The No. 6 position in Philadelphia Union’s 4-4-2 shape - whether that shape takes on a diamond look in midfield or a box - is responsible for shielding the back line and dominating the space behind the other midfielders so they have freedom to step forward and press. It’s an incredibly complex role because, unlike the center backs behind him, the No. 6 has to make choices about when to leave the center and what space to prioritize without a partner to fill in if that decision is wrong.
Ernst Tanner went into the offseason determined to find more athleticism and coverage at the No. 6 position. As a result, Haris Medunjanin was allowed to leave for Cincinnati and the Union brought in both Matej Oravec and Jose “El Brujo” Martinez. These decisions guarantee Philadelphia will play a far different game than they did in 2020, and the hope is that this means more transitions and more dominance in those transition moments.
Aesthetically, this may turn the Union into something far afield from their 2019 iteration, but the belief is that aesthetics will give way to effectiveness, and by creating a more vertical game with more athletic players, Philly will find more opportunities to attack opponents before they are settled in defensively.
But what does this mean for the No. 6?
It means that, unlike a year ago, the No. 6 will not be a primary point of the build-up play. Instead of looking for Medunjanin, center backs may look to move the ball side-to-side quickly enough to allow the fullbacks to sneak through defensive lines and create angles to feed th ball back into the center. Or, if the opponent presses high, the center backs will look long and the midfield will be able to stay high enough to control second balls. The No. 6 — no matter who it is — will then have a wide swath of space to cover behind the rest of his midfield brethren, and it is incumbent on him to sniff out the most dangerous areas within that space and ensure that if the opposition wins the ball, they will not create a dangerous transition themselves.
This No. 6 in 2020 will be far less of an on-the-ball presence, and his aim will be to play simply and to play forward. Watch for other players to make immediate, direct runs after turnovers so that a quick first pass can be laid off to a runner already in motion. Thus, a transition moment develops into a dangerous breakout moment without a complex passing movement. It’s all about speed and simplicity rather than recognition of gaps within a defensive shape.
This is a style of play that, when effective, can completely bowl over a disorganized defensive team. But it will turn matches into back-and-forth affairs that will lack the aura of control possession-driven teams prefer. Control may exist through positioning and organized pressure, but it will be control without the ball, and that is far more difficult to identify from afar, where the increased pace of play and uncertainty that arises with impending pressure is more seen than felt.
With the changes at the No. 6 position, the Union are entering new strategic territory, and the goal is to find, within that territory, a path that takes them even further than the best season in club history.