A Bad Loss
As we all know by now, Atlanta United’s Supporters Shield dreams were laid to rest on Sunday. A 4-1 defeat in Toronto, coupled with the New York Red Bulls beating an NPSL side of some sort, saw the Five Stripes lose their grip on a first ever trophy on the season’s final matchday.
The loss was upsetting. The performance against a non-playoff team mind boggling. Afterwards, manager Tata Martino essentially called his team out. Brad Guzan spoke post-match and called the result “shocking,” explaining the team was “poor everywhere.”
A look back tells us that for the most part, Atlanta’s undoing came in the first half, when a slew of individual and tactical errors helped Toronto to a 2-0 halftime lead. So for those of you that have recovered emotionally, let’s take a closer look at what went down.
A Failure to Adjust
Martino told the press afterwards that he “didn’t find a team with the defiance to turn the rhythm of the game.” Of course, this leads us to wonder why such a strong Atlanta side would need to “turn the rhythm” against TFC in the first place, who had nothing of substance to play for. On further review, the most obvious explanation is that Toronto manager Greg Vanney’s tactics shocked the visitors.
This season, Toronto were mostly known as a possession-based side (ranked fourth in the league) who aren’t especially aggressive without the ball, per whoscored.com. But against Atlanta, and with nothing to lose, Toronto went after the match from the opening whistle, pressing high up the pitch and rushing Atlanta’s buildup. Meanwhile, a surprised Atlanta were unable, or unwilling, to try and buildup more quickly and directly out of the back against pressure.
Let’s take a look at the first goal.
The entire sequence here is important, because it not only shows how Toronto’s press impacted the lead up to the goal, but also how Atlanta don’t adjust to playing against said press. Just watch the lack of off-the-ball movement as Michael Parkhurst gets on the ball at the beginning of the clip. In order to combat a high press, you’d except a center midfielder to show for the ball here with Franco Escobar covered out wide (we even see Escobar waiving his hand asking for someone to come back into this space). But Eric Remedi arrives too late for the pass, forcing a predictable long ball to Josef Martinez.
We can speculate that the slow movement from the center mids represents a unit surprised by the high press, who weren’t expecting to have to do so much off-the-ball work while in possession in their own half. This element of surprise may have forced the sloppy touch and pass from Jeff Larentowicz, leading directly to the opener. Such a play is incredibly uncharacteristic for the steady veteran. Like Remedi on this play, he appears surprised by Toronto’s pressure, resulting in an overly-relaxed first touch and then a sloppy and unconvincing pass.
We see yet another example below, as the Five Stripes fail to react to Toronto’s pressure, resulting in a wayward long ball. Once again, it’s Parkhurst on the ball while his teammates don’t provide passing options to combat the pressure.
As the half wore on, the trend became very clear. Toronto continued to press, and Atlanta were unable to build out of the back, usually being forced into long balls or giveaways. Even later in the half, with Toronto’s tactics fully revealed, we saw Atlanta still looking surprised by the pressure, and giving the ball away cheaply via long balls or turnovers. Watch below later in the half as Larentowicz wins the ball back, and his teammates fail to show urgency in providing him passing options, forcing him into yet another rushed, low percentage pass to Martinez before the pressure arrives.
Needles to say, these types of plays happened over, and over again, in the first half. Toronto would press, Atlanta wouldn’t react quickly enough, and the ball was lost in a matter of moments before the visitors could threaten in any way.
A Nightmare in the Middle
Interestingly, we discussed the Atlanta center midfield last week, and the importance of their cohesion. There was no such cohesion during the first half in Toronto. Let’s start off by looking at Toronto’s second goal of the match, scored by Marky Delgado.
The play starts below with Atlanta’s center mids exhibiting poor shape and rotation. After a smooth touch forward from Toronto’s Chris Mavinga, the play begins to open up. Remedi is left by himself and unable to stop the incisive past forward with Larentowicz too high up the pitch, and Nagbe nowhere close to the ball.
At first glance, left back Chris McCann would seemingly be required to cover Delgado down his side. But a closer look shows he was pulled to track a run from Janson, leaving Delgado open. The Five Stripes fail to react to this - Larentowicz and Remedi both run towards the ball centrally, and create the last piece of the puzzle to the seemingly inexplicable defensive shape below.
Amazingly, this screenshot shows us that it’s not just Larentowicz and Remedi who are slow to react, but maybe even more so Nagbe, who is closest to Delgado and not marking anyone, but doesn’t recognize his such. This is especially surprising considering the above clip begins with Nagbe out wide marking Delgado, before drifting inside. Left winger Ezequiel Barco could’ve also gotten back, having about 5-7 seconds of time to get on his horse and mark Delgado. Instead, like Nagbe, Larentowicz, and Remedi, we see he’s failed to recognize Delgado unmarked. While this was a fine goal by the hosts, it took a slew of individual errors for the chance to present itself in the first place.
Unfortunately, for the Five Stripes, this lack of defensive soundness wasn’t limited to just one play.
Watch how an average-at-best Toronto side go back-to-front with ease, cutting through the United defense and creating an opportunity on the opposite end. Again, the center mids are found wanting. At the beginning of the clip, watch how Nagbe and Remedi have both pressed high into the same space onto Michael Bradley before getting split by the pass from the back. This leaves Larentowicz isolated against two center mids, and that’s why Jonathan Osorio is wide open to start the attack after receiving the flick from Delgado.
At the end of the play, Remedi and Larentowicz make the same mistake again. Watch how as they recover, they once again both press into the same area, leaving Sebastian Giovinco a pocket of space at the top of the box. In fact, Larentowicz runs right past the former MLS MVP, not recognizing the possible danger.
And incredibly, just as was the case with TFC’s high press we discussed in the previous section, Atlanta failed to fix their errors as the half wore on.
We see above a disjointed center midfield, as Remedi fails to cover properly after Larentowicz presses, while Nagbe is nowhere to be found. Furthermore, Remedi has failed to recognize that right winger Julian Gressel and fullback Escobar are caught high up the pitch, leaving Atlanta’s right side exposed. Meanwhile, after recovering well, Escobar commits a cardinal sin, and holds Janson onside after the rest of the back line step up.
A Sign of Things to Come?
Martino may have said it best after the match.
“It’s clear that losing to Toronto away from home is a possibility,but what stands out is the way it happened,” he said.
In many ways, this sums it up. With a trophy on the line, Atlanta United went to Toronto and put forward one of their worst performances of the season, especially in the first half. We saw a lack of execution and awareness lead to the majority of Toronto’s opportunities. And we saw a tactical failure to adjust result in United falling behind quickly. With both of these factors already critical to getting a result, they will certainly be magnified in the postseason against far better sides than Toronto.
Only time will tell if Sunday’s miserable performance was a one-off we won’t ever be able to properly explain, or a bad omen for a team expected to be among the favorites to win MLS Cup.