The tactical identity of the Philadelphia Union is one that has puzzled fans frequently in the club's three-and-a-half year existence. There is no easy way to summarize it--but thanks to being present at the games (or watching them on TV, which is a decent alternative), combining that with the Opta statistical information available, and a knowledge of the beautiful game and the tactical components that may get overlooked, perhaps SOME sense can be made of how the Union play on a game-to-game basis.
For example, let's take a look at Wednesday night's MLS fixture: the Union and Crew at decently populated PPL Park (for a midweek game, not TOO bad). Philadelphia, facing many questions after a less than convincing month of May and a tepid start to June in Toronto, seemed to find their attacking feet and a semblance of identity in a thoroughly convincing 3-0 victory over the battered Crew. All three goals, scored by Brian Carroll, Sheanon Williams, and Conor Casey (that's right, no Jack Mac on the scoresheet), came in a six-minute span midway through what was a highly energetic, though somewhat sloppy, first half. Both teams, coming off playing four games in less than two weeks, certainly showed it throughout the second half, but the Union were in enough control to introduce Aaron Wheeler to MLS action for the first time and play Roger Torres for the first time since opening day on March 2.
It's necessary to mention that Columbus were very battered injury-wise. Defender Chad Marshall and midfielder Eddie Gaven were both out of action (the latter for the season), and Jairo Arrieta is on international duty with Costa Rica. Essentially, it was a cobbled together defense and an attack that was relying solely on
Gonzalo Federico Higuain's ability to create in the middle and Dominic Oduro's ability to go around people. Not exactly a world-beating XI, and one ripe for the Union to pick...what's important though is that the Union actually DID put them to the sword, unlike Toronto the weekend prior. Here's how...
1. BRIAN CARROLL BOSSED THE MIDFIELD AND KEON DANIEL WAS AN ABLE DEPUTY.
Captain Carroll is literally in his best form of the season--maybe career?--and it could not be coming at a better time. One week ago, it was his glancing header at the near post in stoppage time that saved the Union MAJOR blushes against Ocean City in the Open Cup third round. This week, it was a goal and an assist that started the onslaught in the first half.
Okay, that's all well and good and it gets the headlines. But what Carroll is doing in the midfield goes FAR beyond his goals and recent spike in activity on set pieces. Take a look at his distribution and defensive breakdown from Wednesday (courtesy of Opta and mlssoccer.com's Chalkboard):
(If you want to look at it for yourself and play around with the Chalkboard, use the above link.)
Here's the bottom line: Carroll completely bossed the midfield Wednesday, both in attack and defense. As I will point out later, the Union sacrificed "control" of the middle of the field in favor of attacking through the wings. This meant that Carroll and Keon Daniel had to take responsibility for winning the challenges and cutting out the Crew midfield, then transitioning that into spreading the ball to the wings.
As the Chalkboard shows, Carroll did just that. He intercepted 8 passes on the night, and picked up 17 recoveries tracking back. He completed a team-high 48 passes. As most of those passes show, he kept them very simple in the middle of the park and sprayed passes wide for Cruz and Le Toux to use their speed to build attacks from. In fact, if you look at the link, which includes a timeline of when these events happened, the majority of Carroll's unsuccessful passes came at the bookends of the match (the first and last 10-minute stretches), meaning once it hit the middle of the game, his passing was spot-on.
The goal Carroll scored was a fine representation of the two-way kind of night the captain had. Winning possession on an errant pass 45 yards from goal, Carroll drove forward to strike a hopeful shot from 30-35 yards out, but his ambition was rewarded with a deflection off Eric Gehrig that sent the ball into the bottom corner. With the kind of night he had, it was a goal Carroll deserved thoroughly, luck aside.
His midfield "deputy", Keon Daniel, was more than up to the task of supporting him. Daniel completed 42 of 50 passes, the aspect of his game that is probably the best, and also picked up 9 recoveries. While he does not have the defensive presence of Carroll as far as strength and command in the air. Daniel can do an able job of distributing the ball and pushing up a little farther than Carroll (at times). I've been highly critical of Daniel getting caught sleeping in possession, but such a problem was non-existent Wednesday.
