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Atlanta United’s “Champagne Problems”

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Atlanta’s struggles are manageable and fixable.

Dave Williamson Photography

Alexi Lalas revealed on Sunday’s FOX Sports 1 broadcast that Tata Martino described his upcoming starting goalkeeper decision as a “champagne problem.” The decision on whether to bench starting goalkeeper Alec Kann for the incoming USMNT-shot stopper Brad Guzan when he arrives in July is a good problem to have. In a way, Tata Martino has some champagne problems on his plate right now. Sunday, a down-in-the-dumps D.C. United team came to Bobby Dodd Stadium and walked away with a comfortable 3-1 win and the three points that go with it. Clearly, there are problems that must be addressed for the Five Stripes, but they are fixable problems with some clear tactical solutions.

One such champagne problem that has reared its head in for Atlanta is how to optimize its use of possession. When possessing the ball, a team should be trying to do one of two things. One is to use passing and movement to manipulate the opposing defense and create gaps to exploit in and around the box. The other purpose of possession is to control a game – to use time with the ball as a defensive tactic to prevent scoring opportunities for the opposition. “If they don’t have the ball, they can’t score,” as the saying goes.

To be honest, when you see that your team had 74% possession and more than 20 shots, you’d expect to win. But these stats from the Sunday’s loss highlight Atlanta’s general flaws in possession, especially after the 15th minute. Atlanta was unable to confuse D.C. United’s steady and solid defense to find dangerous areas to exploit. Nonetheless, the team poured forward in numbers hoping to overwhelm D.C., only to leave themselves exposed when they turned over possession.

But these are champagne problems. Atlanta tends to do things that are fun and exciting to watch, so we as fans could have it much worse. The reason Atlanta grabbed the early lead was because they started the game perfectly. They came out more aggressive and D.C. could not match the intensity. But Atlanta kept the pedal to the floor, and in the process, lost concentration on their defensive responsibilities.

Tactically, Atlanta needs to figure out a way to progress the ball forward though the middle of the field. Too often, the team has relied on the width and aggressive positioning of the fullbacks to progress the ball, which can be risky. If the center backs have an off day passing the ball as they did Sunday, the team is left vulnerable to counter attacks. One possible solution to this problem could be shifting Miguel Almiron into a deeper position, playing him closer to Carlos Carmona and the back line than the striker. It seems crazy to move your most talented player away from goal, but D.C. laid out an effective blueprint to stop Almiron by playing a in a deep low block. Doing this nullifies two of Atlanta’s most effective attacking options. First, since the defenders are naturally playing in a more condensed area, there are fewer gaps between them for Almiron to find space to receive the ball. Secondly, Atlanta’s attack is predicated on speed with players like Tito Villalba, and playing deeper offers less space for quick players to run into. Bottom line, they will need to figure out a way to punish teams who play this way.

Atlanta is not a perfect team, but they’re not fatally flawed either. They’re in a position that many MLS Cup hopefuls find themselves in this time of year. They have a solid core and strong tactical philosophy, they just need some time to work out the kinks. Despite the poor run of form the team has endured over the last month, everything this team wanted to achieve this season is still possible. Here’s hoping the champagne problems turn into champagne showers by season’s end.