Tactics & Analysis: Short Two Points

USA TODAY Sports

A game that went from draw to victory to draw in a matter of 10 minutes: breaking down all 98 minutes (!!!!) or so of action from Saturday's 2-2 drama with FC Dallas at PPL Park.

Being in a stadium during stoppage time is a far more nerve-wracking experience than watching stoppage time on television (an experience I'm still not used to in my visits to PPL Park). Thanks to the clock on the screen, viewers can have at least an inkling of when the referee may blow for full time.

In spite of that, nobody knows when the whistle for full time may be blown--nobody but the one solitary figure in the middle of the field who has a watch and a whistle with the power to bring to a halt all proceedings.

Yesterday, five minutes of stoppage time stretched to eight (or nine), and it was in the seventh extra minute that 10-man visitors FC Dallas snatched a most surprising and "disappointing" (John Hackworth and Zac MacMath used it) 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union thanks to Blas Perez's header. Simply limiting the goal to that description doesn't really do it justice--so many other factors were in play that made the goal the wild event it was.

Of course, there were many other events in play throughout the 98 or so minutes that made the match the one it was--a hard-fought, physical affair with talking points aplenty. Tactically, it was a chess match throughout, especially the opening 45.

1. THE MIDFIELD WAS A WAR

No question about it, this was the place where the brunt of the chess match took place over the course of the match. Both teams had a plan, both had to go through each other to make theirs happen. It made for a tough game to watch, but tactically one that was well-matched.

Defensively, Dallas' plan was pretty straightforward: limit the distribution to the wide players of the Union by closing down whoever would be distributing the play. In the case of yesterday's match, it was Michael Farfan. With Keon Daniel off to the Gold Cup, Farfan began his stint as stand-in "CAM" with a somewhat inauspicious start. Part of it was the way Farfan himself played, but much credit is due to Dallas for their defensive work as well.

Blas Perez may have ultimately gotten the match's equalizer, but he played a vital role even on defense throughout the match by tracking back to help Andrew Jacobson mark Farfan. Practically anytime Farfan was on the ball, the two of them were swarming to him. As a result, Farfan was dispossessed 18 times in the middle of the field and was uncomfortable in trying to release passes over the top to Le Toux on the wing and Casey and McInerney up front. Thanks to Dallas crowding the midfield with five players at times and the influence Jacobson had on defense, he didn't really have to do much offensively, as shown below:

Screen_shot_2013-06-30_at_3

Farfan's biggest success came when he was spreading short passes to the outside, especially for Le Toux to gather and use to take on defenders. Part of what makes Farfan successful is his ability to be tricky in the middle of the field. But on a day like that one where he was getting muscled off the ball quickly by Perez and Jacobson, simplicity was Farfan's best friend. When he played the simple balls wide to keep possession, rather than looking for the killer pass over the top, it was more effective for the Union. Zimmerman and Matt Hedges were very content to cut out the long passes Farfan would attempt, but as recent weeks have shown, the Union are best going down the wings at pace.

Back to the five in the midfield...Dallas look a far different team with David Ferreira not out on the field. Without him, Kenny Cooper basically roamed wherever he pleased (especially out wide on the right, which the link to Chalkboard doesn't really show) within Dallas' supposed 4-4-1-1--but left no real link between Perez and the rest of the midfield. The plan relied on Jackson and Fabian Castillo to do their usual damage with speed down the wings, but they weren't counting on the physicality of Sheanon Williams and Raymon Gaddis.

Apart from a few problems in the opening 10 minutes--namely Castillo sneaking his way in down the left and Williams and Amobi Okugo failing to communicate on another one of his runs--there was not much there for the Dallas wings. Both teams came with a physical agenda (more on that later), and both executed it well in the midfield and on the sides of the defense in the case of Williams and Gaddis. Castillo could have made a bigger contribution for Dallas, but his touch and decision making in the final third showed why he's a very enigmatic character on the wing.