Two major takeaways from their performance:
1. Carroll and Daniel's positioning and influence came mostly from a deep-lying position in the midfield. Here's a look at their combined distribution and defense:
As the photo shows, Carroll and Daniel did most of their passing either in their own half, or just past midfield into the Crew's end of the pitch. Part of me thinks this is due to the fact that the Union have been playing and distributing passes from out of the defense so much in recent weeks. In fact, as the Philly Soccer Page showed us, left back Raymon Gaddis played the most passes in the month of May with 257, Carroll was second at 229, and right back Sheanon Williams third with 211. Granted, these players have been on the field more consistently than the likes of Daniel, Michael Farfan, and Kleberson, but the passing and distribution had shown a worrying trend of coming from the defense (even Parke and Okugo had some recently high distribution numbers), rather than the midfield.
With both players playing deep, rather than the sometimes uneven positioning and communication of the central midfield in recent weeks, the Union were thus able to play out of the "back" with Carroll and Daniel dictating the game and free to play it wide on their terms. What it also did was give the sometimes beleaguered defense an extra line of support to slow the Crew midfield.
This allowed Crew midfielders Tony Tchani and Matias Sanchez to complete a high number of passes (105 total between them), though most of those passes were in the middle third of the field and did little to help the attack. Rather, it separated them from effectively supporting Federico Higuain, the attacking mid, and Dominic Oduro up front. When Brian Carroll is effectively cutting out passes and not having to worry about marking a Felipe (Montreal) or a Villarreal (Los Angeles), it allows him to have a free role to defend and attack when he so chooses. In turn, this allowed him to plunder the opening goal.
2. It takes away from the Union giving their forwards direct support in the center of the midfield...but such support wasn't exactly necessary. Granted, a few more bodies forward would have been nice on several of Sebastien Le Toux's crosses. But with Conor Casey effectively holding up play (the first he's done so in a few games, which was refreshing to see and hopefully a sign of things to come), and with Jack McInerney's movement improving, Carroll and Daniel were able to come forward as they willed once they had played the ball wide to Cruz, Le Toux, or one of the overlapping outside backs on the wings.
Instead of the recent trend of getting bogged down on the edge of the box (notice how that space is pretty much empty on the Carroll/Daniel combined Chalkboard), the Union pressed the issue through their speedy wings. Whether or not this will work against a side less battered, tired, and injured than Columbus remains yet to be seen, but it was certainly effective in the context of Wednesday's match.
2. MAYBE SEBASTIEN LE TOUX REALLY CAN PLAY ON THE WING
When I talked to Seba about being put on the wing after the match, he said what's nice about it is that it gives him more freedom. He can take players on with his speed, his sometimes elusive touch isn't punished as frequently, and (perhaps most surprisingly of all), he can play a pretty darn good ball from the wing into the box.
Remember during his first stint with the Union how confusing it sometimes was to see Le Toux standing over the U's corner kicks? He would belt a line drive into the box, only to (most times) see it go too high or wayward of everybody in the area. Those times seem LONG gone. The majority of his corner kicks are able to find very dangerous areas, his wing set pieces do likewise, and his crossing ability might just be the best of any Union player who has been put on the wing this season.
There were shades of his ability to beat defenders and serve a cross in the Ocean City game (yes, against low-level opposition, but they were very stout in defense), but the Crew match indicated that Le Toux can indeed be very effective in a wide role. Tyson Wahl continually either was beaten by Le Toux's pace, or got too far pinched in to account for the Frenchman's wide spot. Coupled with the effective distribution of Carroll and Daniel, as well as a few marauding runs from Sheanon Williams, Le Toux was basically able to have free reign of the outside and cut inside to swap with Casey or McInerney if he made a beeline for the goal.
There are more benefits that come with Le Toux on the wing as well. For starters, he allows for very quick counter attacks to start. Early in the 1st half, Zac MacMath collected a cross, then threw it forward for Le Toux to gather and launch a 2-on-1 counter attack with Danny Cruz. Le Toux's pass to Cruz was nullified by a poor first touch from his opposite winger, but the danger Seba provides on the counter is important for Philadelphia. For another example, look at the video (and the accompanying photo below from the middle of the video) of this offside opportunity for Jack McInerney created by a counter that utilized Le Toux on the right: http://www.mlssoccer.com/matchcenter/2013-06-05-PHI-v-CLB/highlights/222517
The photo above shows Le Toux in the upper left hand corner of the screen just as Danny Cruz releases the pass on the counter. At this point, with Casey down the left and McInerney streaming through the middle, the Union are essentially in Peter Nowak's old 4-2-2-2 (which they basically played the entire night with how deep Daniel and Carroll played), but it's working. The speed of Cruz and Le Toux turns it into a 4-2-4 at times, making counterattacks like this one in the video possible and allowing Le Toux to play the ball he did for McInerney (albeit, just offside).
