Atlanta United earned a good point away in Toronto, as Hector Villalba scored at the beginning of both halves. Toronto responded to Villalba’s opener quickly after some nice interchangeable play between Vazquez and Giovinco, and they built on this as Justin Morrow arrived to score a tap-in. Atlanta on the whole had to dig in for this result, but there were some interesting tactical features from both teams, that need to be addressed in this article.
Atlanta United started with Miguel Almiron playing centrally, although it didn’t matter, as the majority of the play was so fluid anyway. He was flanked by Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba, in what looked like a pretty stereotypical 4-1-2-3-0 formation. The Zero is employed here because Almiron did not play as an out and out striker, which gave Atlanta a lot of positional flexibility. You could also in theory look at this formation as a narrow diamond, with Almiron playing as the number ten role. This is similar to how Brendan Rodgers utilised his personnel in Liverpool’s near title win in 13/14.
Toronto continued with their 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid type formation, but on the whole, I found their tactics to be bizarre. Those formations I have just listed are not really known for being very interchangeable, and at times, Toronto was reliant on individual moments of brilliance to see them through. Greg Vanney deserves credit for trying to be creative, but they need to re-visit their formation, as it is a bit muddled.
Atlanta Utilise ‘False Nine’ Play:
In the early part of the season, Atlanta United used a lot of wide play in order to stretch teams, and they almost bypassed the interior part of the pitch. Against Toronto however, they played narrow, and essentially created ‘man to man’ situations against Toronto’s back three. Atlanta’s front three stayed close together on the whole, and Toronto’s back three really struggled with the direct running from Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba. It was no surprise to me that both Atlanta goals came from one threaded through ball, as Toronto’s overall tactical plan lacked defensive cohesion.
Another element of Atlanta’s strategy, as that Villalba didn’t really get involved in the build-up play, and was instead used on the shoulder. Pep Guardiola used to do this with Pedro when he managed Barcelona, as he believed that ten players of high quality were enough to control possession. To an extent, Martino shared this view against Toronto, as Almiron and Asad accounted for 10.6% of Atlanta’s possession, with Villalba only accounting for 1.9% of it. This is important, because it shows that Villalba can affect games without actually being involved in the build-up play, and this is huge for a team that wants to play Martino’s way.
The opening goal was quite brilliant, and I’m not sure there is another team in the League that has the players capable of combining a pass and a run of that quality. Almiron was a delight to watch for the majority of this game, and it is honestly fair to say he is already one of the best players in the League.
Above is a still image of the goal, which really shows Atlanta’s approach. Asad has left his marker for dead on the left, Villalba has a superb starting position, which helps Almiron out a lot. The talking point of the first half was the fact that these ‘man to man’ situations were problematic for Toronto, as you can see above, Michael Bradley was bypassed quite easily, and with runners occupying the outside center halves, it leaves the middle center half with a huge dilemma. Essentially, the middle central defender gets Almiron ‘switched onto him’ because of Bradley’s lack of resistance, and these 3 v 3 situations were all too common in the first half, and they really decided the game.
Toronto’s Build Up Play: Before the game, I was watching TSN analysis of Toronto’s 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City, and they were highly critical of the Toronto FC Strategy. Analyst and former Burnley defender Steven Caldwell pointed out the fact that Toronto’s defence and midfield were too far apart, and they ended up passing it around the back as their defenders weren’t capable of making long, difficult passes into midfield. Sadly for Atlanta, the Toronto plan looked much more cohesive at the first phase of the build-up play. Against Kansas City, the Toronto players with the most touches were their center backs, against Atlanta, Michael Bradley and Armando Cooper led the team in touches, which suggests Vanney adapted his approach. On the whole, if the players leading the team in touches are the defenders, then it is fair to say your strategy is poor. It is only acceptable in a couple of situations, for example, when you are protecting a lead against a team with ten men.
Toronto’s strategy was essentially to spread the pitch with the wing backs, and utilise Vazquez, Altidore and Giovinco close to each other. On the whole, the strategy made a lot of sense as stretching teams and punishing them on the interior is a good way to play, but the strategy wasn’t perfect. The Toronto attacking shape was a 3-4-3, but the defensive shape was a 3-5-2, which doesn’t really make sense, as these formations are not interchangeable in the way that a 4-3-3 and a 4-1-4-1 are, for example. Some of Toronto’s interchanging was good though, and Giovinco’s equaliser is one of the best team goals you’ll likely see this year.
Poor Full Back Defending: I think Gerardo Martino is going to look at both goals conceded, and be pretty disappointed. I have already said the first goal was good, but it was highly avoidable, and in honesty, Altidore could actually have done better for Toronto. Gerardo Martino likes his team to play a high line, and on the whole, Pirez and Parkhurst have shown they are very capable of doing it. The first goal though is a shining example of what can go wrong if everyone isn’t on the same page. Greg Garza was in no man’s land as you can see below, and it is not acceptable to let a forward up the inside of you in a compact situation.
Garza ideally needs to be closer to the center back, or he simply needs to man mark Altidore and force the pass to go up the outside, as opposed to the inside. This is really the peril of modern full-backs, as full backs are now coveted for their attacking play, as opposed to their defensive play. Greg Garza is a brilliant player who shouldn’t be over criticised, but he needs to avoid being beaten this easily again.
The second goal was also quite avoidable, as Justin Morrow ghosted in off the back of Tyrone Mears for an easy tap in. If I had to pick one weakness in this Atlanta team after the first couple of games, it would definitely be the fact that the full backs aren’t great defensively. What critics must do however, is highlight how important they are to the attacking side of the game as Garza and Mears are both quick, energetic and good distributors, which is important for the style.
The Half Time ‘Changes’: I am using the word changes in quotes here, because I do not think Martino’s half-time changes were particularly drastic. In the first half Atlanta United struggled to wrestle control of possession, so it made sense to tell Jeff Larentowicz to drop deeper, as this allowed the center backs to push out wide and step upfield. Center backs playing higher up the pitch often improves build up play, which is why Martino did what he did. Martino in theory switched from a 4-1-2-3-0 formation, to a 3-4-1-2-0 formation, as the only real change was to tell Larentowicz to become more of a defender than a holding midfielder.
The argument here is essentially that these formations are more interchangeable than they first appear, as all that needs to happen is for Larentowicz to move deeper, and for the full backs to push further up. Nothing was drastically changed by Martino, and the attacking quintet remained relatively consistent with their first half roles. Toronto’s narrow nature meant that an extra body at the back was probably needed, and Toronto really had to resort to long shots in the second half.
Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez was so coveted because of his ball playing ability, and he is honestly better at passing than a lot of starting midfielders in the MLS. His assist for Villalba’s equaliser was sublime, and it should not be seen as an aimless long ball. It was a measured pass that completely bypassed Toronto’s backline, and Pirez’ ball playing ability makes three-at-the-back formations a real possibility for Atlanta United moving forward.
Conclusion: On the whole, Atlanta played quite well, despite what the stat sheet might say. Atlanta only had six shots in comparison to Toronto’s 20, but many of Toronto’s shots were long distance shots. Both teams created two clear-cut chances, and both teams came away with two goals.
Atlanta’s formation was very imaginative, but I do not think anyone should read into the half time changes too much, as 4-1-2-3-0 and 3-4-1-2-0 are not hugely different from each other, they can interchange quite easily. The fact Atlanta looked comfortable in both build-up shapes, shows that whatever Gerardo Martino is trying to do, is working pretty well.