A Revolution in the Eastern Conference & Diamonds in Philadelphia
New England continued their cracking start to the season by grinding out another win against FC Cincinnati before the international break. Despite it being their first win away from home, a perfect 4-0 home record sees them top the Eastern Conference in mid-June. One of the main reasons for the early success has been how lethal the Revolution have been on set pieces, particularly with the free-kick wizardry of Carles Gil.
A key part of the plan for New England this season is to simply create more set-piece opportunities than their opponents. They have crushed nearly every team they’ve faced in the number of corner kicks taken and fouls won in the final third—the only exception being their one loss to fellow set piece-focused Nashville SC. The Revs have taken 65 corners (the league average is 37) and are tied for fourth in the league with 26 fouls won in the final third. From those massive amounts of dead-ball opportunities, they’ve created a league-best 25 chances. Gil has created 24 of those.
We know Gil has been the provider extraordinaire across the entire MLS this season. He extended his expected assist lead over the league to 4.69. This figure almost doubles second-place holders in this category, Diego Valeri and Daniel Lovitz, who both have 2.5 xA.
As we can see, most of his chance creation has come from crosses and corner kicks, which he whips into dangerous areas of the box. He’s tallied a league-high 93 in total at an insane accuracy of 45%, better than anyone else who’s taken more than 15.
Two of the assists shown above have landed sweetly on the head of Adam Buksa, who leads the league in total headed shots with 13.
Combine the intention of winning free-kicks in dangerous areas, the pin-point crossing ability of Gil, and a striker like Buksa who loves to head the ball, and New England have a good recipe for finding a win against much of the league.
Looking ahead to their match this weekend however, their opponents might just have something to say to the contrary. NYCFC are in the bottom third of the league in corners conceded and have yet to give up a headed goal. This doesn’t mean they’re completely invulnerable. If New York do allow a pass into their box, 59% of the time it is a cross or corner kick.
There’s also a specific weakness in the New York defense that New England could key in on. Alexander Callens has played every game but one at left-center back for NYCFC. He loses aerial duels 56% of the time and has committed the most fouls among NYFC defenders. If New England decide to play Gil on the left side of the field and sit Buksa on the far post, forcing Callens to be his primary marker, it could provide the Revs a chance for victory.
Diamonds are Forever in Philadelphia
Another team that has been successful thus far is the Philadelphia Union. Their four wins in eight is good enough to see them into second place of the Eastern Conference, even if it has been a little up and down. One of the things that will stay consistent about the Union is their unique shape, which has been highly effective during this three-game win streak.
Philadelphia play a 4-4-2 but with a diamond midfield. Instead of the flat four we would normally expect, Philly’s midfield is more staggered: one attacking midfielder, two central box-to-box type midfielders, and a single defensive midfielder.
Defensively, they stay compact and, because of the layering, make it extremely difficult for opponents to play from back to front through the middle. The Union are third in the league in duels won (469) and second in tackles (156), though they have played one more game than the first-ranked New York Red Bulls. If you decide to dump the ball over the top to avoid the swarming midfield, the Union have no problem asking center backs/giants Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes to deal with any aerial duels. In fact, Elliott leads defenders in attempted aerial duels with 43 and has won 25 of them, which puts him in the top four.
The true key to this formation is the endless work from the central midfielders. Players in this position are responsible for swarming the ball when opponents build up – shielding the center backs when opponents have sustained pressure in the final third and providing width when the Union build out – while also having the freedom to make the second- and third-line runs into the box. It’s a ton of ground to cover, but by the same logic, it’s hard to cover them defensively as they could pop up anywhere on the field.
League veteran Alejandro Bedoya and youngster Leon Flach have been selected to fill these roles most recently to great effect. Bedoya has been more heavily involved in the attack. He has compiled 147 passes into the final third, an xA total of 1.79, and created two big chances – all second best on the roster. He even leads the team in shot attempts!
Flach’s numbers point to his significant contributions in defense. He leads the team in tackles won with 18 and is second best on the team with 14 interceptions.
The final piece to the diamond puzzle is the counter-attack element this shape provides to Philadelphia. Even if you pin them back, the Union play with two athletic forwards who can win the ball in the air and get out on the break. Cory Burke and Kacper Przbylko both rank in the top five of aerials attempted and aerials won across MLS forwards. Throw in a skilled and pacy attacking midfielder at the top of the diamond in Jamiro Monteiro, and defenses are immediately in danger. His 2.43 xA makes him the fourth best in this category (his skill on set pieces also helps this figure).
This means opponents could face three attackers bearing down on their goal while scrambling to get organized after having the ball. Scenarios like this often result in the uniquely Union supporters chorus, “Doop, doop, doop,” much to the chagrin of opposing teams.
Atlanta United won’t have to worry about the silly chorus this weekend as they face Philadelphia at home. They’ll be confident as well; Atlanta have yet to lose a home game this regular season. On the other hand, Atlanta will be aware that their most recent home defeat did indeed come from Philadelphia prior to the MLS season. The Union ran over Atlanta in a three-goal rout on their way to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. This leads to an intriguing battle of Eastern Conference foes. Which form will win? The home form of Atlanta United, or the Philadelphia midfield in the form of a sparkling diamond?