The MLS is back! In their first game in the MLS is back tournament, the Philadelphia Union faced a familiar foe, NYCFC. Today we are taking a look at some of the tactics employed by the Union to get the win. However, while the Union left with a 1-0 victory, we shall see that their tactics are not viable long term. There were a number of notable tactics utilized during this match to stifle the NYCFC attack, and get the crucial goal to come out with a win in the early match in Orlando.
Philadelphia Union - 4-3-3: A. Blake, K. Wagner, M. McKenzie, J. Elliott, R. Gaddis, J.Martinez, J. Monteiro, A. Bedoya, Ilsinho, B. Aaronson, K. Przybyllko
NYCFC - 4-2-3-1: S. Johnson, A. Tinnerholm, J. Sands, A. Callens, R. Matarrita, A. Ring, K. Parks, I. Tajouri, M. Moralez, Heber, V. Castellanos
1) Attack down the right. If that doesn’t work, attack down the right again:
The Philadelphia Union lined up in a 4-3-3 on paper, but this was misleading. Bedoya was given free rein to play on the right wing, and he took full advantage of it. To support him, Gaddis was allowed to make marauding runs down the wing to provide an outlet through his overlapping runs. Manager Jim Curtin only employed this tactic because he knew that both Bedoya and Gaddis were not going to shy away from their defensive duties. Sure enough, whenever the ball was turned over to NYCFC both players quickly hustled back to help out. As we can see from their heat map, both players were heavily involved in everything that came down the right hand side:
In turn, the attacking front three also tended to drift to the right side. This is easily explained, since the ball was often on that wing whenever the Union were attacking. It’s only natural that the three attackers would gravitate towards the ball. By having Gaddis and Bedoya constantly there, a freedom was given to the front three to interchange as needed. What is surprising though is the sheer dependency on this strategy to get anything going offensively. A startling 54% of the Union’s attack came down the right side, and zero of their eight shots came from the left. Their lone goal also came down this side, but it was a scrappy goal that highlighted the issues with this set up. While the Union players were consistently getting the ball in a dangerous position, they lacked the creativity to create enough clear cut chances to challenge the NYCFC defense. Even when watching Bedoya’s goal, it is plain to see that this was the result of a lucky deflection back to the goal scorer, after several missed chances to get the ball on target.
2) Clog the middle and rely on defense:
El Brujo lived up to his nickname, as he put in a magical performance against NYCFC. As a crucial component to the defensive strategy that the Union rolled out, Martinez was tasked to play as a shield for the back line. Occasionally, this even meant playing as a centerback himself. While the Union’s attacking strategy was centered on the right flank, as discussed earlier, the defense was asked something different. The NYCFC attackers found heavy opposition every time they tried to play the ball through the center of the pitch. When they did get the ball there, they were harassed by the two more forward central midfielders while Martinez ensured the two center backs were not exposed. As we can see from their average positions throughout the match, the whole team played very narrow, and Martinez especially played more in line with the two center backs then his fellow center midfielders:
NYCFC focused a lot of their attacks down their left hand side. This was simply due to the fact that the Union committed more men forward on that side. Even with this opening though, they struggled mightily to overcome the extra man in the midfield the Union had due to their 4-3-3 set up. What this resulted in was a lot of empty position in the midfield, despite NYCFC having significantly more possession throughout the match. Every time the NYCFC players found themselves with the ball in the Union’s half, whether on the wing or in the middle, they were quickly closed down by the Philly players, with no easy short pass available. The Union’s hope was that NYCFC would be forced to lob aimless crosses into the box, which would be easily dealt with by the Union back line. On paper this is far from the worst defensive strategy to employ. As we shall see though, this was not at all what happened and the Union was very lucky that NYCFC was unable to bury any of the chances they created.
3) Set pieces, and quick switching of play, almost ruined a quality win if not for Blake:
The defensive strategy of the Union clearly frustrated NYCFC’s attempt to play fluid football through the middle of the field. Soon, however, they were able to find two avenues to create high quality chances throughout the match. Set pieces and quick switches of play exposed gaps in the Union’s defense. Due to the Union clogging the middle, and closing down players on whatever side the ball was one, there was often a wide open player on the opposite wing wide open. NYCFC’s initial reluctance to abandon short, quick, passing soon gave way to long diagonal crosses to an open man. Now that the defense had to quickly react and regain its shape, NYCFC had created gaps to play dangerous passes into the middle for shots on goal. As we can see in the below graphic, NYCFC was able to create significantly more chances during the match. Had Blake not transformed into an impenetrable wall in goal, the match could have easily swung the other way:
One thing that is unacceptable when looking at the shot creation numbers are the amount of chances that came from set pieces. Time and time again, the Union players were completely lost tracking their men from these chances. Fortune smiled on our team today, but that was solely due to the NYCFC players being seemingly incapable of getting solid contact on their headers towards goal. Poor finishing in all aspects of attacking play let NYCFC done, and the chances they did get on target were handled competently by Blake. But this is a tactical analysis piece, not a gripe-fest. Nevertheless, the numbers certainly suggest that NYCFC players were unlucky, and that the Union were fortunate to keep a clean sheet in their first MLS is Back Tournament game.
There were quite a few positive takeaways from this match for Philly. Bedoya once again proved he has the ability to be a game changer in decisive moments, and the team was able to walk away with a clean sheet. However, due to poor finishing from NYCFC this was made possible. The Union heavily favored attacking down the right hand side, but were unable to create any significant chances aside from Bedoya’s lone goal. While finishing chances is a key part of the game, it is plain to see that this defensive system is effective, albeit with severe limitations. At the end of the day, this is a good start back for the Union, but both the attack and defense need to improve if these winning ways are to continue.