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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Philadelphia Union

What to expect from a Union side whose games are often determined by width, crossing, and sometimes just taking a shot

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Claiming four points during a de facto Derby Week is a positive step for a group that was lacking answers for much of the season. The postseason is likely out of reach for Gerhard Struber and company, but, at this stage, there was never much hope, just a fool’s hope. Nevertheless, the grinding schedule continues. Pride is at stake and, perhaps, a spot on next year’s roster.

The Philadelphia Union is currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference but could have easily been outside of the tight playoff picture. Times are strange right now, but the weekend’s narrow 1-0 victory over Atlanta United could ultimately end up deciding qualification. What MLS teams do in September echoes in eternity, for at least a month or two. Manager Jim Curtin referred to the result as “the best performance of the season,” which is a significantly lower bar than last year’s Supporters’ Shield-winning campaign.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

WIDE PLAY AND LONG BALLS

Philadelphia builds through the wings. The strategy is pretty simple: win the ball back and advance wide. The run of play typically does not reenter the middle of the field until the final third. Occasional more direct vertical long passes serve to keep the back line honest but rarely result in anything of significance.

The Union plays something of a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, with pseudo-wingers Alejandro Bedoya and Leon Flach serving as stolid facilitators. Fullbacks provide most of the shuttling and combination play, stretching the formation and allowing the midfield to stay fairly clogged. Their goal is to force an overload, drawing defenders, which in turn creates space in the box. Olivier Mbaizo and Kai Wagner are capable and accurate crossers, a task made easier by the usual targets.

When both members of the striker pairing stand at 6’4”, the best course of action is to keep the ball in the air. Kacper Przybyłko is a menace, disrupting and bothering every defender he comes across. Jamaican international Cory Burke is a solid complement, able to find open space freed up by his partner. Due to the congested schedule, Sergio Santos may also grab a start.

Due to my personal lack of understanding, the expected goals statistic is essentially witchcraft. However, in more basic and accessible terms, the Union notches an average 1.20 goals per game. In the last ten MLS matches, the team has scored at a rate of one, three, zero, one, one, one, one, three, one, one, one, one. With even a little more cohesion on the attack, the Red Bulls might nick three points from a reeling opponent that rarely puts up big numbers.

LIVE BY WIDTH, DIE BY WIDTH

In July, defending crosses was a glaring weakness for the Union, with players sneaking in at the back post or flat-out winning headers. Months later, the issue remains the same. In the last month or so, over half of the surrendered goals started on the wings.

The crosses appear to be coming from higher zones, notably 13 and 15 (wide and diagonal from the box), but not always. The balls are lofted or driven, and Philadelphia continues to lose these crucial duels. Is this a case of goalkeeper Andre Blake not controlling his area? That may play some small part in the problems but likely not the whole story. Regardless, the similarly tall and physical Red Bulls’ striker duo should have the opportunity to knock a few into the net.

This goal against Orlando isn’t good.

(via Major League Soccer YouTube page).

(1) The Union has everyone covered.

2) Or do they? All 5’7” of Ruan was certainly able to momentarily become some unbeatable target man.

This goal against Montréal isn’t great either (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel).

(1) Philadelphia has this covered with six players in the box against two runners, both opponents at the back post were man-marked. Even Andre Blake knows where the ball is going, as he points in the general direction.

2) The cross is placed in a good spot for decidedly not-a-target-striker Đorđe Mihailović, but surely someone – Blake or 6’2” center back Jakob Glesnes – should have done a little better.

This is fun. Let’s do it one more time for the match against Chicago Fire FC (via Major League Soccer YouTube).

1) Philadelphia has one, two, three, four, five, six, seven players in the box and a goalkeeper. Surely Chicago isn’t winning the ball and definitely not to the far post where all of those defenders are collected.

2) In two seconds, that advantage turned into what could charitably be described as a 3-v-3 but more like a 3-v-2 with a fullback expected to clear away the ball.

3) Chicago wins the header. At least Blake is going to make the save.

4) He’s frozen and doesn’t dive.

Another apparent weakness is that if a team maintains possession in the box for any period of time, the Union appears to surrender some easy goals. Whether the opponent is dribbling, shielding, or playing a light pass, the defenders fall asleep and appear to stop caring, letting the attacker slip through. A lack of communication in the final third can be bad but not fatal. When the back line is experiencing those issues, well, that leads to real problems.

At least it wasn’t a cross.

A GOOD WAY TO JUDGE

Here’s a fun way to predict whether the Red Bulls are going to win or lose. When the team has four or more shots on goal, the record is 7-3-2. With three or fewer, that drops to a woeful 1-8-4. Whether that represents correlation or causation is a question for someone well-versed in the sport (chart from FBRef).

Clearly, some nights the team has the proverbial “it” and some nights they do not. That could be expected after a dozen offseason moves, a new manager hire, and long-term injury issues. The inconsistency is maddening to fans, but the inability to repeat strong performances is likely doubly frustrating to the players and staff. The only thing to do is continue shooting and hoping the ball goes on target. Patryk Klimala has certainly taken that to heart, with some in Scotland already starting to think, “It’s not you; it’s me.”

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.