Having scored 42 goals in 22 matches this season, Atlanta United has clearly asserted itself as one of MLS’ best attacking outfits. Indeed, Tata Martino’s side sports the likes of Miguel Almirón (8 goals, 9 assists) Tito Villalba (10 goals, 4 assists), Yamil Asad (2 goals, 10 assists), and Josef Martinez (9 goals) in a well-balanced and dangerous attacking side.
However, while Atlanta’s top attackers may be enjoying much of the attention, it’s the industrious work of United’s two central defensive midfielders (CDM) that lays the foundation for the team’s offensive success. Carlos Carmona and Jeff Larentowicz may often go unnoticed, but their effectiveness is a must for Atlanta’s success in attack.
Same Position, Different Roles
Carmona and Larentowicz may both line up at the CDM position, but their skill sets and contributions are quite different.
We closely evaluated the play of Larentowicz earlier in the season. The 34-year-old plays a pure No. 6 role, as he is unlikely get forward and prefers to sit deep and protect the back four, sometimes even filling in at center back during the flow of the game.
Meanwhile, the hard-nosed Carmona has always shown a knack to get stuck in, making him a natural for the CDM spot. But with Larentowicz typically sitting in front of the back four, he’s asked to cover massive amounts of ground in between defense and attack. By being in the right spot at all times, this sees the Chilean providing a safety valve for the Atlanta attackers when in possession, also providing a link from back to front. Whether it’s recycling the ball back to Carmona in possession, or building out of the back, Carmona is needed desperately in both phases of the attack. This sees him perhaps more involved with the play than anyone else on the pitch in a demanding box-to-box role, which requires Carmona to fill the defensive duties of the CDM, while also playing the ball efficiently and accurately in possession.
Amazingly, Carmona has filled this role to great acclaim more often than not. The former Atalanta player paces the team in passes completed in the middle third of the pitch (per americansocceranalysis.com), and comfortably leads the way in passing accuracy, completing an impressive 94% of his passes. Conversely, Larentowicz beats out Carmona in most defensive actions - leading him in tackles, interceptions, and clearances. (stats per whoscored.com)
The two have meshed well as the season has progressed, working well together in a system like Martino’s, where the two CDM’s are ineffective when playing side-by-side. Should the pair attack together as one, they leave acres of space in front of the back four. If both sit back, it leaves a huge gap in the midfield, potentially nullifying the side’s high pressure. If they both drift forward, teams can easily counter if they are able to beat the required high pressure of Atlanta’s attacking players.
Now that we’ve clearly defined the respective roles of Atlanta’s CDM’s, let’s evaluate the paring’s importance to the team’s overall success. For comparison’s sake, we will evaluate AUFC’s two most recent matches against Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City. .
While the SKC and OCSC matches ended 1-1, the matches themselves were incredibly different. The OCSC match more or less went to plan despite the final score line, with AUFC dominating in every statistical category. Meanwhile in KC, United failed to create a serious goal scoring opportunity until Jacob Peterson’s dramatic stoppage time equalizer.
Larentowicz’ role is similar in both matches, although he played a bit higher up the pitch in Kansas City to break up KC attacks, with both CB’s forced to defend in behind. But it’s the box-to-box element of Carmona’s game that is altered most between the two matches.
As we can see from the maps above, Carmona’s average position changes depending on AUFC’s success in attack. He is positioned markedly higher up the pitch in the Orlando match, allowing him to join in on the high pressure, get into passing lanes, and break up counter attacks in the vast amount of space just behind the pressing front four.
Also, Carmona’s ability to get higher up the pitch provided one of his finer 90 minutes of the season against Atlanta’s rivals. Aside from his defensive work, he dictated the tempo from midfield by completing nearly all of his attempted 72 passes, and connecting on 6 of 7 long balls.
It was a different story last weekend. Kansas City were composed and precise in the face of Atlanta’s pressure, holding onto the ball for long periods and forcing Carmona to play and defend deeper on the pitch. This shows on the map above, as he is forced back almost alongside Larentowicz, unable to provide the same attacking role from the previous week.
Going forward, Carmona was predictably far less involved, completing just 30 passes. Simply put, the Chilean international is not as high up the pitch as the team would’ve liked, unable to provide the link from defense to attack. The result was Atlanta often getting bogged down in their own half, and enduring one of their worst offensive performances of the season.
Making the Difference
Clearly, Atlanta’s two CDM’s take a different approach to the position, providing two critically important roles for the team. Carmona’s ability to cover ground allows him to both pressure in the attack, while also getting on the ball and distributing from deeper positions. And Larentowicz’ more conservative approach to things allows the Chilean to roam as desired, and protect an otherwise vulnerable back four.
Atlanta’s attack is undoubtedly one of the best in the league, but it needs to finish better than they did against Orlando, and create more than against SKC. Despite the uneven efforts going forward in both matches, the team found they could still rely on Larentowicz and Carmona to provide cover defensively, distribute the ball quickly and efficiently, and provide the essential balance needed when transitioning between defense and attack.
The individual skill, technique, and overall danger of Atlanta’s attack has been all the rage this season. But none of it would be possible without work from Atlanta’s two CDM’s, whose tireless and efficient work is the reason AUFC’s attackers can enjoy such freedom in the first place.