The Philadelphia Union are in the middle of a busy ten days that began with a home game against Inter Miami last Saturday.
They then traveled to Georgia to meet Atlanta United in the Concacaf Champions League on Tuesday night. The game against NYCFC is sandwiched between the first and second leg against Atlanta, and that means Jim Curtin will almost certainly make changes to the team that plays on Saturday.
Quite how many changes Curtin makes remains to be seen. Philly are up 3-0 on aggregate after the first leg against Gabriel Heinze’s team. The Union could approach things in various ways, either making wholesale changes against NYCFC to try and secure a result next week or holding out until Tuesday, confident a second-string side can get the job done.
One player that will almost certainly play against NYCFC is José Martinez. The combative midfielder picked up a yellow card on Tuesday and will now be suspended for the second leg.
That said, with a combination of tired legs and changes to the starting XI, this is a great opportunity for NYCFC to secure their second three points of the season.
“The Union’s tactical setup is no secret to anyone, so I’m sure the NYCFC staff will be ready for it: a counter-pressing 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond midfield.”
This was how the team set up against Atlanta midweek, and they produced two devastating counter-attacks to reinforce Jonathan’s point. The Union didn’t dominate possession, nor did they out-shoot their opponents, but what they managed to do was produce clinical and effective attacking transitions when Atlanta let their guard down.
Striker Sergio Santos facilitated both goals. The first saw Santos produce a cute backheel that put the advancing Leon Flach in behind before he squared it to striker Kacper Przybylko.
The second, this time involving a great pass on the turn by Santos, put Przybylko in behind Atlanta’s backline, and he turned provider by squaring it to Anthony Fontana. The strength of Philly’s attack rests in how well the pieces fit together and play off each other.
Przybylko is an intelligent poacher that finds space well and is composed in front of goal, but also uses his size and strength to pull open spaces for other players to run into.
The midfielders like Flach, Fontana, and Jamiro Monteiro are energetic and support attacks quickly. Santos is a solid target man that runs the channels well and creates space with his speed. You can see a good example of the Union’s attack in full flow in the video below.
They win the ball back high up via pressing, then Przybylko peels wide to give the Miami defender a choice - either go with the striker or approach the ball carrier.
Given NYCFC’s eagerness to play out from the back and through the lines, they’ll need to be careful they aren’t caught out by Philly’s pressing or by over-committing. The Union have shown they can transition quickly with efficient and direct play (note, not long).
The Boys in Blue were largely patient and composed against FC Cincinnati on Saturday, and chances are they’ll need those same qualities at Subaru Park.
Get ahead in the game
When it comes to analyzing how NYCFC can get at the Union, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions, mainly because the sample size for this season remains small.
One avenue that does seem open to NYCFC, however, is attacking via the flanks. If we look at the two goals they conceded against Inter Miami; both were headers by Gonzalo and Federico Higuaín.
For the first, the Union defence fails to mark Gonzalo in the penalty box from a freekick. For the second, they are unable to track a late run from his older brother Federico. The same was true in midweek, with Atlanta causing the Union trouble down the wings.
In trying to explain why this is the case, we need to look at the Union’s formation. The 4-4-2 diamond that Curtin prefers keeps the midfield very compact. There are many advantages to this system, but it also puts a lot of responsibility on the full-back -- most notably, they’re expected to cover large areas due to the lack of width in midfield.
One of the other disadvantages of the system is that it can leave full-backs isolated in 1v1 situations. This could be an interesting avenue for Ronny Deila’s team to exploit.
Anton Tinnerholm is keen to get forward and create overloads down the right, and if NYCFC can stretch the Union in this way, it could provide opportunities in the final third. The team also scored three goals via crosses against FC Cincinnati, indicating the team has strength in this area.
The blueprint for attacking the Union is there; the key now is to see more of those gas motors Deila talked about in the build-up to last weekend’s game.