The early goals, wild comebacks and thrilling endings of the MLS playoffs have been dearly missed.
After Saturday’s drama, you just had a feeling fireworks were in store in this one. Philadelphia Union is a team known for playing out from the back and connecting its lines. Though Philadelphia tried to play within their philosophy during the first half, mistakes in the driving rain and strong wind helped the New York Red Bulls take a 3-1 halftime lead.
A change of tactics, impactful substitutions and significantly better second half from Andre Blake led to an absolute thriller with Philadelphia clawing their way back to a 4-3 extra-time victory in the MLS 2019 playoff first round.
In this tactical analysis, I will provide an analysis of New York’s high press, the success of each team’s set pieces, Blake’s first half gaffes and Philadelphia’s change of tactics in the second half.
Jim Curtin set out his Philadelphia side in a 4-3-1-2. Alejandro Bedoya tended to play deeper in the midfield, positioning himself in the half-space. That allowed him to spring Raymon Gaddis forward down the wing. While Haris Medunjanin’s role was more of a classic holding midfielder, the tactical variation took place higher up the pitch. Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson played off each other in the central channel with Andrew Wooten dropping into the midfield, giving Philadelphia numerical superiority high up the pitch. Sergio Santos was then tasked with more of a lone forward role, looking to run into the space Wooten vacated.
Chris Armas countered with a 4-4-1-1. The surprise inclusion was Tom Barlow, who repaid Armas’ confidence with a goal. In the midfield, Josh Sims (and Alex Muyl who came on after the Sims injury) and Daniel Royer tended to play higher in the half-spaces, limiting the passes to wide areas. Let’s jump into a proper analysis of this tactic as New York’s high press was highly influential in the first half.
New York’s high press creates scoring opportunities
Looking at New York’s passing map, which gives a great analysis of a team’s starting points, you’ll notice Barlow and Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra playing off of each other up top. As Philadelphia built out of the back, these two were tasked with preventing short, horizontal options among the backline and forcing play forward.
Knowing that Philadelphia prefer to play on the ground, New York approached the high press as a means of baiting passes into tight passing lanes. With the compact New York midfield well positioned to contest any ball played to their left or right, they successfully intercepted Philadelphia’s progressive passes and counter attacked with numbers around the ball. Given Philadelphia’s expansive attacking shape, New York’s transitions to attack were straightforward.
In this example, Philadelphia are looking to play out from a throw-in. New York head the ball back to the thrower, Gaddis, who plays negative to Jack Elliot.
The big centre-back hits a hopeful ball forward, but you can see that New York’s high pressing tactics have left them ideally placed to win Elliot’s ball. What you can’t see in one still shot is that New York has all 10 field players on its left-most vertical third of the field. Rather than looking to play out of pressure, Elliot takes the bait and pings the ball into New York’s numbers.
Marc Rzatkowski had plenty of time to find Kaku as the ball approached. He decided to play a first-time pass to his teammate.
Knowing Sims was making his run through the centre of the park, Kaku sent a brilliant first touch pass to play his teammate into a 1v1 attacking duel.
Sims picked up his head and noticed Kai Wagner overpursued in his recovery run. With this information in mind, Sims attacks the centre of the pitch, forcing Wagner to halt his forward momentum and change direction.
With the defender out of the play, Sims lines up his shot and calmly finishes under the outstretched hands of Blake. Wagner makes an effort to recover and gets in a late sliding challenge, but his over-pursuit allowed Sims to take a clean touch and approach.
Set pieces produce four goals
Both teams enjoyed a successful return on set pieces, hauling in two goals apiece. After the opener from Sims, the next four goals came directly from set-pieces.
New York’s set-piece successes were accompanied by Blake’s goalkeeping errors (more on Blake in a moment). Their chances were more opportunistic than well-crafted, but the chances were still converted.
Philadelphia tended to attack prime areas, such as the “golden zone”, with lots of numbers. The chaos itself justified the approach. Forcing Luis Robles to stay on his line and consistently winning battles at the far post provided many high-quality chances for the home team.
Looking at New York’s third goal, the starting points and approach are straightforward. Three players are stacked at the back post, two in the middle and one offering a passing lane down the wing. Rzatkowski takes the left-footed direct kick, presumably looking to play the ball into no man’s land near the far post. That’s a notoriously difficult delivery for goalkeepers to gauge as the path of the ball, if not redirected by a head, often leaves the flat-footed goalkeeper unable to properly defend the far post.
In this instance, Blake comes out to punch the ball. Whether due to contact or focus, Blake’s punch is very poor, directing the ball right into the path of Barlow.
The forward has an easy first time finish to give New York a 3-1 lead at the break. Tracking the lead up to the goal, notice the lax marking of the Philadelphia defenders. It looks like the emphasis is a zonal approach to limit runs into the middle. Not only do the Philadelphia defenders complicate Blake’s approach, but the remaining defenders are caught ball watching, gifting New York with an even numbers situation in the box. With Philadelphia’s over-pursuit, the poor punch leaves the home side defenceless.
