For several reasons, this was not a vintage Atlanta United performance, nor was it ever going to be.
The most obvious reason would be the joint absences of Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba. This meant that the team was missing key playmakers on both the left and the right. Adjusting for the loss of just one of the two was always going to be difficult; covering for of them was a tough task indeed.
A second reason was the two-week layoff and a few important international call-ups. Possibly the most important one was George Bello, who spent last week in England with the U-17 national team and ended up an unused sub in this game. Bye weeks are a double-edged sword in my opinion (and this could have an impact in the playoffs, too). Yes, you get some needed rest, but you can also get rusty very quickly.
Third would be the rumors floating around the club with respect to both Miggy and Tata Martino. Official spin to the contrary, rumors of this nature are a distraction in any business and very much so in sports. True or not, these things can get into players’ heads. Especially with two weeks to stew over them.
Thus, what we saw Sunday was very different than what we have come to expect from the Five Stripes. Tata opted to go with youth, starting both Andrew Carleton and Ezequiel Barco, and a 4-1-4-1 formation. Darlington Nagbe was tasked with being the linchpin in Miggy’s stead, moving up from defensive midfield and leaving Eric Remedi to handle those responsibilities by himself. Jeff Larentowicz was out of the starting lineup completely for the first time this year. Finally, Tata moved Julian Gressel to a central midfield role inside Carleton, which is not really his forte.
So this was a slightly aggressive version of the 4-2-3-1, Atlanta’s standard formation. It didn’t really play that way. The plan made sense given Chicago’s offensive capabilities (that is, fairly limited) and their defensive capabilities (even more limited). But without the speed of Almiron and Villalba to capitalize on those limitations, it didn’t really work. Rather, we saw a much more methodical game, working up from the back slowly, an approach that is not really in Atlanta’s DNA. The lineup also played more like a 4-3-3. Here are the average player positions:
“Bunched up” is probably about the best way to describe this. And it was mostly ineffective. In particular, it may have made more sense to flip Carleton and Gressel and stretch the field a bit. Here’s the heatmap:
A distinct absence of penetration centrally. Note also how Chicago tried to take advantage of Carleton drifting centrally and Escobar’s forward movement behind him, attacking mostly on their left (that didn’t work either; their one goal was built on the right).
This is not to say that Atlanta did not create any chances. After all, the team managed 13 shots in the game with 5 on target. Those are not too far off the season averages: 14.97 and 6.09 respectively. And the team did score early as usual.
Then a Nagbe giveaway led to that one Chicago goal. Like most of you, I thought that goal was offside. However, take a look at this:
Apologies for the slightly grainy picture, but this shot was taken at the moment of the pass and it shows that Michael de Leeuw is at worst fractionally ahead of Djordje Mihailovic but behind the ball and is therefore onside. The AR is perfectly positioned for the play, so the no call was good, as was the VAR check.
However, Johan Kappelhof decided to continue his track record of gifting advantages to Atlanta by scoring an own goal less than 2 minutes later. He later added to his personal misery with a yellow card. Many of you will remember his red card for a DOGSO in the first ever meeting between the two teams last season that ended up a 4-0 shellacking. He also picked up a yellow card in another game against Atlanta for time wasting in the 24th minute.
In the end, a win’s a win. With the New York Red Bulls also eking out a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union with a VAR-decisioned PK for a handball it all comes down to week 34 with both Toronto FC and Orlando City finding themselves suddenly elevated from irrelevance. It’s going to be an interesting week.
But for now, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Franco Escobar. Not just for the goal (which he himself admitted was lucky) but also for his overall defensive contribution. Special Mention goes to Josef Martinez, who got the assist and made a typical nuisance of himself.
GK: Brad Guzan – 7. Made one very nice save, but was otherwise unchallenged. Found himself in a 3-on-1 situation for the Chicago goal and didn’t stand a chance.
LB: Chris McCann – 6. Overall, a much better game for McCann, although his lack of speed continues to be a problem. Oddly though, Chicago did not try to exploit it. he also attempted 5 of Atlanta’s 9 crosses in the game, including the only successful one. And one of the “unsuccessful” ones provided Kappelhof with the assist.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6. LGP really dodged a bullet on that PK handball; no idea what he was thinking windmilling his arm about like that. Not his best game all told. 2 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 clearances, 1 block.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 6. Parky’s old legs definitely needed that two-week rest. Generally a pretty decent showing from the captain, with 1 tackle, 3 interceptions, 6 clearances and 1 block. However:
On the Chicago goal, LGP and Parky crossed each other up and managed to allow both de Leeuw and Mihailovic to get behind them for the goal. Poor communication at the back given how well they play together mostly. Both ratings suffer as a result.
RB: Franco Escobar – 8. Easily his best game as a Five Stripe. On most days, simply managing not to get hit by Guzan would make that the case for Franco, but this went far beyond that. There is of course the goal, but he also led all players in touches with 82. Also, 3 tackles, 1 interception, 4 clearances and 2 blocks.
DM: Eric Remedi – 6.5. Received a yellow card but was otherwise solid given that he was tasked with sole ownership of the defensive midfield. Chicago’s attack didn’t really test him all that much though. Led the team in passing accuracy with a relatively low 90.9%.
LM: Ezequiel Barco – 7. I’m having a hard time making my mind up about Barco in this game. He provided the initial cross that resulted in the Escobar goal, but was generally not too impressive in the first half. He seemed to get more active and involved in the second, however, and he was the most fouled player on the team, drawing 3. Overall, he was not an obvious Miggy replacement. At least, not yet. Left the game in the 86th minute.
CM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. A poor giveaway on the goal detracts from an otherwise strong performance. Granted, his passing accuracy of 90% was not up to his usual standards, but he was trying to fill the playmaker role and gave it his all.
CM: Julian Gressel – 7. As noted above, Julian was playing out of position. He has played quite a variety of positions with Atlanta, of course, but this one just didn’t work out. He is most definitely our wingman. The most notable play he had was leaving the ball untouched in an offside position and allowing it to get out wide to Escobar for a very good chance.
RM: Andrew Carleton – 6. Another tough one to judge. Carleton seemed a bit confused as to what he was supposed to be doing. He was wandering all over the field rather aimlessly, and touched the ball only 36 times in his 67 minutes. However, he did get in 3 shots, 1 on target, and one of the off-target shots would have been a golazo if it had dipped just a bit more.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7. No goals in 3 games, and he is still one short of the 50 mark. He got the assist, though, and had some good chances. Scoring or not, he cannot be left alone.
SUB: Jeff Larentowicz – 6. Replaced Carleton in the 67th minute in a blatant defensive move. Other than increasing the average age of the team by 1.6 years, didn’t really do very much.
SUB: Kevin Kratz – N/R. Came on late for Barco and never touched the ball.
COACH: Tata Martino – 7. Hmm. Credit for innovating with limited options at his disposal, but the experiment should probably be written off as a failure.
RECORDS - 0. Records, schmecords. We got lots of those already. What we want is silverware.