Once he came on the field and put Dallas into a true 4-4-1-1 (or 4-3-3), Ferreira was still kept fairly quiet. Brian Carroll had a strong game in cover all throughout the match, and it kept the Dallas playmaker further detached from Perez. Plus, Dallas had to tuck in and defend anyway being down to 10 men at that point in the match, limiting Ferreira's effectiveness even more. However, his decisive over-the-shoulder flick to Perez was all he needed to influence the match.

2. WHEN ONE PLAYER'S DOOR CLOSES...ANOTHER PLAYER'S DOOR OPENS

It certainly seemed like the case today down the Union's right-hand side.

After terrorizing Columbus and New York in the past two league matches, Sebastien Le Toux seemed content to play a very high line (almost like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-4, because Danny Cruz was doing the same thing). This greatly limited his effectiveness cutting in down the right like he did in the prior two matches and made Michel's defending of Le Toux much easier. When SLT did begin to open up chances in the second half, his deliveries were either straight into the gut of the Dallas defense, or flew past everybody. Credit is due to the job Michel did, but also to Dallas' defense for being aware of the threat. All in all, his positioning and lack of support in the midfield made the midfield war even more of a tactical battle.

Le Toux may not have had his most effective game down the right side, but it opened doors for Sheanon Williams to have another superb outing at right back for the Union. Aaron Wheeler may have been the "Man of the Match" according to PPL Park afterward, but the job Williams did--both in defense and attack--was far more worthy (despite a fine header from the rookie that looked to have won the match--off a Williams cross). How teams continue to fail to account for Williams' Rory Delap-esque throw in is really beyond me, but Dallas failed to and Amobi Okugo took full advantage.

I asked Williams afterward about if the emphasis on him going forward has changed at all this year given his ability to deliver assists from the wing position and he gave a great answer. From what he said, the coaching staff has been working with him on picking his moments to go forward into the attack. With Le Toux terrorizing defenses in recent weeks and drawing their attention, it's allowed Williams to become a part of the attack when Le Toux draws out a right back like Benitez. Here's a screen shot of the setup prior to Wheeler's goal in the 87th minute:

Screen_shot_2013-06-30_at_1

Le Toux is the closest Union player to Williams in the photo (on the edge of the 18-yard box), and yet there are three Dallas players in his general vicinity. Part of why I think Le Toux was less effective today was also because he failed to track back more down the wing and was content to sit up front and tucked inside like it was a 4-3-3. This limited the Union down the right on a few attacks, but in this case, his pinching in allowed Williams to come wide and line up the cross for Wheeler to head it home.

As he proved against New York and Columbus, Le Toux is better going directly down the right channel at defenders, and he did that with some effectiveness those weeks. Saturday, he decided to tuck inside and play up very high--a move that intended or not, opened the door for Sheanon Williams to put in a MOTM performance in my book.

Now about that goal-line clearance:

Screen_shot_2013-06-30_at_5

Yeah, it was a fine defensive play by Williams...but...well, that got missed.

3. YOU MUST TAKE STOCK OF WHAT THE OPPOSITION DOES WELL

While picking out weaknesses is paramount to exploiting a team and taking victory, so too is pin-pointing what the team does well. The Union obviously know this when they gameplan for teams--and yet they still failed to stop Dallas on set pieces.

(Did you open the link yet? Please do...then continue reading...)

I tweeted that about 10 minutes into the match. The reason? Because I watched Michel do a number on the Seattle Sounders earlier this year at CenturyLink Field with a terrific free kick delivery from distance, then an absolutely BRILLIANT Olimpico goal. I wasn't expecting another Olimpico, but the I feared that if the Union gave up free kicks in their own half, Michel would make them pay. Free kick deliveries, corners, set pieces of all kinds--if it's in the opposition half, Michel will give your team a chance to put it in the net.

