The shift from second chair to first chair handed Philadelphia interim manager John Hackworth the opportunity to put his own stamp on the Union ahead of his first match in charge.
Such immediate transitions – as Hackworth readily admitted upon his appointment – often yield an evolution instead of a complete overhaul at the outset. The former U.S. U-17 coach adhered to those tenets with his approach in Saturday's 1-0 defeat to D.C. United, but the players at his disposal may limit how far he can take those alterations over the coming months.
In the first match after Peter Nowak's dismissal, the Union started with a different shape (4-3-3/4-5-1) and with a different mentality (pushing forward with numbers). Some of the typical Union tendencies – like the penchant for fluid movement between the attacking players (and now in the central midfield trio as well) – remained as the new era started. The overall deportment, however, revealed a more ambitious outlook befitting the optimism created by the change in management.
Several indicators suggest that the Union reacted well to the appointment despite the absence of influential midfielder Gabriel Gómez. The run of play largely favored Philadelphia on a day when United never really hit its stride, while the passing and the possession stats also shaded toward a home side that isn't used to doing particularly well in either category. Hackworth would have celebrated a victory after his first match if his charges could convert in front of goal or prevent other teams from scoring on set pieces (five conceded on the season after Chris Pontius' winner, according to MLS statistics).
While the first match offered some signs of promise, it also served as a fairly stark reminder that this sort of attacking mindset may not particularly suit a side that falters in possession and requires additions in each department to round out the squad.
The problems start with the Union's general work in possession. The overall statistics from the United match (77.2 percent passing accuracy on 452 total passes and 55.2 percent of possession, according to statistics compiled by Opta) represent a good day at the office for this particular group. In the previous five matches, the Union – albeit with a different setup and an inconsistent starting XI – never topped 75.7 percent passing accuracy (the league average is 76.5, according to Opta) and struck no more than 412 passes in a single game (and even that game against San Jose represented an outlier).
A careful look at the United tape shows those metrics accurately assess a team that doesn't pass the ball particularly well. Even in a good performance like the one against United, the flaws were evident: too many completed passes – with and without pressure – hit the mark with less than ideal placement or weight. These minor disruptions may not always result in a loss of possession if the recipient can adjust his body to compensate, but they significantly detract from the rhythm generated in those attacking movements.
It should come as no surprise that a creative central midfielder – likely a number 10 type to slot in front of Gómez and Brian Carroll if Hackworth persists with this setup – could cure some of those ills. Philadelphia has pursued this type of player in the past, but the search assumes additional importance with the more aggressive mentality under the new regime. In this league and in this position in the team, the right acquisition could turn the Union from a below-average outfit in possession to an above-average side on the ball in one fell swoop.
(Note: Hackworth can rifle through a couple of decent options, but none really fits the bill. Initial choice Michael Farfan [31 out of 52 passes completed against United, according to Opta statistics] represents nothing more than a stopgap. One would think Freddy Adu's ample talent and massive wage packet would make him a natural selection here, but he will likely benefit more from playing in a wider position and using his bag of tricks in the space afforded on the flanks. Roger Torres is just returning from knee surgery and hasn't proven he can produce consistently or stay healthy at this level. Like Adu, he may benefit from a wider role allowing more space rather than the battering he'd take in the center of the park.)
Until that reliable orchestrator arrives to increase the consistency and the quality of Philadelphia's passing through midfield and provide the telling final pass on a regular basis, the Union may have to assume a streamlined approach through midfield. The mobile front four and the overlapping fullbacks will leave the rearguard exposed even with Carroll and Gómez sitting to shield Amobi Okugo and Carlos Valdés. A more direct setup with an emphasis on playing quickly through midfield could pose some of the same menace (lots of chances for those nimble and shifty attackers in the final third) while limiting the exposure created by a mishit pass during an extended spell in possession.
Devising ways to tinker with the attacking balance represents a significant cultural shift for a club known for a more conservative approach under Nowak. Former assistant Hackworth must find some way to upgrade his squad with three critical additions in order to truly implement the ideas he hinted at over the weekend: (1) the aforementioned central midfielder; (2) a reliable and predatory number nine to finally replace Sébastien Le Toux's goal production and (3) a central defender capable of distributing out of the back and reducing those set piece qualms. It may take some time for the Union to acquire all of the required pieces to really push onwards, but the first foray under Hackworth at least instilled some hope that his temporary regime may offer more expansiveness – if not more immediate success – than the Nowak era.
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