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Atlanta United 1-2 New York Red Bulls: Tactical Analysis

Atlanta United won the tactical battle, but lost the game

New York Red Bulls v Atlanta United FC Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
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Atlanta United lost their first ever game as an MLS team as they fell 2-1 to a very ordinary New York Red Bulls team. Atlanta took an early lead through Yamil Asad, but Daniel Royer equalized for the Red Bulls, before they won the game on an own goal.

Atlanta United named their expected XI as Josef Martinez was preferred as a mobile striker in place of Trinidad international Kenwyne Jones. The New York Red Bulls played with a narrow 4-4-2 formation, and their main outlet was Sacha Kljestan.

On the whole, Atlanta United won the tactical battle as they dominated possession and territory, but the New York Red Bulls won the game because they were more streetwise and less idealistic than Tata Martino’s side.

Atlanta attack with Tremendous Width:

One of the core principles of the Marcelo Bielsa school of thought, is controlling the center of the pitch. Gerardo Martino however avoided the center of the pitch, as the Red Bulls were playing a narrow and compact 4-2-2-2 system. He instead pushed his full backs high up the pitch, and aimed to carry the ball up the wings before working it back inside to Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.

The Atlanta United outfield player with the least touches was Julian Gressel, which speaks volumes of Atlanta United’s approach. The Red Bulls tactics were simply bizarre, as is always the problem with a 4-4-2, it was bypassed with wide play and switches of play. Martino’s tactic was similar to the way that Pep Guardiola used to set up against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, and ironically Martino ended up with the same terrible luck.

Below is a pass map from Analytics page 11Tegen11 (I highly recommend following this page). You can see quite clearly that Atlanta avoided the middle of the pitch, and it was an approach that Jesse Marsch didn’t really have an answer for.

Via @11Tegen11

Failure to make the extra pass:

I’m not a writer who generally criticizes players, especially young ones, but the decision making from the front four was off during the game. Atlanta only attempted three shots from inside the box, which really isn’t enough for the style that Martino is trying to implement.

There were simply too many pot shots, when slipping the ball to an overlapping player would have been the right decision, Atlanta consistently got into promising areas, and sadly they settled for average chances instead of good or great ones. Miguel Almiron has the talent, so when he improves his decision making, Atlanta may have the best midfielder in MLS on their hands.

Targeting Zizzo:

It was clear from the off that Atlanta had identified right back Sal Zizzo has the weak point of the Red Bulls team. Atlanta mostly utilized their left hand side, with Tyrone Mears really only getting touches when Atlanta United decided to switch the play. Miguel Almiron was given a free role at the front of Atlanta United’s system, and he spent the majority of the game drifting out to the left hand side, as you can see in the map of his touches below. Almiron also attempted three of his five crosses from the left, which shows that this was the side they preferred to use.

The results were on the whole mixed, Zizzo actually did quite well in terms of defending one on one against Asad, Garza and Almiron, but the overload on that side caused a domino effect that the Red Bulls really couldn’t recover from until they equalized. The issue with a 4-4-2 is that it is very one dimensional in terms of its defensive shape, and this meant that the Red Bulls went long spells chasing shadows.

The First Goal:

The major theme of the game was the importance of switching the play and stretching the New York Red Bulls, and it was rather fitting that the opener came from this strategy. Atlanta had moved the ball for a while, before they moved it out to the right hand side where Tyrone Mears and Hector Villalba were both hugging the touchline.

The Red Bulls only had eight men back defending, and they were simply overrun by clever positioning from the Atlanta United players. Mears saw that the whole defense had been drawn across, and that this left Yamil Asad open at the back post. He then proceeded to whip in an excellent cross that was finished by Asad. As you can see below, Atlanta gradually worked a favorable situation, and struck quickly when it arose.


Overall, Atlanta won the tactical battle, but lost due to bad luck and time wasting from Jesse Marsch’ team. Eventually, Atlanta will get the luck they deserve, but they need to avoid taking pot shots. Shooting 11 times from outside the box isn’t an effective strategy at any level, and the ball needs to be worked a little bit more.

The signs are positive, the style worked, and we clearly have a manager that knows what he is doing. Once chemistry builds, this attack is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

What impressed me most throughout the game was how the more seasoned veterans of the side really adapted to the play style well. Michael Parkhurst was notably excellent at the back with his distribution and his anticipation, which is key in a high line.