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Breaking the Counterpress: How Atlanta United can beat the New York Red Bulls

The Five Stripes have struggled with the high press. How do they unlock it?

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United have played New York Red Bulls four times in their short history. The results have not been kind: zero wins, three losses, one draw, one red card, and they’ve been outscored 7-2. There are many reasons why the Five Stripes — and the rest of the MLS for that matter — have struggled against the Red Bulls. For one, an argument can be made that New York is the superior team in regard to talent and experience. Even if one submits that the talent gap between Atlanta and New York is close or equal, the experience of the Red Bulls’ past Supporter’s Shield wins and big game successes (albeit failure to win the MLS Cup) versus United’s short history and youth can give the Red Bulls the edge in matches of this magnitude. However...

The Counterpress

The biggest reason for Atlanta’s struggles against the Red Bulls is a tactical one. Jesse Marsch brought a pressing style to NYRB with great success. Primarily playing the opposing half, Marsch adopted a tactical style that is currently attributed to popular coaches like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. With respect to how New York presses, the tactics between Guardiola and Marsch are easily seen as more accurate due to the tactics used, than say the positional pressing style implemented by Klopp at Liverpool.

Jurgen Klopp implements a positional pressing style, using the wings to diagonally cut off passing lanes. The switch from play with the ball to position without the ball happens quickly but has shape. Pep Guardiola on the other hand, implements a high-counterpress style that works to win the ball back as quickly as possible after losing possession. The goal in Guardiola’s press is to dispossess the player on the ball, force him into a mistake, or pressure him into a long pass or clearance. Winning the ball back immediately keeps your own offensive shape and puts your team at an advantage due to the defense losing shape which, in turn, creates passing options during the short time they had the ball. It’s the former’s style that Marsch brought to New York and his mid-season replacement Chris Armas has successfully maintained.

To illustrate the counterpress’s effect on Atlanta United, we will review some clips from September’s clash where the Five Stripes fell 2-0. This game is meaning full due to how recently it was played, the fact that it was it was critical to both teams in terms of the Supporter’s Shield and thus had their full attention and effort, and that it is a great example of the high press’s ability to frustrate Atlanta United. The number of players that New York pushes forward overwhelms Atlanta’s backline. United implemented a strategy of trying to play through the press; it failed miserably.

Watch the high press here. Guzan has a goal kick. As he passes wide, Larentowicz is pressured and forces a pass, albeit a good one, to Tito. Villabla, under pressure, passes back to Nagbe who, under pressure (seeing a theme?) passes out of bounds.

In this example, Almiron has possession in the midfield, but is forced to pass wide. The press ultimately pressures Gressel to retreat, leading to an errant back pass that Larentowicz has to push back to Guzan. Guzan, now under pressure, has no choice but to quickly clear the ball, which falls to a NYRB player and leads to a scoring chance.

Against this press, from the free kick, Parkhurst passes wide. Gressel, under duress, returns the ball to the now pressured Parkhurst who once again has to clear. The ball is harmlessly headed away by a Red Bull defender.

As we have seen, building out of the press, especially against the quality of NYRB, is hard to do with any success. For an entire half during September’s clash, Atlanta failed to keep possession, settling for long, low-probability passes or being forced to clear the ball errantly. They gave the ball away over and over.

Breaking the Press

In September, as Atlanta failed to build from the back against the press, Tata Martino will need to adjust his tactics or personnel. Logic concludes that if the forwards are sprinting forward on the keeper, center backs, or fullbacks (as shown above), the defending team has to bring the midfielders forward into the opposing half to cutoff passing lanes or the press will fail. The backfield player possessing the ball has to be able to do one of the following: (1) dribble past pressure, (2) Find passing lanes in front of the pressing midfield, or (3) Find areas for through balls or overhead passes beyond the midfield. This concept did lead to a good Almiron chance in the first half:

NYRB’s press will lead to the ability to break away in transition as seen above. Atlanta’s problem is the New York is just so good at defending at the back end of the press with their quality centerbacks. Almiron was able to get past the defense, but their defenders made up ground, contested Miguel, who then still had to get the ball past the very good Luis Robles. These chances can and will happen, but to beat New York and their press, players have to convert these chances to goals.

One of the biggest keys to breaking the press may be Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and his ability to start the break through long quality passes and through balls as seen here:

LGP may be the most important player for Atlanta’s attack on Sunday. As seen above, he possesses the quality on the ball to do things that our other defenders cannot. His ability to pass to open spaces and break the press can lead to these types of chances. One or two of these over the course of 90 minutes, if converted, can be the difference in the game.

LGP’s ability to move the ball forward, either through dribbling or a pass, is the play needed to break the press. United cannot be pushed to a position where they are retreating, dribbling with their backs to the opposing half. Quick passing and finding open spaces beyond the midfield can open up chances or prolong possession. LGP has the skills to do this, as does Garza. Can Guzan be more accurate at goal kicks or passes out of the back? Can Parkhurst and the other centerback find these spaces and push the ball forward with purpose, rather than pressured clearances? That will be the story if Atlanta succeeds.

Setting United Up for Success

In September, Atlanta’s lineup selection did not lend itself to a proper chance against the high press:

Joe Patrick

Not to pick on Chris McCann, but his limited ability on the ball and accuracy with long-passing hurt United’s ability to get out of its own half. He was also picked on quite a bit in NYRB’s attack. Furthermore, having Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz side-by-side in a back three placed two athletically limited players, who are not known for their talent on the ball, in high pressure spots that called for precise offensive play. Add to the fact that Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Brad Guzan did not have their best games and you have a recipe for disaster.

A 3-5-2 formation with an emphasis on countering the press is the way to go against the New York Red Bulls’ style of play, Atlanta just needs a different lineup. Greg Garza’s availability for this match already improves their ability to get past the press. LGP is obviously a first choice for centerback. The question becomes, what to do with the other centerback positions? If Parkhurst is chosen, which he will be even if his limitations could hurt against the press, he has to be flanked by a more athletic back than Larentowicz. Whether this is Robinson, who was on form against NYCFC, or Escobar, we learned in September that a Larry-Parkhurst combination doesn’t work against NYRB.

The midfield players can be repeated, but the back line will need help from them. In Columbus’s 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls in the conference semifinal, midfielder Justin Meram was used in a unique position that allowed him to drift wide or play centrally to assist with the buildup and working past the pressing forwards. In the 2-0 loss, Remedi was falling back to assist, but always centrally. Does Atlanta mimic the play of Columbus? If so, who would fill Meram’s role, Nagbe or Remedi?

Gressel, Almiron, Tito, and Josef are the right players in the right positions, but their play has to be better, specifically Gressel. The others have to convert the limited number of chances they’ll see.

Atlanta’s defense will be much more important than its offense with regards to breaking the press, but it will take the defensive play of all eleven to win this round.

Finally, Bide Your Time

In September, with a two-goal lead, New York pressed less in the second half. If Atlanta can keep shape and hold a draw deep into the second half on Sunday, New York may have to slow the press due to fatigue. If United can survive the onslaught and bide their time, late chances may be available against the Red Bulls who cannot maintain the quality of the early press.

In the vernacular of Josef Martinez, the Red Bulls have “fathered” us for two seasons. To beat the press and win may be an insurmountable challenge. Atlanta has to get the right players in the right spaces, but ultimately, everyone has to play better.