CHESTER, Pa. — When Ernst Tanner took over as sporting director of the Philadelphia Union late last summer, he inherited a team that was playing some of its most attractive soccer since entering the league in 2010.
The team was flying especially high after carving apart NYCFC at home in mid-August in a 2-0 win on the strength of a pair of assists from Borek Dockal. But despite the positives that Tanner and an electrified fanbase saw that night in Chester, he also saw some things he didn’t like.
“I love the idea to be as flexible as possible,” Tanner said of his thinking going into 2019. “We don’t have it easy in the league in general and we should not make it too difficult for us when everybody knows how to play Philadelphia.”
At season’s end, after a disappointing loss in the U.S. Open Cup final in Houston and two straight losses in the regular season finale and the playoffs to NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, the Union were a sixth-place team with a still-empty trophy case. With his first offseason in charge, Tanner set out to rework the team to change that.
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“[Ernst] wanted to take what he already saw we were good at, which was the possession that is still important. But then he also saw weaknesses with us without the ball and how we could improve defensively,” head coach Jim Curtin said.
Union embracing change in '19
Nearly a year later, the Union are still playing an attractive style but they are far less predictable. In place of the full-time 4-2-3-1 setup, Curtin has mostly employed a 4-4-2 diamond but shifted back to the 4-2-3-1 when the situation has called for it.
“Actually, if you think of all our goals this year, our good defending always leads to our chance creation and we still have high possession so we’ve done a good job of balancing both,” Curtin said. “We’re up toward the top in possession but we’re also toward the top in scoring. We’re not where I want us to be defensively, but that’s always something you can improve.”
Offseason acquisitions like midfielders Jamiro Monteiro and Marco Fabian and left back Kai Wagner have been key to making the new system work, but contributions from both familiar and unlikely sources have also been vital to the team’s success.
Kacper Przybylko, who was Tanner’s first acquisition last fall but didn’t debut until March, leads the team with 10 goals while veteran midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin are playing as well as they have in their Union tenures. Jack Elliott has gone from surprise contributor to backline general while Ilsinho has single-handedly taken games over off the bench and has been a nightmare for tiring defenses while Fafa Picault has provided energy both in the starting lineup and off the bench.
“We’re playing good football and we’re definitely trying to play with the ball and possess and also use our strengths in our attack and the combos in the front to create situations. We’re scoring a lot of goals over this last year,” said Picault, who is one of 14 players to score for the team this season. “Our pressing has been good and we’ve been creating chances off it and I think we’re a bit hungrier in terms of getting shots off than we were last year.”
New tactical philosophy
Picault has had to adapt to the new system, shifting from playing as a traditional winger to pairing up top with one of the other forwards. Further back, Medunjanin has had to play deeper in midfield and defend more since the outside backs now push up higher to provide width in the attack, leaving the center backs isolated at times.
“We have two strikers and a No. 10. We don’t have wingers, so everybody is tucked in. So teams need to beat us from outside and it’s very difficult in football that teams are going to beat you playing outside you,” said Medunjanin (photo below). “I think when we keep our shape and everybody’s doing their job, we’re tough to break.”
That was on display against D.C. United last Sunday when a turnover created by Andrew Wooten in D.C.’s defensive third in the early minutes of the match led to the first of two goals for Fabian on the night. Fabian scored another goal after receiving a tight pass in the box from Medunjanin in transition.
“I’d say so far this year in the diamond we’ve really been able to press teams in a good way, kind of wear them down physically, too, and frustrate them,” Curtin said. “The whole emphasis is to turn the team over as close to their own goal as possible so we can strike quickly.”
Tanner has been mostly pleased with the results and he likes how the team has adapted in his first full year in charge, but he’s also looking at the evolution, which he said was necessary to not only reach a higher level for the team but to also compete with the growing level of the league, from a longer view.
“We still have our flaws without any question,” he said. “You can’t really do a lot in summer, so our main transfer period is winter. But in that system you aren’t that flexible that you can change everything in one transfer window. We just need to continue our work in the next transfer window and hopefully we’re going to have an even better team next season.”