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Feast or famine: Atlanta United’s high press

Tata Martino’s aggressive system has lead to many goals for Atlanta and its opponents this season.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of Tata Martino’s vaunted “high press” this season. And for good reason. Atlanta United have made things difficult for their opponents by never giving them a chance to breathe in possession, constantly harassing the opposition into mistakes that lead to quality chances to score. But we’ve also seen the tactic backfire when teams are able to break through the press, thus creating a dangerous opportunity with many of Atlanta’s players still high up the pitch.

We saw the aforementioned good and the bad results of the high press last weekend against Columbus, as Atlanta both scored, and conceded, as a direct result of their defensive pressure. And we can probably expect to see several similar scenarios tonight in D.C., as the success of the Five Stripes’ aggressive defensive nature will again go a long way towards determining the outcome.

Goal 1: Asad to Villalba

Despite the visitors coming out on the front foot at Bobby Dodd last Saturday, it was AUFC who opened the scoring. But before watching the goal, let’s take a look at Atlanta’s basic positioning before they even win the ball back.

Just look at how Julian Gressel, Carlos Carmona and Tito Villalba are already marking their man in the Columbus half. This leaves Columbus’ Jukka Raitala with center back Josh Williams as his only option in the center. And as we see below, things don’t work out too well.

Martino’s tactics are executed to perfection here. However, Williams would have had no problems if not for the hustle and aggressiveness of Yamil Asad, who comes from the opposite wing to put pressure on. Asad moving away from his left wing position not only puts Williams under pressure, but also cuts off the angle to right back Harrison Afful, the only unmarked player in Williams’ vicinity. Suddenly under duress, Williams’ first touch betrays him, and Asad and Villalba do the rest.

Goal 2: The Equalizer

While Columbus had some problems with Atlanta’s aggressive nature, they created some very good opportunities when they were able to break the press and counter their attack-minded opposition. The equalizer provided us with a good example of how things can go wrong.

We see here that much like the first goal, Asad has rightly come centrally from a wide position to pressure the opposition, who in this case is Artur. But the center mid does what Williams couldn’t when faced with a similar predicament, and keeps the ball moving from left to right. With Asad caught high up the pitch, a domino effect occurs leading to the final cross. Just look how far Asad is from his assigned marker in Afful when the attack begins.

Simply put, Asad is nowhere close to his man, which creates organizational problems for the Atlanta defense. First, Greg Garza is now isolated down the left without Asad in support, which allows Afful to advance into the final third unchallenged. Meanwhile, center half Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is forced to leave the middle of the pitch to even up the numbers on that left side, leaving Carmona to temporarily slot in for him at center back inside the 18-yard box. All of this leads to a relatively uncontested cross from Afful’s right foot, and we all remember what happens next: Federico Higuain opens up the scoring for Columbus.

To be fair, let’s not pretend that the failed pressure is solely responsible for this goal, as some quite shocking defending from Michael Parkhurst and a switched-off Carmona provide the final dagger. But the nature of the opportunity arises from Columbus bypassing Atlanta’s first line of defense and going direct on the attack.

While individual errors certainly played a part in the equalizer, we also see the natural weakness from Atlanta’s high press in this scenario.

Goal 3: Kratz to Martinez

At this point in the season, opponents shouldn’t be surprised by Atlanta’s aggressive style of defending. But if there was ever a time for that element of surprise to be on display, it would have been during the final minutes of Saturday’s match, as Martino uncharacteristically went to a more defensive shape and had his side sit behind the ball. But when they had the chance to get high up the pitch, the aggressive pressure remained constant, creating the game-sealing third goal from Josef Martinez.

Atlanta’s final goal has some similarities to their first, as it comes from a throw-in, and involves a wide player coming all the way across the field to force the giveaway. This time, it’s substitute Mohamed Abu getting caught on the ball by Kevin Kratz, who had subbed on at the right midfield position.

Much like Asad on the left, Kratz is instructed to come across to the other side of the pitch when necessary, and overload the opposition’s defense. In this case, Abu likely never even saw the German coming his way, until it was too late. As the ball comes his direction, he looks up at Josef Martinez, expecting any challenge to come from the striker in front of him or perhaps from someone to his right. But he never expects the right midfielder to be on the other side of the pitch, coming from over his left shoulder. Kratz is in hot pursuit of the ball from the moment Afful plays Abu, which leads to Martinez’ scorcher.

Entertaining, Effective, and Risky

Atlanta United’s high press has had the league talking from day one. And it’s a big part of the reason that the entertaining Five Stripes lead the MLS in goals scored. But an aggressive style such as Martino’s naturally yields to a few uncomfortable stretches for the defense, who will undoubtedly need to do better when facing these situations in the future.

When executed properly, the AUFC pressure suffocates opponents, leaving them with no option but to either hoof the ball clear - and likely back into the possession of Atlanta - or take a risk and try to keep the ball, which can lead to easy opportunities for United. But should teams take that risk, and show the quality to beat that press, they will often find themselves in an advantageous attacking position within moments.

When it comes to the Atlanta high press, the recipes for both success and disaster have been on display so far this season. Only time will tell whether Martino’s swashbuckling style will pay real dividends.