Atlanta United easily dispensed with Chattanooga FC last Saturday afternoon, as they should’ve. Yes, Chattanooga FC has an impressive fan base and a very solid squad in NPSL. But Atlanta asserted its dominance as a club with exponentially more resources than its opponent and thoroughly dispatched the home side.
The game set up as an elaborate training session for Atlanta. The home side sat deep and maintained its shape for most of the game, which allowed Atlanta to focus on its short passing combinations and possession game. It was good practice in breaking down an opponent who is well drilled despite the match serving as a preseason tune-up for CFC as well. Atlanta was forced to build their attacks from the back, keeping the ball on the floor and neatly distributing the ball through deep midfield.
Note: This analysis is all from the first 32 minutes of the game, when starters for both teams were playing. While Andrew Carleton certainly made an impact in the second half, he had fresh legs against an amateur side. I’m holding off on making judgments on him for the time being.
Miguel Almiron’s role
There was a bit of mystery surrounding Miguel Almiron’s role in the team leading up to the game. Almiron is a player who was utilized at his former club Lanus as a true box-to-box midfielder. He played on the left side of a flat three-man midfield. He’s been referred to as a “flying 8,” basically meaning he’s a box-to-box type who has an urgency to get forward and push the play as much as possible. The question wasn’t so much about whether he was going to be more defensive or offensive minded, but rather, where he would position himself on the pitch within Tata Martino’s tactical structure. Some thought he’d play as a left winger cutting inside, some (myself included) thought he’d maintain his position from his days at Lanus, and many thought he’d play as a #10 underneath the striker. If you picked option 3, points for you!
Tata played Almiron smack dab in the middle, and upon reflection (and seeing it succeed) I think it’s the right way to go. By playing in the middle, Almiron was able to float from side to side, linking up with play wherever it occurred. Some call this a “free role,” when a player has no bounds put on him by the manager as to where he needs to be.
The #10 role was and will be a great fit for Almiron this season. It will allow him to get involved in the game as much as possible. Having a player of his technical quality in the middle means either A) he’ll be available to receive the ball in a dangerous area between the opposition midfield and defense, or B) he will attract enough attention from defenders to open space for others. His goalscoring record at Lanus wasn’t something to write home about (5 goals in 44 appearances), but that’s in large part due to his role within that particular tactical setup. Tata seems to want him to drive forward and play 1-2s off Kenwyne Jones (or other forwards), as he does here.
Wingers and fullbacks in tandem
Atlanta, focusing on a short passing game, wanted to dominate the middle of the pitch by overloading the middle of the field so players had many options for an outlet. However, they made sure not to sacrifice their width by doing so. At all times, either a winger or a fullback was stretching the pitch as much as possible — but never both. In soccer, you’ll often hear about fullbacks overlapping the wingers to create overloads in wide areas. While the fullbacks definitely got forward (to the point where Greg Garza slashed a shot wide from about 7 yards away) I wouldn’t say they were “overlapping,” at least in a traditional sense. On each side, Martino wanted one man on the flank (either a fullback or winger) to stay wide, while the other moves inside to help with the buildup.
Here’s another sequence from the first half that demonstrates this. Notice how Mears and Asad are in similar positions on their side of the field, despite playing different positions.
In an effort to try to close down the Atlanta players on the left, Chattanooga becomes very narrow and eventually Mears is found in plenty of space on the right.
Atlanta put a lot of good play on show, and I, for one was certainly excited. But we need to understand the context of the game and realize that this is the easiest this team will have it all season. How will our players react to punishing games with lots of fouls? How will we respond to heavy pressure? Can we defend? These are all questions that went more or less unanswered, and is something to look forward to. Real quality separates itself in the big games, so we will have to wait and see how this group responds to adversity. But as of now, so far, so good.