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Talking Tactics: Why Nowak's gamble came up empty

Peter Nowak of the Philadelphia Union

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

Tactical gambles are, by their very definition, risky propositions. In a broader context, a tactical gamble isn’t so different than a card game in Las Vegas: a calculated assessment of risk and reward.

Of course, Philadelphia coach Peter Nowak probably didn’t see his bold move Sunday at PPL Park as a gamble, per se.  In his mind, it was a strategic realignment of personnel based on information and circumstance. It was just a game plan, not some shifty gambit.

Call it what you want, but things didn’t work out.

As a foursome of home-and-away playoff series opened over the weekend, injuries made news in one venue, where the men of Colorado were dropping like retail prices after Christmas. LA and New York made news for reasons good and bad. The depth of a hole dug by Seattle was the talker against Real Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, in Houston’s compelling road win at Philadelphia, Nowak’s destabilizing tactical re-arrangement became the major discussion point. The timing made his maneuver particularly noteworthy.

Philadelphia are one of the more tactically fluid sides when it comes to attack. The offensive fulcrums have moved around PPL Park in Philadelphia’s 4-4-2 formation. Nowak has even been known to deploy the occasional 4-3-3.

WATCH: Union players react to formation shift
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But the backbone of brotherly formations was always a four-man back line. Danny Califf and Carlos Valdés were the central anchors, heady and hardy. Sheanon Williams has been nothing less than a revelation at right back. Gabriel Farfan eventually took charge at left back, where he still needs some polish but continues to show promise.

The point is, the back line was hardly a work in progress. Rather, it was a capable foursome, not perfect, but well organized and certainly familiar.

So it fell as a huge surprise when, in the franchise’s post-season debut, Nowak had his team in a 3-5-2.

What wasn’t surprising was the way the Union reacted. They looked quite uncomfortable in the new arrangement, which devolved into a 5-3-2. (Or perhaps it was set up that way all along; the difference might be only 10-15 yards of starting defensive positioning for the wingbacks.) Stefani Miglioranzi sat somewhere behind or alongside Califf and Valdés as a central defender. Whether he was supposed to be a sweeper providing cover for the markers or whether the set-up was built to look more like a flat three was hard to say. Maybe that lack of definition contributed to the problem.

Either way, Houston ran the show over the first 45 minutes. Presumably, Nowak wanted Williams and Gabriel Farfan to focus on eliminating service from the wings, a.k.a. Houston’s bread and butter. As planned, Houston’s Brad Davis and Danny Cruz would be offensively hamstrung while dealing with those Union wingbacks. Miglioranzi, meanwhile, could provide extra cover as Califf and Valdes battled Houston’s strike tandem.

But Philadelphia had two problems. The first was Brian Ching.  Injuries limited the wily veteran to fewer than half the Dynamo starts this year, but Houston is a different team when he’s healthy. His ability to read the game and pinpoint areas most effective for target play (plus his underrated passing ability) made a massive impact Sunday.

Philadelphia’s back line, looking immediately unsettled, struggled to track his checking runs toward midfield. Tactically, Union midfielder Brian Carroll didn’t appear to be seated deep enough in his holding role, with too much ground to cover on his own. He was more or less alongside Michael Farfan and Justin Mapp in a three-man line, one caught flat too often.

WATCH: Carr puts Houston in front
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The other issue was all the time Houston’s Luiz Camargo had on the ball while playing ahead of Adam Moffat in the visitors’ midfield. Camargo was rarely bothered during a blue ribbon half of possession. Like the Union back line, everyone in the home team’s midfield seemed similarly unsure of their assignments. That meant initial pressure was usually slow to arrive as Moffat and Camargo linked so effectively through the center of PPL Park.

The ultimate result was lack of pressure pretty much everywhere in the Union’s disheveled midfield, which gave Houston time and space to supply those dangerous crosses. Plus, all that Dynamo possession meant lots of dead balls situations created, and anyone paying attention knows that’s catastrophe waiting to happen when facing the Orange.

Finally, when Ching found one of those yawning gaps, as Miglioranzi hesitated to step out and apply pressure, the cagey Dynamo striker put Calen Carr through beautifully for the eventual game-winner.

With the ball, Carroll seemed similarly unsure of his positioning as a linking factor. When Califf and Valdés could widen quickly enough, things worked a little better. (But the danger there became apparent when they were stretched too far apart in transition, which also contributed to Houston’s second strike.) If the back threesome remained too compact in possession, it was too easy for Houston to choke off passing lanes into Carroll, and the options became limited quite quickly.

Working with different angles and less familiar passing routes, Carroll rarely found Mapp, inhibiting his teammates’ ability to affect the game offensively.

Nowak readjusted at the break, but the damage was done. The Union, back to a more familiar 4-4-2 for the second 45, looked far more organized and decisive. Camargo had some possession, but needed to move the ball along far more quickly.

Now, Nowak must decide what to do about a one-goal deficit heading to Houston. Because, truth be told, the tactics that backfired Sunday may work better in Texas. That arrangement might have been better as a road concession tactic all along – with some tweaks, of course. The Union tend to play close games away from Pennsylvania, well-constructed for defend-and-counter doctrines that can pluck a 1-0 result – the very score by which Nowak’s team beat Houston in South Texas earlier this year.