Possession giveth, and possession taketh away
Possession is a funny thing. Pundits and journalists always like to mention it whenever a team wins while maintaining a lion’s share of the ball. By doing this, we subconsciously associate possession with winning – or at least scoring. You’ve got the ball after all, and” you can’t score if you don’t have the ball,” as the saying goes. But soccer isn’t about simply having the ball, it’s about doing something with it. And Saturday, Chicago was able to do much more with their (relatively) small amount of time on the ball than the opposition from the south.
The eternal struggle of soccer tactics is this: how to find the best possible balance between defensive solidity and attacking fluidity. If you can achieve this, you will win lots of games and titles. Barcelona of the 2000s (attacking) and Milan and Juventus in the 90s (defensive) showed us two contrasting ways in which you can achieve this balance. Saturday, Chicago had better balance than Atlanta, and it won them the game. You see, Chicago didn’t need to move the ball quickly from side-to-side to manipulate Atlanta’s defensive organization – Atlanta did that part for them. With such aggressive (read: dangerous) positioning, their defensive organization was already broken when they’d give away the ball. One or two vertical passes going the other way had Chicago attackers running free in on goal. Chicago created much better chances, and Atlanta needs to shore up its defensive organization quickly.
Tito Villalba was poor, but the blame shouldn’t be on him
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say that Hector Villalba “should have had two goals” by halftime. Villalba missed a chance from the edge of the box on a shot between GK Lampson’s legs, and another in a 1v1 situation where he attempted to place the ball in the corner, but missed just wide of the post.
If you think he should’ve scored twice, that means you think an attacker should score 100% of the time in those same situations. Statistics argue otherwise. Penalties, for example are scored between 75%-80% of the time, and that’s as good of a chance as you have to score in soccer. No other type of shot is converted at such a high rate, especially not a shot between a defender’s legs from the edge of the box. While I don’t mean to excuse Villallba’s performance (I thought he was very poor), he’s not the one we should be blaming for the result.
Atlanta can thank David Accam the score wasn’t worse
Good god, how many bad decisions can a player make? It’s a catch-22 with Accam, because his speed and athleticism put him in dangerous positions time and time again, but he routinely found a way to screw it up. Whether it was shooting when he should have been passing or passing when he should have been shooting, he made poor decisions throughout the day. Despite this, Chicago still found a way to prevail. But they could’ve and should’ve made this one a blowout (and if they did, many fewer people would be talking about Villalba).
Atlanta’s back line is losing cohesion
David Accam was running into daylight on a routine basis thanks to Atlanta’s lax defending and recognition of turnovers. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst were both slow to react to Atlanta turnovers in midfield – getting caught in bad positions where they were not able to mark Chicago’s runners in the counter attack. Ever since Atlanta implemented the hybrid 3-man defense in Portland, LGP has seemingly become more and more careless with the ball and his positioning on the field. Maybe this is because he assumes Larentowicz will be there to cover for him. But even if that’s true, Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst are always going to have nightmares defending the fast, vertical counter attacks that Chicago presents.
Midfield is closed off to Atlanta without Miguel Almiron
Miguel Almiron wasn’t in condition to start the game Saturday having played 80 minutes on Thursday in an international friendly in Peru. He was replaced by Kevin Kratz, who didn’t really provide anything worthwhile for United. He was a warm body and he made himself as useful as he could be, but to be fair to him, he simply doesn’t possess the quality and the guile that Almiron brings to the team. Not only can Miggy unlock a defense with a splitting through ball, but he generally opens up the midfield that allows others to find space. Without him, it was just a crowded, jumbled mess. Atlanta’s only avenues seemed to be up the flanks through the fullbacks, which isn’t an efficient way to progress the ball. Lacking any sort of midfield genius, Atlanta couldn’t break down Chicago’s shape. Instead they pressed by pushing players further forward, which only isolated the defenders. Not a recipe for success when your defenders are your most vulnerable players on the field on current form.