Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Union 2-0 New England Revolution

Photo:215pix

Almost a year to the day after they opened the 2017 season with a shutout, Philadelphia Union began their 2018 campaign the same way.

This time, however, they also scored a few goals. Debutant Anthony Fontana bundled in Philly’s first, and Corey Burke’s sumptuous turn set up CJ Sapong — who had a pile of first half misses on his mind — as the Union calmly shoved aside New England Revolution in Brad Friedel’s debut as coach.

The match was defined by Antonio Delamea’s 24th minute red card, but rhythm of the game was always different than 2017. The Union’s pressure was constant and coordinated front-to-back, with the center backs stepping well into midfield to follow strikers, and both holding midfielders given license to press forward against the Revolution’s hesitant central players. Unlike last season, the Union exerted considerable control over the pace of the game, and they constantly created numerical advantages in the buildup phase and on the wings — particularly up the right side. Indeed, there is a parallel world not too different from our own in which CJ Sapong has a first half hat trick.

However, there is also a world in which it is Auston Trusty, not Delamea, who is sent off with an early red card.

Pressure

True to his word, Jim Curtin put out a team that was ready to  press in every corner of the pitch.

In response, New England’s best buildups involved quick passes into the center and early balls out wide before the Union’s winger could close off the wing.

An alternative approach for the Revs was to target Trusty with direct long balls from the back. With Fabinho stepping high during pressing, New England played behind him and looked to send both Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo to challenge. Both offensive tactics share the distinction of acknowledging that the Revs did not have a clear route through the middle without Rowe on the pitch, and they needed to get behind Philly’s midfield using the width in order to threaten.

With their fullbacks pushing up, though, the Revs often lacked an outlet in buildups and Trusty was reliably better in the air than his opponents. Unlike past years, Philly’s center backs were extremely — and consistently — aggressive following men into midfield to consolidate the high press. This meant the compact shape Philly used defensively did not crumble after the first pass stretched it wide or deep. Both Trusty and Elliott tightly tracked dropping runs, and on the rare occasion that they were beaten on the turn, Medunjanin was lurking in support. This is not a strategy without risk, but since Brad Friedel fielded a team low on playmakers and then sacrificed a dangerous attacker following Delamea’s sending off, the Union could take defensive chances and feel fairly safe from consequences.

Mistakes and chances

Against New England, who were missing their most creative player and oddly chose to drop Kelyn Rowe, Philly was clearly going to face the most danger on quick counterattacks. The key, then, was to cut out the first pass that started the attacks and refrain from making any risky long passes, since they are difficult to counterpress.

In the first half, the left side of the Union defense made both of these errors. First, Fabinho made a risky lunge at a ball in midfield when he should have stayed on his feet. This allowed the Revs to break at speed and, when Fabinho again went to ground (on the same play, this time in the box!), Andre Blake needed to make a big save to kill the visitors’ momentum. Later, Auston Trusty made an indecisive long pass into the center that quickly turned into a breakaway for Juan Agudelo the other way. Trusty showed all the elements of youth and inexperience that make for both exhilarating and frustrating viewing. He was confident in his long passing even as he failed to connect early, and he retained belief in his ability to track into midfield even after getting turned.

Attacking with purpose

Perhaps the biggest difference from last season’s Union was the dedication to the 3-4-3 attacking shape. Upon regaining possession, Philly would break forward if an option was immediately available, but if not they were perfectly happy to recycle play and find Haris Medunjanin, who was constantly looking to drop into a back three in buildup. With Medunjanin in back, Philly’s fullbacks both pushed very wide, and the wingers read the defense to try and create extra-man situations in wide areas. This left Fontana and Bedoya to rotate through the center, often with the simple aim of pulling another defender forward so the Revs would commit a member of their backline to man-making further up the pitch. From the start, the Union targeted left back Gabriel Somi, and they were often successful.

