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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Center of at-ten-tion: The past and future of the Union's creative problems

What does the future hold for Ilsinho and his fellow No. 10 Roland Alberg?
A decisive offseason beckons. (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
It’s been about, /looks at watch/, eight minutes since a query about the Union’s 10 position has been voiced. Feels like a good time to rehash it.

Plainly, this was the Union’s deficiency this season. The Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, that manager Jim Curtin scarcely deviated from (and when he did change, insisted he hadn’t changed), is predicated on a link between central midfield strength to the lone forward via that No. 10 in the center of the midfield triumvirate. That player is responsible for so much chance creation.

With that need , the Union failed to adequately arm themselves. They entered the season with only Roland Alberg at the position, and he showed up to training camp playing fitness catch-up. The No. 10 shortcomings forced Alejandro Bedoya to be shoe-horned into the job, leading to tension and an eight-game winless streak to start the season. The club failed to reinforce the weakness in the summer window despite vetting several candidates. The story of the Union’s 2017 failures is the story of its No. 10 position.

The bright side is that this deficiency is known. Curtin has repeatedly said that the Union need to add difference-makers, and it’s not hard to read between those lines. The two primary occupants of the role, Ilsinho and Alberg, are on the final year of two-year contracts with team options. So let’s state the chases, looking back and forward.

Dressed to ‘impress’

Curtin turned heads with this haughty statement after last Sunday’s 6-1 slapping of Orlando City, which featured two goals and an assist by Ilsinho:
“The one thing that was talked about a lot this year was the number 10 spot and I guarantee if you take Ilsinho and Roland’s production in that spot, in hindsight now when you look back on it, it's going to be pretty darn impressive in terms of the numbers they put up, goals and assists. Having to remember now, probably six to seven games (Bedoya) played at the 10 as well, there was an Adam Najem game at the 10, so if you just separate all that and you look at those two on their production, it's a lot better than I think we all gave them credit for.”
So how “darn impressive” is it? Well, sort of, I suppose.

Bedoya played the first five games, then Sept. 23 and Sept. 27 as the 10, the latter two in a modified 4-1-4-1, notching one assist. Alberg played exclusively at the 10 this season, scoring seven goals and one assist. Ilsinho scored two goals in a run from May 13 to July 6, then a goal and two assists in a stretch of five starts in seven games from early August to mid-September. Ilsinho played the final three games of the season at the No. 10, tallying two goals and two assists. (You’ll note that for the purposes of this discussion, I’m omitting Ilsinho’s scoring from the wing.) Adam Najem started once, played five times, recorded no stats.

The grand total from the 10 spot: 12 goals and six assists, 18 total goals influenced.

Around the league

First thing’s first: There is almost no team in MLS with as strict an adherence to the 4-2-3-1 as the Union. The only exception may be Atlanta United, and if I was a coach with Miguel Almiron playing between Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba, you’d bet I’d keep going back to that high-scoring well.

Atlanta is the easiest comparison, thanks in large part to Almiron being out there almost unflinchingly until his recent hamstring injury. He posted nine goals and 14 assists, while his deputy, Julian Gressel, compiled two and two in his absence in September and October. That’s 11 goals and 16 assists, 27 total goals influenced.

That Atlanta paradigm introduces the quandary of causation. Does Tata Martino play a 4-2-3-1 because he has Almiron, or does he have Almiron because he plays a 4-2-3-1? The tactical flexibility elsewhere in the league would seem to hint at the former cause, but the Union have approached it from the latter, selecting a formation then plugging in players as they can even if they’ve miscalculated how they’d fit.

Elsewhere in MLS, that pattern holds, formations being built around an elite playmaker. Sacha Kljestan had an off year for the Red Bulls, yet still had two goals and 17 assists, a hand in 19 goals. Portland plays 4-2-3-1 in part to turn 31-year-old former winger Diego Valeri centrally; this year, it’s translated into 21 goals, 11 assists and what should be an MVP trophy.

Other teams have adapted on the fly to 4-2-3-1. Since Blerim Dzemaili’s arrival in Montreal, he’s compiled seven goals and 10 assists in 22 games (as the Union found out). Albert Rusnak (seven goals, 14 assists) has flourished once Mike Petke changed formations in Salt Lake. Ditty Yordy Reyna (six and four) and Nicholas Mezquida (two and one) in the half-season Vancouver has used 4-2-3-1.

Then again, if Curtin’s comment is meant to compare the combined production of Alberg and Ilsinho with other teams’ primary playmakers, then we can enter the likes of Toronto’s Victor Vazquez (eight goals, 16 assists) into the conversation. That doesn’t help the Union’s case.

So – even without reprising the discussion of fungiblity in playmakers or entering salary into the discussion – we can assert that the Union’s playmaking corps is on the low end of the scale for MLS.

Into the crystal ball

This is a decision that might already be made by time Earnie Stewart addresses the media for break-up day next Wednesday, if reports are to be believed. But we’ll ponder anyway.

Ilsinho has played in 52 MLS games (38 starts). He’s got a total of eight goals and seven assists. More than half of that production (four goals, four assists) have come in the last three months. Ilsinho has gone the full 90 minutes five times in his Union career, three coming since August including his last two outings. The 32-year-old, who can play multiple positions, hit the cap at $470,000 this year and made a salary of $518,333.

Alberg has also played 52 Union games (22 starts), with 16 goals and four assists. His goals/90 rate is 0.711. (If he made 30 starts, that would translate to 21 goals.) On four occasions, Alberg has gutted out the full 90, and only once this year. At 27, Alberg made $394,000 last year with a cap hit of $345,000.

Ilsinho is older, more expensive and less productive (though more flexible tactically and with the caveat the he was learning the No. 10 role on the fly). Alberg is younger, cheaper and more explosive in the goalscoring department, plus he could be sold back to Europe at some point.

To their credit, both players have expressed a desire to stay. That’s what Alberg told in the face of transfer rumors, and Ilsinho told us the same Sunday in light of his recent surge.

“I am very happy here, I tried to help and I did my best,” Ilsinho said. “Sometimes things go your way and sometimes no but this is soccer, hopefully next year is different.”

“Ilsinho raised his game, for sure, towards the end of the year and yeah, we're happy for him but again, the challenge is always to do it for the 90 minutes, to do it on the road,” Curtin said. “His performance in Chicago where he was on the ball a lot more even in the loss, the 3-2 loss, was still a step forward. As small as that might seem to everybody, I think he shows he has incredible talent and you all have seen that for years. It's clear that he has raised his level and it's good to get goals at the end of the day.”

An attacking wrinkle

One consideration of roles for next year that is pertinent: The Union, to take a step forward, need to add a top-line, no-doubt, weekly starter at the 10, a DP or TAM-level signing. That fact isn’t lost on anyone.

That means that if Alberg or Ilsinho were to return, it would be in a diminished role. And the idea of retaining Ilsinho as a change of pace off the bench isn’t borne out in the numbers. In 14 substitute appearances, Ilsinho has just one assist (plus a helper in the playoff loss to Toronto last year). He has just two shots on target. He’s used to settling into games from the start, and if the Union were to add impact midfielders (plural) as they should, the starts just aren’t there for a player who appears to need them.

Alberg, by contrast, has no problem hopping into a game with the single-minded focus of get the ball, shoot, score. He’s made 30 substitute appearances with the Union, scoring six times and adding two assists.

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January 9, 2018 at 1:32 AM 

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