s a really tough player to gauge. It basically comes down to the question “are you willing to play an entire game down a man if you start the game with a 1-0 lead?”. He’s not a supersub. He’s a guy who needs 90 minutes to find that one opportunity, but will finish it when he gets it. I think in a system designed around him, he could be a really really effective player, but I don’t think he’s quite good enough that I would design a system around him. That being said, when the offense appears to be “stand around and hit aimless passes”, having a guy who finishes when the ball falls to him is quite useful.
    .
    One last note – I haven’t seen it raised anywhere else, but on the Union’s first goal, Elliott committed a blatant handball that went uncalled. Corner hit right off his extended elbow. Union greatly benefited from it, and it really should’ve gone to VAR. Tactical analysis? Use your arms if you can get away with it.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      This is going to sound like total nonsense, but given what they actually DO for the team during the match, would it make sense to switch Alberg and CJ? One is constantly checking to the ball, holding the ball to allow his team to move forward, turning and heading up field, and generally busting his butt — while the other just waits for a goal to poach and often seems to find one…

    • 1. Absolutely yes on Bedoya, and he is worth his salary. Especially if we can get a $%^&ing #10 to play in front of him.

      2. I’d give Haris a little bit of a break, since he’s had essentially no rest this season. Some players (like Bedoya) are seemingly inexhaustible and can deal with that, but most can’t.

      3. You cannot design a system around Alberg, because his proper position is as a 2nd striker. (And certainly not on this club.)

      4. I think the ball came off the top of Elliott’s shoulder, not his elbow. At least, that’s what it seemed to me from the replays (though I could be wrong).

  6. phil in wilmington says:

    I think that selling Alberg and Edu in the offseason will help. Got to get rid of Simpson as well. If I were Elliot I’d be begging my agent to be finding me an out as well while my stock is high. Same for Gaddis.

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