At the end of the first half, the Union had fewer shots on goal that New England Revolution. That hasn’t happened often this season.
The Revs were forcing Philly to play up the left, preventing Haris Medunjanin from picking up the ball above the midfield line, and using their big bodies up front of hold off defenders and bring additional bodies into the box when they got forward.
It was an ugly strategy but it was working. Philly racked up 13 fouls to New England’s 5 in the first half, and while not all of those were, let’s say, perfect calls, the referee was not the reason the Union looked out of sorts.
In the second half, with a 4-2-3-1 shape that allowed Ale Bedoya to play facing forward more often and moved Jamiro Monteiro further up the pitch, the Union dominated.
The most important point here is that the Union continue to be able to shape-shift into and out of their 4-4-2 diamond. They don’t have anybody with the natural creativity of Borek Dockal — yes, Brenden Aaronson is a stud, but he’s yet to dominate a match with the ball the way Dockal could — but now Philly has, in Aaronson and Monteiro, the ability to press opposing midfields high up the pitch in a way they never could before. Some days, like Saturday, this doesn’t result in endless high turnovers but, instead, makes it nearly impossible for a team to play out of the back and leads to a lot of long balls lumped forward.
If the Revs couldn’t get the ball on Carles Gil’s feet with enough space to look up and either pass or dribble, they lost possession in the second half. Philly’s adjustments put more men around long balls and the result was spectacular. The Revs were no longer winning first balls and playing behind Philly’s back four, and the Union were able to move side to side as they progressed out of the back and attack a New England back line that was predictably hopeless with Michael Mancienne hurt and Luis Caicedo out of position at right back.
Wagner as a number
One of the more intriguing parts of Philly’s halftime adjustments was where they left Kai Wagner. Over the final 45 minutes, Wagner’s on-ball contributions were remarkably consistent. He provided a body in build up play but saw his task as mostly about providing space and time to Haris Medunjanin. Wagner’s most common pass receiver was the big Bosnian, and all of their eight connections — they only linked up twice in the first half — were backward from the German to his midfielder. Wagner also found Auston Trusty with five similar passes in the second half.
In other words, the fullback opened up the Union offense with his positioning rather than his passing, and the Revs were unable to disrupt Philly’s passing game once the Union coaching staff adjusted to it.
Bedoya blows them away
What do you need done? Ale Bedoya is here to help.
The captain was very involved in the first half and pushed play forward up the right. But after Curtin and his team saw how New England was pushing play to Auston Trusty and away from Medunjanin and Elliott, they recognized the need for an extra body in the buildup play on the right. Bedoya helped create combinations up the wing that allowed the Union to break pressure and attack up the left before New England could rotate and support the weaker side of their defense.
A lot will be made of how well the Union’s subs played on Saturday, and when all three guys off the bench score it makes sense to praise them. But Bedoya’s ability to turn himself into a different player coming out of the locker room for the second frame was a huge difference-maker. It meant Curtin essentially had five substitutes because he was able to change systems and move Ilsinho wide into space simply by presto-change-o turning Jamiro Monteiro into an attacking midfielder and Bedoya into a forward-facing deep-lying box-to-box player. Suddenly, Haris Medunjanin was finding the ball further up the pitch and the Union were using transitions rather than deep long balls to attack the Revs’ shaky high defensive line.
The Union now prepare for one of the more flexible teams in MLS next weekend. Philly’s trip to Toronto FC takes place on Saturday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. ET on PHL17.