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Friday, May 13, 2016

Curtin hints at 'geting aggressive' with Union midfield

The Philadelphia Union are facing the second installment of six games in 22 days Saturday when they venture north to Montreal. The fixture load presents plenty of opportunity to flex the Union’s newfound depth. They also offer the chance to tinker and introduce tactical nuance to the mix.

One such change pertains to the Union’s midfield balance. Jim Curtin has constructed a regimented depth chart that essentially looks like this (and we can quibble about who’s ahead of whom):

Carroll          Nogueira
Creavalle      Creavalle

Pontius              Barnetta            Le Toux
Ilsinho               Alberg            Fernandes

But this structure isn’t rigid. The question was posed to Curtin Thursday as to whether the backlog of games could introduce some deviation to that plan. Could, as I posed for instance, Roland Alberg be considered as a No. 8? Or could Ilsinho be called upon centrally for Tranquillo Barnetta?

Here is Curtin’s response:

“Long term, my goal is to get more attacking guys on the field. I don’t think we’re quite there yet as a group, and that’s the entire group, to be able to execute defensive responsibilities and attacking responsibilities. But ideally, we would like to have two offensive-minded guys playing in the center, whether it’s Alberg and Barnetta, you see last night (Vincent) Nogueira can be offensive as well, so again, we’re looking and working towards playing more aggressive, more attacking style, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet where we can throw two guys who think offense first in the center of the field just quite yet. We are working towards that.”

The veiled message is something many have long suspected: That the prospect of Alberg as a No. 8 represents a new frontier for what the Union can do attacking-wise.

The reason came a question later, about Curtin's desire to push the issue centrally:

“We have our wide guys tuck in, so (Chris) Pontius and (Sebastien) Le Toux will tuck in, Ilsinho when he’s healthy as well, just to create a decision for that outside back. And then the past two games in particular, San Jose and L.A., we were 3-v-2 in the midfield, between Barnetta, Nogueira and (Brian) Carroll last night and Barnetta, Nogueira and (Warren) Creavalle the week before. There’s always one extra guy. And they’ve done a good job of finding that advantage. Was it perfect, and did we get a chance every time? No, but at the same time, being a number up in there and having that second midfielder commit to getting into the box, especially, we’ve found ourselves getting some success.”

The Union missed an opportunity the last two games at home. They weren’t as aggressive as they should’ve been going at Fatai Alashe and Anibal Godoy when the San Jose center mids picked up yellows in the 1-1 draw two weeks ago. And they didn’t overload Steven Gerrard enough in the center of the park in the 2-2 draw with L.A.

When they did, it resulted in a goal. On his goal, Nogueira beat Baggio Husidic and Gerrard 1-v-1. Here’s what it looks like when Fabinho delivers the ball into the box.

That’s a 3-v-2 overload, with Mike Magee tracking back in vain, and Nogueira fends him off to score on the second chance.

Similarly, CJ Sapong’s golden chance vs. San Jose was generated by Barnetta running up the gut at San Jose, exploiting acres of space in the coveted Zone 14.

This weekend likely isn’t the time to tinker. They Union have a tough trip to Montreal against a quality opponent, one that plays a 4-2-3-1 like they do and unlike the previous opponents (San Jose went 4-4-2; L.A. was a 4-3-3 that was basically a 3-1-3-3 with the extent to which Jelle van Damme stepped up into midfield where you’d expect a No. 6 to be.)

But consider the situation next week: In the likely event the Union fail to win in Montreal, they’ll be without a victory in their last three, facing D.C. United at home Friday night with two road games looming. Curtin said Thursday that Ilsinho isn’t 100 percent and won’t start until he is, and Montreal isn't the time to push his limits. If Curtin opts for a conservative posture with Creavalle and Nogueira in central midfield, you could see next Friday as a chance to rest the Frenchman.

That could make the time right to try Alberg at the 8, Barnetta at the 10 and Ilsinho on a wing (most likely opposite in-form and champing-at-the-big former D.C. man Pontius). That is a more aggressive approach.

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