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Atlanta United and unlocking packed defenses

Atlanta United struggles against bad teams. What gives?

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the hope that kills you.

Despite our love for the club, Atlanta United can be one of the most frustrating teams to watch on certain occasions, if only because it doesn’t always live up to the high bar it’s set for itself. We’ve seen the Five Stripes rip some of the best teams in the league to shreds. Big wins over playoff-positioned teams like Chicago, NYCFC and Houston underline the hype. Hell, we’ve even seen some exciting road draws against the creme de la MLS (e.g. @Toronto, @Portland). This team is capable of playing an attractive brand of soccer and scoring lots of goals.

That last note may sound obvious, as much of the national narrative around Atlanta United is about how the team is great and exciting and attacking and overall wonderful. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking the last handful of matches have been a treat to watch. They’ve been the opposite. Whether they’ve been hard slogs like @Sporting KC and @Orlando, or sloppy messes of games like @Philadelphia or @D.C. (pt. III), these matches haven’t warmed my soul with the joy of the beautiful game.

The pattern seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we be able express ourselves more and beat the bad teams while struggling against the top tier? As with everything in life, context matters, and here it’s important to understand the mindset of the opposition and how that affects Atlanta’s preferred style. Let’s assess Atlanta first. The Five Stripes attack is obviously heavily influenced with a South American style — one of flair, space, and individual expression. There’s an inherent desire within the Atlanta attacking players to beat their man 1v1 to start an attack. But in order for this type of play to work, the players need to be operating in space, especially in the middle of the field.

In a poor defensive shape (Pressing in midfield but defense playing deep) Almiron can beat his man and force disruption.
If the defense is pressing with a high line, Josef Martinez can make runs into the space behind to receive a pass.

As a general rule, better teams will typically want to press and impose themselves on the game more. They will hassle the opposition in midfield and play with a higher line than a poor team, which typically wants to congest the box and central areas. Here’s an interesting breakdown on possession statistics from the 2016-17 Premier League season:

If there’s a comparison in style between Atlanta and a Premier League team, it has to be Liverpool. The reds were terrifyingly good against the top six “mini-league,” and more or less harmless and pedantic against the teams who sat back and let them have the ball. They loved to play in space, but had trouble breaking down teams who gave them little room to work in and around the box.

According to Alejandro Bedoya, a tactical masterpiece.

This is clearly a tactic that teams around the league are discovering to be effective against Atlanta. Over time, Atlanta will continue to be aggressive in pushing numbers forward, which we’ve seen end one of two ways. you know how this typically ends.

So what is the solution? How does Atlanta expose teams that decide to play this way? I have no damn clue, that why they pay Tata Martino millions of dollars. The better alternative, however, to is try to avoid these situations altogether. The faster the team can transition from defense to attack, the less time the opposition will have to organize and set up a low block.

Hopefully the new stadium could help Atlanta as well, Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra have both spoken about how the increased size of the pitch could help facilitate Atlanta’s attacking brand of soccer. Bobby Dodd Stadium operated at the near-minimum dimension (110x70), while MBS will be at 115x75. While 5 yards wider and 5 yards longer might not sound significant, it’s actually nearly 1,000 additional square feet (925 to be exact) that will need to be accounted for by both teams.

Mercedes Benz Stadium: A New Hope.