Minnesota United – Philadelphia Union: Minnesota Fall Against Effective Philadelphia (2-3)

The clash between Minnesota United and Philadelphia Union was probably more enjoyable for neutral spectators than it was for tacticians or coaches. With a total of 43 shots, the match offered a seemingly endless amount of chances. At times, it seemed that every attack ended in the attacking side taking a shot. Because of Philadelphia’s effective attacking and Minnesota’s lack of defensive cover, the away team managed to win it.

Tactical analysis and match report by Max Bergmann.

In the MLS, because of the playoffs, a top seven finish is essential, but that also leaved possibilities for kicking a season into gear a bit later than without a playoff structure, because accumulated points mean little at the end of the season. Going into this match, these two teams were seated firmly on a playoff spot though; Philadelphia among the group of teams leading the Eastern Conference table, Minnesota in fifth place in the West. Two offensive minded teams that have had a fine start to the season.

Minnesota started the match with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. consisted of Osvaldo Alonso as well as Jan Gregus, who split up offensive and defensive duties. Central offensive midfielder Darwin Quintero was a player flowing between the lines and behind the attacking trio. Furthermore, their fullbacks played a vital role in Minnesota’s attacking patterns as they moved high up the line and provided width.

Philadelphia lined up in the not so common 4-3-1-2 system. To defend Minnesota’s attacks, Jim Curtin’s side set up with two lines in the defense. In front of their back four, the midfield three attempted to close the gaps of the back line in front of it to prevent any dangerous through passes to be played.

Minnesota hurts Philadelphia’s centrally focused defense in wide areas

During their press, Philadelphia closed down every possible passing option in the center. As a consequence, Minnesota often played out wide. Since Philadelphia’s midfield did not keep their horizontal compactness, they always offered Minnesota to play from the wing into central areas.

As one of Minnesota’s strengths is their wing play, they found ways to outplay the opposition on the flanks. They preferred their right side and often used one-twos between forward moving fullback Romain Métanire and the right midfielder of Minnesota’s double pivot Jan Gregus.

Minnesota’s attacking-minded setup with high fullbacks to utilize the given spaces on the flanks, due to Philadelphia’s centrally focused formation.

Philadelphia meanwhile was lacking the defensive movement of their offensive midfielder and striking duo. As a consequence, Philadelphia attempted to defend Minnesota’s powerful attacks with only seven players. As Minnesota could therefore create numerical equality in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. at times, Philadelphia had difficulties to prevent the home-side from creating opportunities.

With the help of their wingers, Minnesota created space on the wings for both fullbacks. Due to the fact that both wide forwards attacked within the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Minnesota could occupy the opposition fullbacks in a more central area. This caused further damage to the vulnerability of Philadelphia on the flanks since their midfield did not include any wide players who could have supported the fullbacks.

In the final third, Minnesota either found their front three with lofted passes into feet or behind the opposition back line from central areas. When breaking through on the wings, Heath’s side put in crosses towards the three attackers. In these cases, playmaker Quintero also joined the penalty area whereas the double pivot awaited possible rebounds in front of the box, in order to collect the second ball.

By utilizing the given space on the wings, Minnesota created several scoring opportunities within the first half of the match. Nevertheless, their inadequate finishing and good saves stopped Minnesota from taking the lead.

Transition moments as the key phases of the game

Due to an attacking-minded approach of either team, both sides were offered promising counterattacking opportunities. Whereas Minnesota aimed at getting behind the opposition fullbacks with the help of their wingers, Philadelphia took advantage of a numerical equality with their striking duo against the opposing central defense. As both of Minnesota’s fullbacks supported the attack, they often arrived too late when transitioning from attack to defense. And even worse, Minnesota’s defensive midfielder progressed high up the field simultaneously at times. This did not only isolate the central defenders in two-versus-two situations against the opposition attackers, but also left a huge gap which allowed further Philadelphia midfielders to join the attack.

Philadelphia could benefit more from the opposition defensive instability during transition moments. Especially their central defenders struggled to keep up pace with Philadelphia attacker Sergio Santos. In the 18th minute, center-back Brent Kallman caused a penalty by fouling his quicker opponent Santos. The resulting penalty was converted into the leading goal for Philadelphia by Jamiro Monteiro.

Philadelphia’s situational defensive 4-3-2-1 in the second half

In the second half, Philadelphia gained more defensive stability by substituting Marco Fabián for striker Sergio Santos. Although Curtin’s side lost pace up front with this substitution, Fabián supported the midfield three during the defensive phase. From then on, their shape resembled a 4-3-2-1 when defending. As both offensive midfielders moved backwards and stayed connected to the midfield three, it got more difficult for Minnesota to combine through central areas.

But since the wide areas were still protected deficiently, the home side were capable of progressing up the pitch on the flanks. In stark difference to the first half, they often failed to get back into central areas or between the lines after playing out wide. As a result, Minnesota put in plenty of crosses in the second half of the game. This enabled Philadelphia to make use of their aerial superiority within their own third. The back line won twelve aerial duels in total whereas Minnesota’s whole midfield and attack could only win one during the full match.

Minnesota’s endless shooting attempts

When taking a look at the statistics, Minnesota clearly held the upper hand with 29 shots compared to Philadelphia’s 14. Nevertheless, Minnesota often used the opportunity to shoot from outside the penalty area or from a bad angle. In addition to that, often several Philadelphia defenders were positioned between goal and ball-carrier. This observation can be proven by the total number of 15 Minnesota shots that were blocked by Philadelphia’s defensive department. As another logical consequence, only a fraction of these attempts were on target. Subtracting a further 8 shots off target, Minnesota only hold six shots on target which is just one more than Philadelphia. Another example of shot quality and why it matters.

However, Minnesota’s intermediate equalizer from left back Hassani Dotson resulted from a shot from outside of the box. On the long term however, better quality shots lead to more goals, more wins, and thus, more points.

In the end, in an exchange of blows between Minnesota and Philadelphia, the latter had the upper hand, scoring three goals, one more than Minnesota’s two. However, as the game was littered with chances, the result of the match could have been a completely different one.


Minnesota’s lacking defensive cover during their attacking phase did cost them the win in this match. Furthermore, their missing accuracy in finishing and the failure to get into better positions prevented them from scoring more goals.

Philadelphia on the other hand were a bit more lucky in this game as they scored from a free kick as well as received a penalty to take the lead. But they were also capable of penalizing the opposition defensive struggles with their centrally focused style of play and were therefore able to win this game despite worse statistics.

Max Bergmann (21) likes to watch football from every possible angle as an ambitious coach, player, (former) referee and analyst. Holding the UEFA B-Level license, he is coaching youth teams and making video analysis. In order to extend his knowledge about tactics, physiology and psychology in sports, he is studying sports science. Whenever Max is not on the pitch or at the university, he analyses football with a focus on the Bundesliga and the other European top leagues for TotalFootballAnalysis and Between the Posts. [ View all posts ]


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