Moving now to Philadelphia’s set-piece, their success was in large part due to the heavily concentrated numbers in central areas. On Philadelphia’s first goal, the ball passed by the central cluster and skipped on to Bedoya, who was ready to respond to the missed headers.
Philadelphia’s second goal was the end product of a direct kick from Robles’ right. Notice the heavy numerical concentration on the “golden zone” at the near post. With no run-up on the play, Philadelphia looked to outmuscle New York and create chaos in front of Robles.
In this instance, Philadelphia win the aerial duel and hit the crossbar with the glancing header. At first glance, New York look well prepared to handle to rebound. In addition to Robles, they have three defenders to oppose the two Philadelphia attackers.
The issue is that 175 cm tall Royer is asked to mark the 196 cm tower that is Elliot. As you can see, Royer’s no match for the size of Elliot and is easily outmuscled. Elliot wins the header and powers it past Robles for an easy finish. Not only did New York lose the initial aerial duel despite numerical superiority, but they provided the tallest player on the pitch with a mismatch at the far post.
Blake’s nightmare first half
Blake, the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and 2019 MLS All-Star, had a first-half he’d like to forget rather soon. His poor play led to New York’s first-half three-goal outburst. While the first goal against was one we’ll stash in the “should have done better” category, the second and third goals resulted from his errors.
Perhaps most worrying for Philadelphia is the diversity of Blake’s mistakes. We’ve already looked at New York’s third goal, which resulted from a poor punch that Blake directed into the path of Barlow. The other two goals were products of his inability to push a shot wide and a terrible read on the trajectory of a New York corner kick.
On the Sims’ goal, Blake’s position is spot on. As you can see, he’s in the direct line from the ball to the middle of the goal and he’s six yards from the end line, reducing his opponent’s shooting angles. Looking at his footwork and body orientation, his feet are well spaced and he’s shifting his weight from his right to left, ready to push off his right foot and dive left.
As you can see, he has the post covered and his anticipation of the shot going left is accurate. His dive put him in a position to make the save. At the very least, you’d expect him to push this shot around the post. However, his hands are just a bit too close together and he fails to make quality contact. The ball hits the underside of his bottom hand, pushing the ball under his reach and into the goal.
New York’s second goal is entirely on Blake. Take a look at the above image. He’s both too near and high up the field to make any kind of a play on this simple corner kick distribution. Oddly enough, the poor read comes without any kind of a screen from the New York players.
Out of the play (and picture) and flat on his back, the ball ricochets to Parker, whose diving header nudges a slow bouncing ball into the back of the net.
Philadelphia’s direct play unlocks New York’s defence
The first half attacking production yielded little fruit, forcing Philadelphia to play more direct. The introductions of Ilsinho and Fabrice Picault saw Philadelphia change tactics. Picault and Santos gave Philadelphia two high central forwards and the lethal playmaking ability of Ilsinho on the right-wing. The extra time addition of Marco Fabian, the winning goal scorer, gave it a standard 4-3-3 look.
Picault tended to play just underneath Santos, slightly off to his left. Philadelphia overwhelmed New York’s midfield, baiting Long to step forward to provide support. With Long out of position, Santos and Picault consistently attacked the space behind him.
In the buildup to Picault’s goal, Robles’ punt ends up at Bedoya’s feet. With Philadelphia targeting Ilsinho, Bedoya sent the ball wide to the Brazilian playmaker. In this shot, notice that Long has moved into the midfield. With Picault in the half-space drawing Tim Parker’s attention, Santos recognized his opportunity to run into the space Aaron Long vacated.
Ilsinho holds the ball for a moment, buying Santos time to get as high up the field as possible. As you can see, he nearly held it too long, but Santos did well to hold up his run and Rece Buckmaster drifts behind his centre-backs, keeping Santos onside.
Santos got behind the defenders, but Long’s recovery run and a difficult shooting angle forced Santos to pull the ball back and lay it off to Monteiro. New York blocked the shot, but Santos recovered the ball and whipped in a fantastic cross to Picault.
Philadelphia continued to draw out Long and play behind him. The combination of poor defending in the midfield, Long’s willingness to step into that space and Picault pulling Parker away from his partner left New York scrambling for the remainder of the game.
Philadelphia’s first-ever playoff win will go down as one of the all-time great MLS Playoff games. Though the weather and playing conditions led to some sloppy play, Philadelphia found a way to adapt and attack New York’s vulnerabilities. The win sets up a conference semifinal matchup against the defending MLS champions, Atlanta United. After playing in dreadful weather and surface in Philadelphia, Jim Curtin must prepare his side to play on Atlanta’s artificial turf.
For New York, it’s another disappointing end to a season that started with so much promise. Sporting Director Denis Hamlett has promised a thorough examination of the team. Chris Armas will surely feel the pressure to make progress towards New York’s first title next season.
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