The movements were fairly predictable, but the Revolution, with Fagundez’s low defensive awareness at the start, and then only two men in the middle after the sending off, were unable to cope. First, Philly dropped Medunjanin deep to create a three-back set. Then they flattened New England’s front two players by playing the ball across the back three. Once space opened in the right channel, Elliott would look for an angled forward ball and step past the front two defenders while Rosenberry slid further up the wing to pull the defensive winger wide. Herbers could then check into the half-space for a direct pass from Elliott, but the real question was whether Somi would step out of the back line to mark Herbers. If he did, Bedoya would attack the space in behind, pulling center back Claude Dielna out of the middle. On the play that earned Delamea a red card, Philly successfully rotates the New England defense, creating a lane through which Elliott can find Sapong. Throughout the match, New England struggled to adjust to this tactic, and it was an Elliott long ball into Burke down the right channel that again opened the Revs for Philly’s second goal.

Accam

The David Accam Factor was wonderfully clear from the start of this match for Philadelphia. The winger immediately brought a dimension to Union transitions that was lacking all of 2017, getting to the endline by driving by the speedy Andrew Farrell on the break and centering for Fontana to head wide. It was the type of individual drive that even Fafa Picault cannot provide because it required not just flat-track speed, but the ability to draw Farrell in and then push by him. Accam accomplished this and played a stellar cross to Fontana that the rookie will want back when he sees it in the film room.

Accam garnered additional attention throughout the match. He used his positional freedom exceptionally well, often keeping Farrell deep by pushing inside when the Revolution defense shifted left in response to Philly’s right-sided buildups. This seemed part of a deliberate effort by the Union to get bodies central in the final third and stretch play in the middle.

Sapong

The extra dimension Accam added to Philly’s attack was great, but there can be little doubt that CJ Sapong was the true leader of the line in the Union’s opening match. The big striker created fouls that resulted in a red card and two cautions, meaning he put three quarters of the New England back line into the book. In addition, he bamboozled everybody — including himself it seemed — and could have easily trotted off the field at halftime with a hat trick.

Since Bedoya was moved deeper in midfield, this marks the first match that Sapong has had an energized workhorse as partner in defense. Last season, opponents learned to patiently pass Sapong out of play, slowly separating him from Ilsinho. On Saturday, Sapong looked positively lethargic next to Anthony Fontana, whose goal celebration is a pantomime of the bowl of caffeine he almost certainly devoured before the match.

Conclusion

Boy, it would be nice to proclaim this the start of a long, sustained run to the top of the Eastern Conference. But the truth is that a) New England is bad, b) the Revs defense is worse, and c) Philly spent most of the match up a man.

All that said, this performance showed more organization on both sides of the ball than most matches last year could reasonably claim. The big question going forward is how the Union will respond in the coming weeks as Columbus and Colorado review the tape and seek to disrupt the Union’s three-man buildup by pushing a striker up to cut off the center of the pitch and force the Union to one side (likely the Union left). There are various responses Philly can call on, including an extra man in buildup, which they tried at times on Saturday with Bedoya.

Additionally, Columbus can utilize a four-man buildup by dropping Artur and Will Trapp deep, and this has the potential to draw the Union out of the center. It will be extremely interesting to see how Jim Curtin responds, particularly with Federico Higuain being far more dangerous through the middle than Fagundez.

All that is in the future. For now, Philly can celebrate putting their first win behind them far earlier than a year ago. It was a deserved win, and they handled both the match as a whole and their man advantage with composure. The raft of surprises in the Eastern Conference this week points to a strong division that will require focus week in and week out. The Union are a young squad, but if they can continue to execute their attack as they did Saturday, it will take a lot of pressure off of a young defense in the weeks to come.

