Ernst Tanner promises big changes to the Union’s playing style. Here’s what they might look like.
Tanner was brought here to sign better players and to implement a playing style that will shake the Union out of their recent doldrums.
"We are going to scout now," Ernst Tanner said at a press conference Monday. "The big season is obviously going to start."
If the many roster moves the Union announced a few hours before then weren't enough proof that Tanner is really getting to work, that pronouncement should have done it.
The Germany native was brought here to do exactly what he pronounced: find and sign better players for this team. He was also brought here to do what he'll do once he has those deals done: implement a playing style that will shake the Union out of the doldrums they lapsed into when Earnie Stewart's 4-2-3-1 system became too rigid.
"I find that we are a little bit too easy to reckon — especially when everybody knows ahead of [facing] us that we are playing in a 4-2-3-1," Tanner said. "They know how we play, and they know how to defend against us."
A few minutes later, he added: "We are not that stubborn focusing on one same thing just for the sake of philosophy or whatever, and then cannot make any impact with it."
He surely didn't mean that as a shot at Stewart, but to an outside observer, it was hard to avoid noticing the contrast.
Tanner spoke of wanting "to provide a Plan A, to provide a Plan B and even a Plan C — if plan A, in terms of our possession game, is not working out — that's exactly what we have seen in the games against New York City FC and in games against Houston [in the Open Cup final]."
He reiterated his desire to focus on transition play. It has been written about here before, and bears writing about again. NYCFC, Houston and Montreal, the three teams that gave the Union the most headaches this year, excel at transition soccer. So do the four finalists in this year's playoffs: the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta in the East, and Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers in the West.
"We have been doing very well in our possession game, and that is for sure something we also will focus on. But in a way, it is time to change some other things in order to take the next step," Tanner said. "And that has also something to do with a little bit more tactical flexibility. Basically, I want to see a little bit more dynamism in our game, playing a little bit more aggressive, and with more compactness."
Tanner didn't just learn that in his travels. He planted the roots of the revolution when he brought Julian Nagelsmann to German club TSG Hoffenheim in 2010.
Nagelsmann is one of the hottest coaching names in world soccer. Hired in 2016 as a 28-year-old, he took Hoffenheim from 17th in the Bundesliga to fourth in just his second season in charge. In his third season, they finished third and qualified for the UEFA Champions League. He's now 31, and has already agreed to move on to RB Leipzig next season.
Nagelsmann deploys a 3-5-2 formation that moves players and the ball fast. Tanner didn't say directly that he wants to install that setup here, but he dropped two big hints.
One was an allusion to playing with two strikers, with a suggestion that Fafa Picault could be one of them. (Tanner also confirmed that he'll go shopping at the position.) The other was an allusion to wanting to change the team's defensive style.
"Maybe we should a little bit focus on, in addition, what we are doing when we don't have the ball," Tanner said. "It is one of the top items we have in mind for the future."
Later, he said that when "in the game without the ball," he wants the team playing "something totally different to what you have seen so far."
The 3-5-2 hasn't been a rare sight just in Chester. It's been a rare sight in all of American soccer. The reason is what the system requires of the two wide players in the five. They aren't really midfielders. They're wingbacks who have to cover the entirety of the flanks from one end to the other — and without the help of wingers seen in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
It will ask an enormous amount of Keegan Rosenberry on the right and Matthew Real on the left. But if they can do it, the rest of the lineup could fit a 3-5-2 quite well.
Jack Elliott's passing skills would be flanked by the agility of Auston Trusty on the left and Mark McKenzie on the right. Alejandro Bedoya and Derrick Jones would cover the center of the park, with Borek Dockal or his replacement pulling the strings in front of them. Up front, pick two of Picault, Cory Burke, David Accam and a new signing — and pick them with an ability to adapt the pairing to an opponent's style.
Tanner knows what he has, and what he doesn't. He asked Monday for fans' patience, emphasizing that the defensive end is where patience will be needed most.
"We might have quite a challenge in front of us, which demands a little bit of time," he said. "We need to allow some mistakes [along the way], and that can cost us some games. … That's the patience I mean."
But he knew not to ask for too much patience.
"That's what you might have heard before, yeah … but if we continue like we did until [now], that last playoff spot will probably be the choice we face," he said. "We are in professional soccer, and our measure is not developing players. Our measure is achieving ranks in the table, winning titles, doing as good as we can, winning every possible game."
Tanner is right to frame things that way. He has not just a vision of what can be done here, but also a track record of success in Europe that proves what he's capable of.
Now let the big season begin.