One area Le Toux could stand to do a little more in as far as playing on the wing is concerned is actually coming inside for shooting opportunities. He did not have a single shot last night, while his opposite winger Cruz (though haphazardly and at times WAY too ambitiously) cracked off three efforts from outside the 18 after cutting in on the left. It's a good idea, though Cruz lacks the consistency of shooting to actually be effective at it. Le Toux has proven to have a rocket from distance in the past, and he could also put himself in position for opportunities by making more back post runs.
Of course, having a slip-sliding, trigger happy opposite winger may limit those opportunities. But the crossing Le Toux provides, and both his and Cruz's work rates, will make the Union wings that much more effective--as Le Toux's second assist (and MLS-leading sixth of the year) on his cross to Conor Casey showed.
3. THE DEFENSE GOT A GOOD CLEAN SHEET
There were few (if any) moments Wednesday that I felt the Union were in any real danger defensively. Dominic Oduro's stray runs into the box were basically all by his lonesome, and Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo (who looked well in tandem with each other) were more than happy to double team him and cut him out. Higuain buzzed around in the final third trying to open up opportunities, but without much support from Tchani and Sanchez, and with Speas (for the first half) and Meram basically ineffective, Columbus' best chances were created with the Union already piled back in defense and prepared for them.
The key, as was touched on earlier, seemed to be Carroll taking over in the midfield and allowing for Okugo and Parke to do their jobs and just defend. Here's the combined distribution and defense numbers for the two centerbacks:
Combined, that's not very active as far as passing, but I think most Union fans would take that as a very good thing given how active Carroll and Daniel were in the middle of the park. It allowed the centerback duo to stick to their job of defending, as both of them cut out several crosses and made clearances throughout the night (see the penalty area).
Additionally, outside backs Gaddis and Williams did their usual attacking up and down the wings, and both had plenty of passing touches as they typically do. However, it was not with the frequency they have in recent weeks. The combination of the midfield's effectiveness and Le Toux/Cruz's attacking intentions meant that Williams and Gaddis could hang back and stabilize the outsides. While the Crew had little in the way of outside attack (though Oduro showed his quality in cutting in from the outside on a few occasions), it still shored up the defense, which looked in tandem all throughout the night.
Even Zac MacMath had a solid game overall in goal, facing little in the way of difficult shots. Here's why:
Apart from Oduro (x2), Higuain, and Anor threatening from the right side on a few occasions, all of Columbus' efforts came from just outside the penalty area. This explains why there were six blocked shots...if you shoot from distance, you're not always going to get a result like Brian Carroll or see the ball fly into the upper 90.
Parke, Okugo, Carroll, and Daniel had no issues setting up shop at the top of the box to cut out those chances, or just slow Oduro and Higuain's hopeless solo runs into the area. In addition, MacMath showed solid command in the air on a few Crew set pieces, and the distribution into counter attacks was excellent (as touched on earlier). In short, it was just the performance the Union's defense needed after allowing four against LA last month, three against Montreal a little under two weeks ago, and soft goals to Ocean City and Toronto.
What does it all mean going forward for Philadelphia? Maybe not too much. John Hackworth did after all concede that this team has been very inconsistent in recent weeks. But they needed somebody to step into the breach and lead them--Brian Carroll did just that. They needed somebody who could create opportunities for them--Sebastien Le Toux did that. They needed guys other than Jack McInerney to score goals--Carroll, Williams, and Casey supplied them. And they needed the defense to respond--they did with a clean sheet. The Open Cup 4th Round next week with D.C. and the derby with the New York Red Bulls in a few weeks' time will be an indication of just how far along this Union team is coming, and if the performance put on Wednesday was a sign of change, or just a rare occurrence.
And if this little moment for Jack McInerney is a rare occurrence too, the Union will be pretty happy. After all, getting more production from others is very important--but so too are his goals.
What do you think? Do these tactics sum up the Union's play against Columbus? Is it effective? Can they duplicate it? Were the Crew just too battered?
Comment below and/or tweet me @JoelHoover with your thoughts.