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Dissecting the Philadelphia Union’s struggles in the final third

Strong defense, restarts and counters have covered for some of the Union’s struggles in the final third this season

Shivant Krishnan

The Philadelphia Union endured the early stretch of the season by reaching the Concacaf Champions League semifinals and staying within striking distance of the top of the Eastern Conference. But in doing so some of their flaws have also been exposed.

New York City FC followed the script that Atlanta United wrote in the first half of the Concacaf Champions League opening leg with an all-out attack down the wings. They changed formations with Anton Tinnerholm and Gudmundur Thórarinsson playing more as wing backs, moved Maxi Moralez out wide, and ran a three-man attack with dynamic movements all across the field. Despite his dramatics, Valentin Castellanos gave the Union defenders problems, and Moralez and Jesus Medina were more dangerous going forward than any Union midfield players. The same could be said of Ezequiel Barco, Rodolfo Pizzaro, Lucas Zelarayán, Luka Stojanovic, or Carles Gil. And will be said against Diego Valeri.

But that’s not how most opponents will approach the Union. Only the MLS elite have the players to challenge the Union midfield and come out on top. Teams will find success against the Union if they sit back and defend, the Caleb Porter way. Congest the backline, get numbers behind the ball, and force the Union to break them down. Unfortunately, with the Union starting slow in multiple games this season, they’ve encountered both scenario

The Union wins in 2021 have come from strong defense, restarts and counters. That’s been their trademark for years as they’ve climbed the MLS mountain. However, opponents are now adapting to their style and forcing them to face their glaring weakness, breaking down defenses in the final third. The Union have lacked the flow, connectedness, and overall danger during the run of play in the final third, which has followed several themes: poor decision making, a lack of creativity, stagnant movement and impatience.

As the Union compete for trophies in multiple competitions, developing a more balanced attack will re-write the script that’s been used to beat them before it’s copied and plastered all over our screens like another Scary Movie.

Here are three examples how the Union attack has broken down in the final third.

Example 1: Atlanta Leg 2

The first example comes from the second leg of the Champions League against Atlanta United. But the Union have been brilliant in the CL, right? In the first leg, they overcame an offensive onslaught, which fed their strengths, and in the second game they did what they had to in order to prevent Atlanta from scoring three goals.

The sequence leading up to Olivier Mbaizo’s shot on goal in the 35th minute represents multiple layers of how the Union attack stalls.

Example 2: New York City FC

For a team built on counter-pressing and counter-attacking, Jose’ Martinez’s red card did not create an apocalyptic scenario. The issue was the Union played poorly both before and after, and were unable to tactically adjust personnel because of the upcoming game against Atlanta in the CCL.

The Union are at their best when they score first and force teams to attack, which opens up the counter-attack and counter-press opportunities (Consider Saprissa second half leg 2 and Atlanta second half leg 1 as exhibits A and B).

But, when the Union fall behind, they become disarmed because of their inability to create chances when opponents can sit back. Even down a man against New York, the Union had opportunities to advance the ball forward. Yes, the Union came out flat as New York ran circles around them in the first half, made worse when they went down a goal and Martinez was sent off, but the Union are prepared to absorb pressure and capitalize on mistakes. And New York was still playing a three-back system with 20-year-old James Sands in central defense.

Minutes after the Martinez red card, Sergio Santos led a counter that turned into a counter going the other way for New York.

Example 3: Columbus, Inter Miami and Atlanta Second Leg

Columbus
Against Columbus, the Union faced an equally formidable opponent who likes to defend and close down space. So in this example of dispossession, counter-press, and dispossession, the Union couldn’t get away from pressure because of a lack of target options. Columbus forced the Union to play faster and find the open teammate, which the Union were unable to do.

Inter Miami
The Union had control for much of the first half against Inter Miami, but in the second half the game got away from them, something that hasn’t happened to a Jim Curtin team in a long time, but nonetheless, did. Going back to the New York example, when the Union play from behind, they’re forced to take more risks in the attacking third, which is dependent on the movement off the ball. The following example shows how the Union strikers failed to support the midfielders on the ball, which creates a higher turnover rate in the final third and more defending.

Atlanta
The Atlanta second leg was an odd game to criticize because of the Union’s three-goal lead from the start. The Union performed better on the field, which was enough to keep Atlanta at a safe distance. But they still had good opportunities to score. This example shows how the Union misfired on their counter-attack, then forced a bad shot rather than keep the ball alive in the opponent’s penalty area at the end of the half.

So how do the Union improve in the final third and become a more complete attacking side?

Decision-making, creativity, movement and patience.

The Union have to recognize the number advantages and search for opportunities to combine. The forwards’ inability to combine with each other in the final third is evident. Whether it’s Przybylko, Santos, Burke or Fontana, their limited off-the-ball movement hinders progress and too often they seek one-vs-one battles instead of number advantages with teammates.

The Union forwards need to provide target options and create off-the-ball movement. The entry passes and linking play is crucial because the Union attack is predicated on getting the midfield box up the field to allow the outside defenders to attack the wings, something the Union have improved in recent games. When the forwards don’t provide options, possession stalls, and turnovers cause the midfielders to perform more recovery sprints, especially Bedoya, whose creative energy is more valued around the penalty area.

The Union have to exercise more patience. If the first option isn’t on, recycle, and force the opponents to chase the ball for a while. Possessing the ball in the final third only leads to more creative opportunities and more wear on the opposition. The Union are fit, but engaging in track meets due to constant turnovers and counter-presses with a congested season ahead is dangerous.

Some of these deficiencies will improve with the addition of Hungarian international Dániel Gazdag, but his integration into the team still requires time, and the Union may be still be in the Eastern Conference log jam when Gazdag returns after the Euros in July. All these collective flaws make the Union attack predictable, and against better opposition that is prepared to defend, they will find it more difficult to create goals through the run of play.