Tata Martino brought his team into this game having coached it to flexible tactics all year long, and did pretty much the same thing he had in the previous two playoff games. Chris Armas brought his team into this game having followed his forebears in coaching it to do precisely one thing the last three years, and decided to do something different.
Guess who won on that front.
The Red Bulls were hampered by several factors. First, they had several key players tired from extensive international duty. Second, left back Kemar Lawrence was a late scratch and was replaced by the less talented Connor Lade. Third, by virtue of fiendishly allowing the New Yorkers to get the Supporters’ Shield and therefore the theoretical home field advantage, Atlanta conspired to be at home right after that same international break and play in front of its very well-prepared 70,012th man.
That last is possibly the most important of the three. 2018 attendance at Red Bull Arena averaged just 18,605 through the regular season, good for just 13th in the league, and sold out just two games all season. Requiring New York to come into the Benz with shortened rest due to travel Saturday after jet-setting around the world, then making them stand in utter awe at what the fans did prior to kick-off and realizing the noise they would have to endure for 90+ minutes made for a huge tactical advantage.
Yes, the Red Bulls lost 1-0 in Columbus and came back to win 3-0 at home, but MAPFRE Stadium is not the Benz, the Columbus Crew is not Atlanta United, and 3-0 is, obviously, not 1-0. Moreover, the odds against overcoming that deficit are so long and the weather conditions will be chilly enough (likely in the 30s at kick-off) that it is highly possible that Harrison, New Jersey will be rather short of fans to cheer
their the city next door’s team on.
Those odds are long indeed. Of the 36 scenarios under which either team scores up to 5 goals, only 3 result in an outright Red Bulls win (4-0, 5-0 and 5-1). A 3-0 Red Bulls win goes to extra time, and the remaining 32 scorelines all mean the MLS Cup match would be played in Atlanta.
As a result, 538 now has Atlanta as 94% favorite to make MLS Cup and 66% favorite to win it. Even better news, Atlanta’s best defense will be to score a goal, giving New York the monumental task of needing to score 5 goals. After all, it is not in the team’s DNA to sit back and park the bus (although they are perfectly capable of doing so).
But that’s still unfinished business to be resolved Thursday, and let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s revel in what was a long overdue – but extremely timely – victory over Atlanta’s long-time nemesis. United had endured 3 losses and a draw in the four previous matches against the Red Bulls, getting outscored 7-2 in the process. On Sunday, Atlanta scored more goals than it had in the previous 4 games combined and now also owns the largest margin of victory in the series, doing it in what was easily the most important game between the two teams by far.
The Five Stripes achieved this by playing not too differently than they had in the previous two playoff games against New York City FC, using a variant of the 3-5-2 seen in the second leg of that series. The 3-1-4-2 we saw on Sunday was a slightly modified version of that lineup, with Eric Remedi tasked as a primarily defensive midfielder.
Tactically, the plan looks to have been to play vertical rather than building from the back as has been the most common playing style of Tata’s team. This would counter the Red Bulls’ typical pressing style by either getting in behind the press, or forcing them to play deeper than the press would normally require. As it turned out, Chris Armas more or less abandoned the press and his teams’ penetration into the attacking third was nearly non-existent. Only 25% of the game was played in that segment of the field, and almost all of that was Atlanta possession.
Whether that had to do with the absence of Lawrence and a lack of confidence in Connor Lade (who had only 6 playoff minutes since 2012 before Sunday) is not clear, but it took New York out of their comfort zone. Atlanta was able to exploit this drastic change of direction in several ways.
First, defensively, if a pressing team is not pushing into the opponent’s defensive third, it’s not going to get many scoring chances. Goals are a matter of percentages and that is so for the press more so than most other styles. Since the press tends to compress the defense, it depends on generating high-quality chances. Over the regular season, the Red Bulls ranked only 13th in shots taken, jumped to 5th in shots on goal, but dropped back to 10th in goals to shots on goal. Essentially, that means they took a lot of shots in the 18-yard box.
That...didn’t happen Sunday. The Red Bulls took just 6 shots all game, less than half their season average of 13.4 per game. Here’s their shot chart for the game:
The only shot in the first half was the rather pointless long-range attempt by Bradley Wright-Phillips. Their only shot on goal was a less than stellar attempt by substitute Brian White in the 94th minute.
