It's no secret that the Philadelphia Union have been in stellar form recently, riding a seven-game unbeaten streak all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Sebastien Le Toux has hit his stride. The defense is once again rock solid in the back. Rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath has filled in admirably for Faryd Mondragón.
But there's more to Philadelphia's success than just being "in form." The team has been playing well with a bit of a different tactical approach. Throughout the season, manager Peter Nowak has adjusted his formation, moving players back and forth and experimenting with different looks.
We've seen one those configurations work especially well in recent weeks, the hybrid 4-5-1 formation. Let's take a closer look at what that means.
First off, we call this a hybrid formation because a typical Union shape features a lot of movement and interchangeable parts. In truth, it's difficult to ever nail down a formation that holds true throughout a match, and that's the beauty of soccer – flowing movement and adjustment on the fly.
The "hybrid" label is a testament to Philadelphia's flexibility, which is one of the team's best strengths. A number of Union players have the ability to play multiple roles and do whatever job they're asked to do.
Throughout the season, we've seen midfielders swap sides of the pitch. We've seen fullbacks become wingers and strikers become flankers. We even saw Le Toux playing a bit of right fullback in the U.S. Open Cup match against DC United.
The 4-5-1 is extremely flexible because it can essentially shift into a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 with just a simple shuffle or substitution. The key component of the shape, though, is the lone striker, and it's a tough role to play.
Alone up top
Fortunately for the Union, they have the perfect man for the job. One of the reasons Le Toux has been so successful recently is because he's essentially going solo at the top of the formation.
A lone striker needs to be one of the following:
- A big target striker who can hold the ball and play with his back to goal
- A mobile striker with a 90-minute motor who can cover space and get behind the defense
Le Toux is striker B.
When you watch the goals Le Toux scored against Columbus and DC, both were created by clever early runs and the ability to find gaps between central defenders. It's hard to believe the Union have been successful playing a long-ball game, but that's really how they won those two matches. The assists from Michael Farfan and Roger Torres were phenomenal, and Le Toux made the finishes look simple.
Equal opportunity Paunovic
One of the misconceptions with the new look formation is that Veljko Paunovic is Le Toux's strike partner. He may be on paper, but not in reality.
While the Serbian does get forward quite a bit, he also sinks into the midfield just as frequently. Paunovic has done well at picking his spots to attack, but he serves as more of a "pivot" in the 4-5-1, distributing to the flanks and attempting to facilitate possession in the midfield.
When you open the MLSsoccer.com Chalkboard and look at Paunovic's statistics in the 2-0 Seattle win, you'll see that he was involved in 113 events, or singular instances of activity on or around the ball. Only Sheanon Williams had more on the night. Paunovic completed 38 passes, and his distribution in both halves of the field was split right down the middle. 19 passes were completed in the Seattle half, and 19 passes were completed in the Union half. 22 of those completed passes went forward or side to side, while 16 went backwards. In other words, Paunovic's involvement was a 50/50 combination of safe midfield distribution and more attack-minded passing in Seattle's half.
Farfan's natural role
The other major change to the Union shape is the insertion of Michael Farfan into his more comfortable midfield role. We first saw Farfan in this role against Columbus, when he appeared to be lined up next to Brian Carroll in a more defensive role. But as he spent more time in the midfield, the rookie looked to be essentially in a free role, able to move left, right and forward, picking his spots to attack or stay put.
In the bigger picture, Carroll is your rock-solid, space-eating defensive midfielder, while Paunovic and Farfan move around the field freely.
The presence of three centrally-based midfielders enables the Union to squeeze the center of the pitch by drawing Paunovic and Farfan deeper. Conversely, Philadelphia can also press the opposing defense by drawing in their wingers and clogging the passing lanes. If the opposing defense decides to clear over the top to bypass high pressure, Danny Califf or Carlos Valdés are there to win the ball back for the Union.
On the wings
With acres of space in the final third, wingers can push forward in a 4-5-1, but the Union's outside midfielders don't necessarily play that way.
Justin Mapp is good in wide areas, but he prefers to cut inside on his left foot. Mapp is skilled at running at defenders, but he's not a true burner who will race to the endline and cross into the box.
The same can be said for Freddy Adu and Roger Torres, who are both better centrally. The playmaking pair are more deliberate in their approach and will sink inside in order to find the ball.
As a result, Williams and Gabriel Farfan have done a good job getting forward and taking advantage of the available wide space. Adu's goal against Seattle was the product of Farfan pushing into the final third and taking on James Riley 1v1. Paunovic's dangerous header in the first half came from Williams' cross.
When the 4-5-1 becomes a 4-2-3-1
Amobi Okugo has seen increased playing time recently, and his presence changes the way the formation plays. Okugo is a more defensive-minded midfielder, which turns the hybrid 4-5-1 into more of a 4-2-3-1.
After experimenting with the 4-2-2-2 early in the season, the Union found most of their success swapping between the 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-3-2. With Carlos Ruiz out of the picture, and Danny Mwanga injured recently, the 4-5-1 became Philadelphia's default look almost unintentionally. While Jack McInerney is available to partner Le Toux up top, Nowak has used the talented 19-year-old sparingly as an attacking option late in games.
When Mwanga returns to the lineup, he'll strengthen an already deep bench that includes the likes of Kyle Nakazawa, Zach Pfeffer, and Stefani Miglioranzi. The availability of flexible role players gives the Union a plethora of second half options, a major reason why Philadelphia's bench has been a critical part of the club's success.