24 Comments

  1. “The Union’s pressure was constant and coordinated front-to-back, with the center backs stepping well into midfield to follow strikers, and both holding midfielders given license to press forward against the Revolution’s hesitant central players.”
    .
    The quoted sentence crystallizes 2017’s most fundamental problem, that they did not have the personnel to do what Adam Cann describes.
    .
    The caveats sprinkled throughout the article must be remembered, to wit, the Revs are wretched, their defense is worse, and for nearly 7/9ths of the game the Union had a man advantage.
    .
    In regards to the alternative universe in which Trusty gets the red and gives up the PK, I saw the young man make exactly the same tackle last season up at Lehigh. I thought at the time, and continue to think, that probably it is a move he has practiced over and again against teammates, but that’s a guess.

  2. The Rowe non start baffles me. I had even forgotten he was on the team until his number came up as a substitution. At which point I wondered why in the world Freidel didn’t start him.
    .
    Given all the caveats about New England, my desire to see this version of the Union, is at it’s peak. Since the ownership financial situation is what it is, the arrival (finally) of the proclaimed youth movement seems like Christmas morning. I believe most of us can deal with the bumps in the road that will inevitably happen, if the Union (Curtin) continue on this path. It’s taken too long to get to this point, but now that it’s here, it looks like it may have been worth the wait.
    .
    If things really start working out, it’s going to be a bitter pill to send a thank you and apology to Sugarman and Stewart. But I’ll gladly suck it up for the fruition of becoming a feeder club (or even a contender [did I really type that?]).
    .
    Whoops, almost forgot, thanks Adam, and nice work as always.

    • Totally agree with you, but I wonder if the youth movement really has arrived. When Dockal and Ilsinho are available, I imagine Fontana moves down the depth chart. Trusty hopefully will stay, and I’m glad to hear Curtin say that Burke turned heads on the technical staff, but will he see much playing time behind Accam and Fafa and even Herbers? I hope so, but not sure. I think two things have to happen before we declare the youth development a success:
      1) We see 3-4 Homegrowns getting regular starting spots.
      2) We sell a legit star for big $$

      • Gotta factor in the draft picks for young guys too, even if they aren’t as young as the academy. I think if you include those guys we got a pretty good younger, if not youth movement. Factor in that Steel seems to like picking up highly thought of guys that have either been passed over or injured and we have the makings of a place that below 25ers want to play. Which can only be a good thing.

      • Good points Spugger. Maybe I’m a bit excited to start this journey. But if Trusty is starting consistently, and Jones/Fontana are regularly coming off the bench, that’s a really good start IMO. That’s not even counting Real who I believe will gets some starts in MLS, not just Open Cup competitions. There will also be some injuries/suspensions the team will have to contend with (some already), so how Curtin shuffles the depth chart throughout the season will be an even greater indication of how far things have come.
        .
        I guess you could say the Union have just stuck a big toe in to test the waters. Whether you want to wait for the whole foot, to call the youth movement arrived, is up to you.

  3. Ok so a little help here… this is year 4 of the 5 year plan? To build the club through youth? This is pretty exciting to think about! Thanks for the great work Adam!

  4. Off to a great start, Adam. One thing I’d hoped/figured you’d comment on is use of the 10 spot in this game and moving forward (with Borek).

    • Adam Cann says:

      I think if this had been an 11v11 game, that would’ve been in here, but New England’s 4-4-1 left so much space in buildup that I thought it might be jumping the gun to get too deep into that role.

      I’ll take another look for later this week!

  5. Thanks Adam. It is worthwhile to acknowledge that the opponent on Saturday was not strong and played with an average of ten men, but also worthwhile to note that this Philadelphia Union allowed an equalizer to a ten-men San Diego, at home, a couple years ago.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Yeah, it was pretty clear Friedel didn’t have a clear idea of how to make changes that would allow his team to look for goals while down a man. Plus Somi was so lost on the left that they were always going to struggle to make the Union nervous (Somi didn’t look that bad in preseason, but Philly had him chasing shadows).