Second, and switching to the attack now, Atlanta was able to create space by paradoxically compressing the field. Consider this shot:
This shot was taken just after Luis Robles took a goal kick resulting from Jeff Larentowicz’ shot into the stands. But count ’em. All 20 field players are in this shot. By my estimate, they are occupying a rectangular area of about 1,125 square yards (30x37.5), just 13% of the entire field. We saw several times during the game, especially in the first half. Consider also the positioning. 4 defenders are covering Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. In and if itself, not a bad decision. But that means Darlington Nagbe is all by himself in the middle of the formation despite the compression, and Franco Escobar is completely free at the bottom left. With this, it would be a breeze to switch the field and set Escobar flying down the field. And Atlanta did that with impunity all night.
Third, Franco Escobar claims to be the fastest player on the team, even over Miggy. That speed may not have been quite the same asset if he was matched up against Kemar Lawrence, although I doubt it, but against Connor Lade (supported by Daniel Royer) it was no contest. And that is how the verticality was achieved most of the game. Here’s the heat map:
To make it even more obvious, here’s Escobar vs. Lade:
Yeah, Lade was eating Franco’s dust. And, as if he wasn’t already being picked on enough, check where Brad Guzan sent most of his distribution:
(h/t to our own TiotalFootball for pointing this out).
None of that is to imply that Garza on the opposite flank didn’t do the same thing, because he very much did of course, just not with quite the same degree of penetration.
All in all, it was a fun game to watch from many perspectives. Roll on Thursday evening.
With that, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match wan;t close this week: congratulations Franco Escobar. He had earned the award even before the goal and assist, but those iced it. Special Mentions go to Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba for their invaluable contributions.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. So the only way the Red Bulls found to beat Brad was to stick Alex Muyl in his face. Otherwise he was entirely the sweeper half of a sweeper-keeper.
LB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7.5. Solid as ever. He gets the ding for a yellow card, but really ought to get that half point back, because who cares? No suspension risk now (and no one else got a card so there will be no suspensions the rest of the playoffs). 4 tackles, 7 interceptions and 5 clearances.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 7. Parky doing Parky things. That includes one bone-head error early that led to a rare Red Bulls attack, but otherwise solid. 3 tackles, 1 interception, 5 clearances and 1 block.
RB: Jeff Larentowicz – 8. Along with a great defensive performance he got the assist on Josef’s goal, and added to it a trademark Larry long distance field goal. Bonus points for making Tim Parker look dumb. 3 tackles, 1 interceptions, 2 clearances and 1 block.
DM: Eric Remedi – 8. Stats don’t really show it but he was more or less impassable. Also had an impressive 86.1% passing accuracy.
LWB: Greg Garza – 8. Pulled after 83 minutes with a slightly gimpy leg, but otherwise was the Greg we had missed for so long this season. Shout out to the medical staff for getting him ready in time for the playoffs.
LCM: Julian Gressel – 8. Got the very nice assist on Franco’s goal and now looks relatively comfortable playing on the left. Extra credit for disproving Taylor Twellman’s insistence that he and Franco should move around.
RCM: Darlington Nagbe – 9. Darlington had 89.3% passing accuracy, which was (yawn) best in the game (Michael Murillo was New York’s best with just 74.4%). Generally dominated the midfield. Personally, I’m rooting for Portland Thursday night in hopes he gets the chance to stick to his old team.
RWB: Franco Escobar – 9. As previously noted, even without the goal and assist, he was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t close. My personal favorite Franco moment:
FWD: Miguel Almiron – 8. Just the hockey assist, but made himself a major nuisance to defenders as usual. Came close to scoring late. Exited after 86 minutes.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 8. Another great goal, and another record (most goals in a calendar year, regular season and playoffs combined). Loses points for encouraging...er...smoking. Left after 77 minutes to a thunderous ovation.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 8. Was the apparent reason Kevin Stott decided to add 8 minutes of stoppage time, as he obviously deserved a second shot after hitting the post. he made the most of the opportunity with a near identical chance that was just inches to the right of the first one. Amazingly for a late sub, he topped the Audi Index for the game with 682 points.
SUB: Chris McCann – 7. Replaced Garza. had 9 touches and 6 passes. Was rather more mobile than we have usually seen from him.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 8. Atlanta’s second supersub in the game. For once managed to avoid getting fouled, but did draw off defenders on Tito’s goal.
COACH: Tata Martino – 9. Probably the best game plan of his Atlanta tenure.
MYLAR: – 10. Such beautiful stuff.