Tactical Analysis: Union center backs excel in win over NYCFC

New York City FC came to Talen Energy Stadium with a reputation as a team that controlled possession and made it difficult for you to get out of your own half with strong defense in the attacking and middle thirds of the pitch. With David Villa returning, they had a high volume shooter who can finish and combine with others surrounded by willing runners, a peaking creator, and two mobile, energetic midfielders, one of whom — Alex Ring — is a legit long distributor as well.

But NYC got too cute by half, and Philadelphia Union made them pay with an outstanding performance. Perhaps the best and most underrated aspect of Philly’s 2-0 victory on Saturday was the way they grabbed control of the match after going ahead and never let it go. Check out NYC’s shots after Cory Burke’s opener and you can see there was simply no way back for the visitors.

NYC opening shape

Dome Torrent, Pep Guardiola’s former right hand man (who you can currently see workin’ the laser pointer in Manchester City’s Amazon show) sought to challenge Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty with a 4-4-2 shape. The idea was to use the aggressive nature of Philly’s center backs against them. When David Villa or Jo Inge Berget checked deep, they looked to flick balls behind the Union back line for Ismael Tajouri-Shradi.

The theory makes sense on an abstract level. Jim Curtin has said before that his team can struggle against two-striker sets, and the Union’s high back line leaves a lot of space to attack. Even if the ball runs through and Tajouri-Shradi doesn’t reach it, the Union would — again, in theory — be forced to work it out of the back while NYC pushed bodies into midfield.

But it didn’t work.

The biggest reason was execution. Not that NYC executed poorly, the Union just executed very well. After a chaotic second minute in which Berget’s dummy created a footrace between the still-spry Villa and Trusty, Philly’s center backs stayed tight to checking strikers so they could not play good balls in behind. Additionally, Keegan Rosenberry covered well, rarely falling asleep with Tajouri-Shradi lurking in his rearview.

Long to Sapong

The second reason it didn’t work was that CJ Sapong found Ben Sweat’s attempts to challenge him in the air somewhat amusing, and he dominated the left back throughout the first half, winning eight of 14 aerial duels. That’s the second most duels and duels won in the air for Sapong this season, behind only last week’s absurd 21 duels and 14 wins.

The past two games have been the most involved of Sapong’s season. His 49 touches on Saturday was the most of the season, though it was only one more than the 48 he had against New England a week earlier. Additionally, the defensive help the big attacker is giving Keegan Rosenberry limits the ability of opponents to turn around and target the Union fullback in the air. Look how deep Sapong comes to make the initial challenge in this sequence leading to Burke’s opener Saturday.

The importance of Sapong’s aerial game was that it allowed Philly to bypass NYC’s counterpressure, and once the visitors failed to win the ball back high up the pitch, they dropped fairly deep and offered Haris Medunjanin too much time to circulate the ball. At this point, the tables turned on NYC. Instead of the Rosenberry-Tajouri-Shradi matchup tilting the game in their favor, it allowed the Union to grasp control of the match.

Rosenberry in attack

Let’s save some words and just let Rosenberry’s play speak for itself. Watch him move forward after a turnover — yeah, it could be a little quicker, but just wait — then hold off Big Boy Berget after David Accam knocks the ball loose. But the key moment is the pass to the center at the 53:48 mark. There is no window for that pass, yet Rosenberry makes it, and it nearly leads to a shot from a great spot for Bedoya.

Of course, that wasn’t even Rosenberry’s best pass of the night. That one would come during this impressive sequence.

Rosenberry’s ability to move the ball off the wing through pressure was a big part of what helped push NYC deep, creating space in the middle third for Philly’s central ball-movers. Bedoya was no longer tied to the right flank as he had been in the first half when Rosenberry had to stay back to keep eyes on Tajouri-Shradi, and the Union captain was unleashed to pull Alex Ring and Ebenezer Ofori away from Borek Dockal and Haris Medunjanin.

At that point, NYC was finished.

Burke brings them in

Beyond his scoring exploits, Cory Burke’s dominance over the NYC center backs was impressive. Let’s take two examples.

In this first clip, Burke is an outlet for the Union, and he plays quickly to find Dockal so the creator can release Accam up the left.

In this second clip, Burke sneaks into space between the center backs and then holds the ball up before bringing Accam into play again.

In both instances, it’s Burke’s ability to find space and attack the ball that makes him the aggressor and puts NYC on the back foot, leading to big chances for the Union.

And finally, let’s take a peek in at Auston Trusty behaving in a way Big Boi might describe as “Cooler than Freddie Jackson sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm.”

Dockal plays the ball to Trusty at the top of the box and the defender controls it, takes his time, doesn’t rush, and retains possession for his team. This leads to an outlet that puts NYC under pressure. Just very, very mature stuff from the center back.

The Union are back in action this Saturday when they welcome New England Revolution to Talen Energy Stadium at 7PM EST.

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