In the round of 16 knockout stage of the MLS is Back Tournament Philadelphia Union faced New England Revolution, winning by one goal to nil.
In this tactical analysis, we will review the tactics of both sides, focusing the analysis on Philadelphia Union high press style which helped them advance into the quarter-finals.
New England played the first half focusing on their defensive organisation, limiting the opportunities for Philadelphia to work the ball into their box. The wide forwards dropped deep and the midfield line set up close to the defensive line to prevent attacking players finding space between the lines.
Philadelphia Union started in their familiar 4-3-1-2 formation. The front 3 of Philadelphia include much talked about Brenden Aaronson who is currently being linked with a move to Celtic. They look to press high and fast, specifically to limit the opposition players time on the ball. Philadelphia’s strength is to rush their opponents and attack quickly on transitions.
New England Revolution looked to counter this system with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Bruce Arena sent out an organised side that included former Manchester United full-back, Alexander Buttner. New England played with a patient and organised in defence. Although ultimately, they struggled to break down a resilient Philadelphia.
New England’s Defensive Organisation
With Philadelphia playing in quick tempo style, New England played throughout the first half in a mid-block to cut off passing lanes and slow the attacks. Philadelphia looks to keep the ball moving, playing quick passes to shift the oppositions around the pitch. The Philadelphia central defenders had time on the ball when playing out from the back. New England looked to minimise the passing options and force longer passes.
The following chart explains the ball recoveries of New England in both halves. As shown, New England positioned themselves deeper in the first half. Only five recoveries in the oppositions half in the first half shows how they organised themselves deep. In the second half, especially due to Philadelphia taking the lead, they looked to win the ball back quicker and higher up the pitch.
Philadelphia would look to break lines with quick interchanges in the defence and midfield. This would then give them opportunities to find through balls into the front 3. New England looked to stay compact with a two-man pivot in front of the back four.
Above, we see the Philadelphia central defence being forced into a long pass due to the organisation of New England. The midfield three look to block passing lanes into the forwards as well as being close to Brenden Aaronson dropping deep looking for space. The wide forwards have dropped to limit the width that Philadelphia use through the attacking fullbacks.
As the play progresses, the wide forwards and the central midfield set up to limit spaces in between the defensive lines. Philadelphia was consistently looking to work the ball through the opposition with quick passing. New England looked to counter this by dropping deeper and limiting progressive passing options. The attacking midfielder will lose of passing lanes into the central midfield and slowly press the centre back. The midfield is positioned just in front of the defence. This leaves little space in between for Philadelphia to exploit. Bruce Arena looked to ensure this stalled Philadelphia’s attacks throughout the first half and added to the slow, cautious play from both sides.
Glimpses of Philadelphia’s fast-paced build-up
As stated, during the first half New England were organised in a low block and allowed Philadelphia to have the ball in defence. This gave New England time to organise and prevent quick transitions. Philadelphia worked the ball across the pitch and looked to move the opposition to find spaces to break lines and attack.
Curtin has his side set on moving the ball quickly and looking at fast transitions. When they find the opportunities to do this, Philadelphia are at their attacking best. This fast attacking play will be what they need to exploit to continue to advance in the MLS is Back tournament.
Below we can see Philadelphia have managed to find some space out wide and move the ball and the opposition across the pitch.
When Philadelphia has these opportunities, they move the ball quickly to ensure the defence struggle to move across quickly while keeping a compact structure. Without a high press, Philadelphia are able to move across the field and Monteiro comes across from central midfield to create a 2v1 on the left-hand side.
As New England move across, Martinez is able to move forward into a large space in the middle of the pitch. Aaronson moves between the opposition’s defence and midfield in his role. This has led to him bringing a central midfielder out of position and closer to the defensive line.
Philadelphia had 113 possessions during this match, with only 56% of them reaching the opponents half. Consequently, New England forced Philadelphia to keep the ball in defence and struggle to find ways forward with their positioning.
Philadelphia’s goal came from a misplaced pass from New England attempting a counter-attack.
Philadelphia was able to move the ball quickly and attack without giving New England time to reorganise. Monteiro received the ball in the centre of the pitch. He has time to turn and look to attack quickly.
A ball played over the top sees Santos the centre forward attacking on the back of the New England central defence.
Philadelphia show a strong ability to move the ball quickly and react to each other’s movements. This will be a key part of their ability to advance in the tournament.
New England’s Long Distance Shooting
New England had 18 shots throughout the game, out shooting Philadelphia who registered 10. Both sides struggled in front of goal given that New England only had five of those 18 shots on target. Over half of their shots were also from outside the box, 10 shots with only two on target. Their average shot distance was 22.1 meters. There were a number of reasons for this. 2 key reasons for this; a lack of movement from forward players to find space and slow build-up allowing the defence to be well organised.
The following image shows New England in possession outside the Philadelphia penalty box. The player on the ball is not under immediate pressure and has time to look for his best option.
New England has a number of options available at this point. The wide player out left just out of shot can receive the ball and deliver a cross. Otherwise, he could look at the movement ahead of him to look at either moving forwards with the ball or passing.
New England limit available options through slow attacking movement. Therefore, the pass out left is covered comfortably by the Philadelphia right back. The striker continues to slowly move in between the centre backs. Although, central midfield screen blocks this option. Along with this, the attacking midfielders have also followed the run of the striker. This has allowed Philadelphia to comfortably organise and stay in their defensive shape. The shot is comfortably dealt with by the goalkeeper.
Evident from the image above, Philadelphia’s defence looked to defend compactly where possible, especially when New England attacked slowly. The midfield works hard throughout off the ball. A 2 man screen is used to set up and block off passing routes into the forwards.
In a very close match, a quick counter-attack from Philadelphia brought the only goal of the game. Philadelphia’s win takes them into the quarter-finals of the MLS is Back tournament. Jim Curtin’s side struggled to break down a resilient New England side. Their organisation in the first half made it very difficult for Philadelphia to find routes through.
Philadelphia defended well in the second half when New England stepped up their attacking play in search of an equaliser. Significantly, they have only conceded two goals in four games and will continue confidently in their defensive abilities.
New England identified Philadelphia’s tactics of looking to break the lines to work the ball through the thirds. Consequently, they forced Philadelphia into long passes after they tried to find spaces through the midfield. As a result, New England limited Philadelphia to only 10 possessions in their penalty area. Bruce Arena’s side performed well but failed to find the goal they needed to get back into the game.
As a result, Philadelphia will go on to face Kansas City in the next round who overcame Vancouver Whitecaps on penalties.