Tactical Preview: How the U can grab three points

New England Revolution are not much of a secret even if you didn’t face them a mere two weeks ago. Brad Friedel’s side have a fairly coherent Plan A and the words “Run Harder” masquerading as a Plan B. As such, when their pressing creates turnovers in the opponent’s half, the Revs are dangerous and difficult to defend. On the other hand, when the press is broken, New England does not recover into a compact shape, but instead leaves gaps across the back line and enters into a state of disorganization.

Also, they are really struggling to defend set pieces right now.

News and notes

  • Scott Caldwell picked up a red card in New England’s loss to DC United last week. Brad Friedel could respond by using Diego Fagundez in midfield or by adding Kelyn Rowe to the first eleven. For reasons nobody outside of New England knows, Rowe has not been able to crack the lineup during the Revs long winless run.

  • Michael Mancienne made his debut at left center back last week, finally offering an upgrade to the Revs much-maligned defensive line. There are still plenty of questions to be asked of Mancienne, and the Revs retain a lot of variability at left back.

Let’s take a quick look at how New England played against DC United last weekend to see if anything has changed since last the Union faced their rivals to the north.

No Zahibo, no prob… wait, actually lots of problems

Friedel gave his All-Star holding midfielder, Wilfried Zahibo, a rest last weekend, opting to play Scott Caldwell and Luis Caicedo as twin shuttlers behind a front four diamond of Cristian Penilla, Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez, and Teal Bunbury. That’s a potentially scary set of attackers, but getting the ball to them proved an issue. Both Caldwell and Caicedo offer industry, and both relish a tackle, but neither midfielder is a consistent ball-mover. As a result, New England struggled to put DC United into situations in which an aggressive pressing scheme could be disruptive high up the pitch.

In the first half, DC dominated the ball. Wayne Rooney dropped into midfield, Lucho Acosta curled into open spaces, and the Revs were left doing what they don’t want to do: Defending close to their own goal. If there was a positive to draw from the opening 45 minutes, though, it was that new Revs center back Michael Mancienne looked comfortable and reasonably strong on the ball as the left center back, providing a much-needed upgrade over career outside back Jalil Anibaba.  

Second half

What’s notable for the Union is how New England adjusted for the second half against DC. Friedel added Zahibo, subtracted Agudelo, and moved to a fairly structured 4-1-4-1 with Teal Bunbury on the right and Fagundez in a fairly free role up top. Zahibo sat behind Caldwell and Caicedo and gummed up the center. DC didn’t respond immediately and the result was a ton of giveaways through the middle, with Zahibo providing a far better outlet to the wide areas where New England could generate more successful counterattacks.

Friedel may like this shape against the Union because it could allow the No. 8s to help the fullbacks by providing numbers around second balls if the Union try to go long over New England’s initial pressure. However, there is a real danger for the Revs if they get stretched vertically — and they have a tendency to do just that.

The 4-1-4-1 leaves Zahibo as the deepest ‘1’. And along that horizontal zone, the big midfielder is often, yes, the loneliest number (six) that you’ll ever see. If the Union can put multiple bodies in that space when New England is pushing bodies up the pitch to press the ball, Zahibo won’t be able to be multiple places at once, and Philly can run at the Revs back line if they can get a lane up to Dockal, Bedoya, Sapong, or whoever else has checked into that space.

In attack, the Revs 4-1-4-1 became a 2-3-5.

The fullbacks pushed up to occupy wide positions and try to stretch DC United’s back line, while the wingers tucked inside to try and create a 3v2 against the centerbacks, or at least pin a midfielder deep. DC responded by dropping winger Yamil Asad all the way into the back line to make an almost-five-in-the-back that allowed them to keep even numbers in the center. This largely nullified the Revs’ attack, but with Caldwell suspended Friedel could use Kelyn Rowe as a player who could become a fourth man high up the pitch to get a number advantage in the center.

Union goals

The big aim for Philadelphia will be to use New England’s desperation against them. The Revs will want to do to Philly exactly what was done to them two weeks ago: Early road goal to sap the confidence and force Philly to be less patient in buildup. The Union’s response needs to be sticking to their game plan, which means recognizing when the Revs are trying to put numbers around the ball and quickly finding the opposite side of the pitch. Then: Advance quickly because New England does a poor job of moving horizontally across the field.

In the attacking half, the Union need to keep good spacing between the midfielders and look to exploit gaps in the Revs back four as they move side to side. Dockal and Bedoya will attempt to overload Zahibo and then Philly can get into the space behind the back line.

And, of course, the Union will try to continue to hold their advantage on set pieces while doing a better job neutralizing Zahibo on defensive dead balls.

The Union and Revs face off at 7PM EST at Talen Energy Stadium.

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