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    One weakness I saw was that many of the free kicks were setup ideally for a right footed kicker but the only two lining up on the ball were Haris and Accam. Hopefully this will be resolved next game when Borek is there.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    I find the absence of Kelyn Rowe dubious.
    .
    I find the absence of Kelyn Rowe as full time National Team member just as dubious.
    .
    I could make a very strong argument he is one of the best continental United States players. Every.Time. he steps on the field in red white and blue he makes something happen. Exceptional technique. Excellent vision.
    .
    Can’t figure it.

    • Adam Cann says:

      I thought Rowe looked really good in preseason in the middle. Far more of an ability to control or at least influence the pace of the game compared to Fagundez. My guess is that Friedel was going for hard counters, and Fagundez was basically in a central winger role meant to get him space to take people on at speed.

      Guess the Union should keep their ears pricked. If NE isn’t going to value Rowe, somebody will, and Philly could use a guy that can play three midfield positions.

    • The fact that Rowe and Dax McCarty (although Rowe still has some time) didn’t get a bigger National Team run surprises me. They both stand out every time I watch them.

      • Dan C( formerly of 103) says:

        Love McCarty in MLS. But his play was too slow at the international level.

  8. Liked to seeing them build on the Montreal game with their commitment to positional play again against New England. Trusty ads some speed to that back line that hopefully will allow them to play 3-4-3 and even 5-2-3 when attacking with Fullbacks really pressed up. Teams will attack Trusty but he has some height and speed. Maybe not a ton of mass.

    Columbus will be a test for sure. And then the altitude at Colorado might have them play a bit less aggressive.

  9. Great review Adam! My two tactical concerns:
    1) How easy will it be to beat a 3-4-3 back line of Elliot-Medujnanin-Trusty over the top on the counter? Turnovers centrally will be killers.
    2) Can the Union maintain that high-press for 90 mins against a team with better passing vision?

    • Trusty has some speed. All three have some height. They aren’t Vertonghen or Alderweireld. But they could have success with a similar press to the Spurs. Press hard for a short period of time, hope for long balls that you can win in the air. If you don’t get the long ball then you drop back into space.

      That style is not the Man City style of all out press,but doesn’t require the same level of fitness. But it fits the offensive shape we are trying to play. And our personnel. Jim isn’t Poch, but both were CBs and are defensive minded coachs.

      So if we run pseudo press, all out and then pause. We might be able to sustain it for 90 mins. One interview from Jim indicated that fitness numbers were pretty good going into the year. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean they will peak too early.

      • Yep. Good points. It will be up to players on the field (Dockal, Bedoya, Medujnanin) to set the tempo and manage that pressing.

    • @spugger – great questions, especially in light of NYRB’s performance last night. Their pressure was excellent across the pitch, and Tijuana often posted two players against the back line to try and play over the press, knock things down, and pick up second balls. Philly could do this, but I don’t think they want to – the goal this year seems to be an opponent-independent system.

      Basically, any time the Union lose the rock and don’t have immediate access to the ball counterpressing, they’re going to be in interesting waters. If it happens after moving into midfield, they should have a defensive structure set up, but if it happens as they transition into the middle third, they will be in between attacking and defensive shapes, with space between the center backs and behind the fullbacks. Curious to see how they respond. It was ugly in the final match of the Suncoast following midfield turnovers…

      • @spugger – sorry! Forgot that second issue. In short – no, not if they don’t manage to control the ball at all. But a successful high press should lead to less running overall if it’s executed well. The real cost against a team that passes around the press is those recovery sprints, because once the back line is retreating, the midfield is just incrementally catching up for 40-50 yards. Brutal.

        In theory, though, the driving force of some high pressure systems, including the ones that came up from the German 2nd division with Rangnick and Klopp, is that they can allow a team with less talent to compete with a more technical team. But to do that, you need to get the pressure right both in terms of *when* and *how* it is applied. We didn’t see that from Philly last year (in fairness… it’s hard!)

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