Here's his distribution on free kicks in the match:

Screen_shot_2013-06-30_at_3

Ignore the throw-ins on the side...that's TEN corners or indirect free kicks that Michel's left foot put into the box throughout the match--all around the penalty area or the 6-yard box. When you're good, you're good, and he has clearly put the time in to work on his dead balls, just like how Sheanon Williams has perfected his long throw-ins with tireless work. I've watched Michel do damage on free kicks this year and knew that could be a threat if the Union gave up too many set pieces.

Right on cue, he dropped in a 40-yard set piece in the Union half for Walker Zimmerman to level the match in the 24th minute. And then, most gut-wrenchingly of all, he floated one in for Zac MacMath to drop lose have taken away be fouled trying to catch--well, one of those: I'll let you guys decide (in my book, he should have grabbed it)--leading to Ferreria's flick and Perez's helper across the line.

He may not get credited with the assist every time (and he didn't on the second one), but Michel will create havoc in the box with such effective deliveries, and the entire Dallas squad knows that. A reason like that is why they throw their big bodies forward, have Michel hit the free kick, then crash people around hoping to scramble one in. Worked like a charm both times Saturday.

Amobi Okugo summed it up best afterward: both goals were not in the run of play and Dallas' plan was to throw bodies around in the box and create havoc on set plays. It worked perfectly, even if Dallas weren't able to be very effective going forward in the attack. The Union just didn't do enough to prepare for it physically and struggled.

So too Zac MacMath...

Screen_shot_2013-06-30_at_4

4. THE (GROWING) CURIOUS CASE OF ZAC MACMATH

The rumblings about Oka Nikolov and his role will likely grow in the coming days amongst the fans, despite MacMath picking up two straight shutouts coming into the Dallas game. In reality, there was not much for MacMath to do Sunday (for the third match running)...but when push came to shove and he had to "push" the ball out on that final free kick, he went for the catch, took somewhat of a "shove" from London Woodberry (how much is really debatable given the replays I've seen and that Woodberry went straight up, though I wouldn't agree with MacMath's assessment that he was "absolutely" fouled), and the ball dropped for Ferreira to set up Perez's fateful winner. It's just the latest in a long line of struggles MacMath has had this year collecting crosses--in fact, it really cannot just be limited to this season.

Goals Against Average is a deceptive stat when it comes to goalkeeper performance in some cases (just ask poor Dan Kennedy), so Save Percentage is a (somewhat) better stat to look at. Basically, are you saving the shots you're facing when you have to face them? Given the statistics available at mlssoccer.com, that's the best stat to use in looking at keeper performance.

In MacMath's case, he has faced 76 shots this year in the 17 games he's played (and started), making 49 saves (and allowing 26 goals) for a save percentage of 64%. How does it stack up? 16th in the league amongst keepers with 10 or more starts. Yes, that's a problem.

Here's another number: 21. That's his age. He's VERY young as it is, but goalkeeper's primes (as many people know) don't usually come until their late 20s or early 30s, with many keepers playing even into their early 40s. The point? MacMath needs development, especially in his ability in the air--but if he gets the right kind of instruction/"push" from Nikolov, we may see him start to make the necessary improvements to become a more reliable shot-stopper. Give him a few years, but have some relief on hand too.

Obviously, the locker room mood yesterday was very somber afterward. Heck, John Hackworth gave a 3 1/2 minute press conference after the game--clearly, everyone was despondent over dropping two points after seemingly poised to take all three against another team down to 10 men.

The opportunity to make amends comes very swiftly for the Union this week though: Wednesday, they travel to Real Salt Lake. Saturday, they head to Houston. Jack McInerney is departing for the Gold Cup, but Antoine Hoppenot and Aaron Wheeler are both in the wings and raring to go. If the Union can pull points from both road fixtures, it'll be a major table swing for the Union and further proof that this team may be turning the corner on their season.

From a tactical standpoint, it may also show that Hackworth's greater attacking mission is coming into fruition--though his defense still has a problem or two to smooth out.

What were your thoughts on the match and/or its tactics? Comment below, tweet @BrotherlyGame, or tweet me personally @JoelHoover.

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