Philadelphia Union’s revitalized tactical flexibility explained

The Philadelphia Union is coming off an unbeaten month of July. Scoring 18 goals, conceding two, and going 5-1-0 in that stretch, cementing themselves as the top team in the east and as a contender for the Supporters’ Shield. Philly did all this while doing something they had struggled to do earlier in the 2022 season: have tactical flexibility.

CHESTER, PA – JULY 16: Philadelphia Union Forward Mikael Uhre (7) reacts to scoring a goal during the second half of the Major League Soccer Match between the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union on July 16, 2022, at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Explaining Philly’s revitalized tactical flexibility

Early in the 2022 season, the Union struggled to get wins when they had the opportunity to do so if they could just tweak their on-the-field tactics. The Union’s high-velocity pressing style got a bit stale when teams sat back and forced Philly to play with the ball. There was an agonizing run of matches early in the season where the Union needed a goal late to turn a draw into a win, and the team couldn’t make use of the ball to find that goal.

This occurred in April, May, and most of June which was when Philadelphia’s trio of impact homegrowns (McGlynn, Aaronson, and Sullivan) weren’t getting many minutes to gear up to represent the USA for the Concacaf U-20 Men’s championship. We all know how that tournament fared for that trio and Brandan Craig, and it resulted in their insertion into the team in July.

In July the Union used 20 different players en route to getting 16 out of 18 possible points and having a +16 goal differential! The team was notably able to play with intensity with or without the ball which was unmatched by any opponent. In the past, the counter-press was the starting point for this team, then a tactical switch in the second half with skilled on-the-ball players finished games. Now the Union is able to do both through a selective pressing style of play that can morph on the field with or without substitutions to throttling opponents from smart possession-based play.

Selective pressing

This Philadelphia lineup is built for the selective press Curtin loves to play.

Philadelphia has made their team into a selective pressing force. The 10 field players in that get the start is going to bring an intensity that not many can match in MLS. It begins with the forwards and Daniel Gazdag; their pressing and shape when they press tells the midfield and defense where to step and move to box in the opposition. The hope is that the opposition turns the ball over in their own half and that Philly has a numbers advantage going forward.

The lineup above was able to do this time and time again in the 7-0 win against DC United. This was the tipping point as to when we saw the Union shift from just a counter-press to a selective press. Jim Curtin even told his team before that match that they needed intensity and directness to overwhelm DC when they pressed. This turned into the Union pressing so well that DC actually lost the possession battle, and awoke Philly’s ability to sit on the ball, pick the right pass and score beautiful goals.

The month of July provided the pressing template that the Union used to get five wins in a row. A huge part of that was the ability to win set pieces and get goals from them. Philly’s press allowed them to get dangerous freekicks and corners. The Union has scored a goal off of a set piece in the last five matches which is a huge confidence boost for the team and rewards their intensity when they press selectively. Not only did the Union run a flawless selective press, but they also showed they could dominate a game with the ball when they wanted to.

Throttle the opponents with possession

This is how Philly operated with the ball in their latest 6-0 win over Houston.

When the Union wanted to be on the ball in the month of July, they morphed their 4-4-2 diamond formation to look a bit like a 3-5-2; however, they never actually play in that formation when it comes to defending and pressing. Philly showed that they had midfielders on the ball who could control the pace and pick a perfect pass so that they could bury teams with possession.

This was shown a bit in the DC match, which could be considered the turning point for this team in their 2022 season, but was perfected at the end of the month. Against the Houston Dynamo, the Union’s game plan was to beat Houston’s intensity and bury them. They did just that by possessing the ball and functioning the way that the above lineup shows.

Jack McGlynn and Alejandro Bedoya acted as the starters of the offensive movement when on the ball. They stayed central, allowing the six (in this game Leon Flach) to drop deeper to provide an option backward and to protect the center backs. McGlynn and Bedoya staying central, also allowed the outside backs (Mbaizo and Wagner in this match) to bomb forward and draw the attention of the opposition outside backs. This meant that with playmaking midfielders on the ball had options out wide, and then had the attacking front three (Gazdag, Uhre, and Carranza against Houston) to pull out center-backs, or run in behind them. It worked to perfection as Philly scored six goals in dominating fashion.

What this means moving forward

The Union now can beat teams in different ways, and it’s not all contingent on getting subs on the pitch. Honestly, this type of versatility shows the growth of manager Jim Curtin who bases his team’s effort now on intensity from minute one.

The game plan and players can change week to week to beat the opponent’s intensity. If that can be done, there will be a few teams that will take points from this Union team in 2022. It could even mean that there will be silverware at the end of this season for this team!

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Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire