CHESTER, Pa.– The Philadelphia Union found the missing piece for their roster in midfielder Marco Fabian.
After the celebrations around the 29-year-old’s signing subside, the club has to get down to business with its tactical approach ahead of the March 2 season opener at Talen Energy Stadium against Toronto FC.
“I think it’s the most ambitious signing we’ve ever had,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said on Friday.
Curtin has a closed-door scrimmage against Orlando City coming up and games against the Montreal Impact, D.C. United and Ottawa Fury to figure out his best combination of 11 players.
Fabian is expected to play a massive role in the game plan for the 2019 season, but he could end up featuring in a variety of roles based off what we’ve seen out of the Union’s tactical approach early in preseason.
What we already know
After an offseason full of speculation, three preseason scrimmages provided an early glimpse into the tactical approach the Union will use.
In the three scrimmages against the New York Red Bulls, University of South Florida and Birmingham Legion FC, the Union used a 4-4-2 diamond formation. The change to two forwards is one of the most significant shifts from the 4-2-3-1 used in previous seasons.
Sporting director Ernst Tanner shed more light on the new formation earlier in the week, confirming the club isn’t using traditional wingers in the system and that there will be more responsibilities for the full backs on each side of the back four.
“You’ve probably gotten into the knowledge that we are not using wingers anymore,” Tanner told reporters last week. “More important is the function of the left full back, but it is not the classical left full back who is more from the defensive side. We are calling the left full back on the offensive side a wing back and on the defensive side we are calling him an outside back. He needs to play both roles, and that makes it difficult sometimes to get the right player.”
Curtin also handed out some details on his thought process. He’s willing to play David Accam and Fafa Picault in a second striker role underneath a target forward, which at this moment in time appears to be Sergio Santos’ job to lose.
“David and Fafa, they’re not natural No. 9 target strikers,” Curtin said. “They’re not the big guy that’s going to hold the ball up. What they are good at is playing in kind of an underneath role where they both have the speed to run off a target striker.”
At the start of the MLS season, Fabian should land at the attacking tip of the diamond midfield.
For an example of how this worked in the past, think back to the old Real Salt Lake teams that were driven by Javier Morales in the attacking midfield role.
With a plethora of central defensive midfielders on the roster, Fabian won’t have to drop further back in the formation on many occasions, so his main goal will be to become the creative force that drives the Union forward.
“He’s played with Mexico as a No. 10, as a No.8, as a box-to-box midfielder, he’s played as a second forward for Frankfurt so he has that flexibility that he can bring to your roster,” Curtin said.
If Fabian is able to insert himself into the final third with his creative on-the-ball ability, the two forwards should benefit immediately.
“I know the most excited guys are going to be Bedoya, Ilsinho, Haris Medunjanin, who now can play balls through the line to a Marco Fabian,” Curtin said. “It makes everybody better. It makes everyone’s job easier.”
Expect the Union to come out with a more aggressive approach when they’re at home because of the amount of attacking options they have on their depth chart.
That means Ilsinho or Homegrown player Brenden Aaronson, who the club is incredibly high on, slot into the No. 10 role with Fabian listed as a starter in one of the deeper positions.
Although he may be listed deeper, Fabian could provide a fourth attacking option to throw at opposing defenses, and due to the amount of attackers surging forward, the Union could overwhelm the flanks and the middle of the park if they move the ball around fast enough.
“We played some really beautiful football last year, but the games we lost you could see we lost them because we were open in the middle,” Union owner Jay Sugarman said Friday. “And so [Tanner has] brought in a formation and a type of player he thinks can really close down that vulnerability while still keeping some of the offensive firepower.”
Compared to the last few seasons, where the 4-2-3-1 was the be-all and end-all formation, the Union will have much more flexibility from a tactical perspective.
The most variation in formation and personnel could come between home and road games.
The Union need to win close to all of their home games in 2019 to have a shot at a home playoff game, and since they have the depth to put four attacking pieces on the field, we should see that in some fashion at some point.
That means Fabian could be listed as a deeper starter, like we mentioned above, but he’d likely play as a second No. 10, which Curtin eluded to on Friday.
“He’s been brought here to play the No. 10 spot, for sure,” Curtin said of Fabian. “How the formation shakes out exactly — are there moments when we play with two No. 10s when we’re at home, are there moments where we play with two No. 8s on the road — that’s still to be determined, and we have some things to work through in preseason, but Ernst has put a good system in place.”
When the Union hit the road, they should shift into a more defensive lineup, and a change to the 3-5-2 isn’t out of the question by the time 2019 ends.
While they’ve been committed to the diamond so far, the Union have the capabilities to play a three-man back line with Matt Real and Olivier Mbaizo serving as wingbacks, or the club could take a risk with Accam or Picault at a wing position because of their defensive work rate.
If the Union go for a 3-5-2 look, Fabian would line up in one of the three central positions with some combination of Alejandro Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones.
Fabian would be asked to some defensive work, as well as the two forwards, but he would still be the most advanced central midfielder in most situations.
Regardless of where he plays throughout the 2019 season, the Union hope Fabian can be the impact player that helps the club take the next step forward.