A Tough Spot
Sunday’s first leg playoff match against New York City FC was always going to be a massive test for Atlanta United’s players. But it was also a huge moment for manager Tata Martino, whose side stumbled into the playoffs on the backs of a disastrous final day loss to Toronto FC, losing the Supporters Shield in the process. (If you’re interested, we recapped the match tactically).
Not only were Atlanta making the trip north perhaps lacking in confidence, they also had a very tough opponent waiting. After all, NYCFC had the best home record the in MLS. And although Atlanta did eke out a point there this season, they were thoroughly dominated in a match that saw the hosts outshoot the Five Stripes 25-5, and control over 60% of the possession.
On top of all that, Atlanta were going to play at one of the league’s most unique grounds in Yankee Stadium, an incredibly narrow pitch that makes it very hard to employ the preferred fast, attacking style of Martino.
Going into the first leg, Martino clearly had a lot of pivotal decisions to make. First and foremost, he needed a better effort from his players than in Toronto. But his tactics in the first leg were also critical. Being overtly attacking as he attempted in New York earlier in the season could backfire, and a much-lesser side in Toronto had exposed United in this manner just one week previous. But sitting back too deep and allowing the hosts time and space on a pitch where they’ve dominated all season could also have its pitfalls.
In the end, the gaffer had to find the right balance. And he did so to great acclaim, mucking up the match and taking NYCFC out of their game, while also remaining aggressive in defense and attack.
Before we dive into the match itself, let’s take a quick look at Atlanta’s basic shape.
As we can see, Martino erred on the side of caution by playing five across the back. In the past, we’ve seen and already discussed together how the team often play more of a 3-5-2 shape, which can transform into a 5-3-2 when the wing backs (usually Julian Gressel and a mix of players at left back due to Greg Garza’s injury) whenever needed. But with a healthy Garza and Franco Escobar serving as the fullbacks, the formation was a 5-3-2 that would morph into a 3-5-2, rather than the other way around.
The average positioning plot below shows us that despite playing five defenders, Martino’s side weren’t sent out to completely park the bus. Garza and Escobar are positioned high enough up the pitch to provide high pressure and the center mid trio (Eric Remedi No. 11 below, Darlington Nagbe No. 6 , Julian Gressel No. 24) positioning shows us that they are also looking to press. Meanwhile, we see three center backs sitting deep to provide a safety valve in Michael Parkhurst (No. 3), Jeff Larentowicz (No. 18), and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (No. 5). NOTE: probably best to ignore Miguel Almirón (No. 10) in the average positions, as he only played 45 minutes.
We can see this shape directly from the kickoff. Watch how Almiron and Martinez press onto the NYCFC back four, with Nagbe and Gressel covering the space behind them, and Remedi sitting a bit deeper behind those two. And finally, as Larentowicz steps up to win the long ball, we see the five across the back.
Now that we have an idea of how Martino set up his team, let’s take a look at the tactic in action.
As mentioned earlier, while Atlanta played five in the back, they certainly were not looking to park the bus. And we see how below. Watch how the fullbacks are still asked to bomb forward, with Nagbe and Gressel told to drift out wide when required to provide a passing option.
In a 5-3-2, you don’t have your typical attacking wingers to provide passing options for Garza and Escobar out wide. This is why Martino turned Nagbe and Remedi into de facto wide players in possession. We see a clear indication of this above. Gressel presses into the wide left area to help win the ball back, and then remains in that spot to pass with Garza and get the attack started. Then, after Pirez plays the ball long to Escobar, we see Nagbe getting on his horse to get across the field and provide a critical passing option for Atlanta’s right back.
We see another good example of the Atlanta attack below, as they win the corner that would turn into the only goal of the match.
Even with five in the back, there were times were Atlanta’s aforementioned aggressiveness left them open. But with Larentowicz, Parkhurst, and Pirez staying at home, there were typically enough bodies back to slow attacks, they just had to win their one-on-one battles. Below we see the impact of playing three center backs rather than two, as the presence of Larentowicz and Parkhurst allows Pirez to step out wide comfortably with plenty of cover through the center, before making a brilliant tackle to stifle the counter.
In all, the Five Stripes bossed the half with these tactics. It wasn’t the prettiest of halves, but the visitors clearly had NYCFC frustrated and off their game. Atlanta controlled possession, and the tempo of the match on their home pitch.
Often criticized for not making in-game adjustments, Martino clearly made one during the first leg. Using the same base shape, he told his team to be less aggressive in the second half, and his side became exceedingly conservative as the half wore on. Just look at the possession data below, and we see quite clearly that Atlanta were more content in the second half to concede the ball and look to counter through Martinez and substitute Tito Villalba.
While his team were more cautious to begin the second half, Atlanta still pressured high when possible, and created a couple of dangerous chances on the counter.
We also see a steep increase in NYCFC’s possession around the 70th minute, as this was when Martino seemingly instructed his team to play even more defensively, with the fullbacks rarely pressing, and the center mids deeper.
Unlike in the first half (and for the first 20-25 minutes of the second), the fullacks are no longer pressing into the high and wide areas in any sense. Instead, it’s Villalba and Martinez doing the work on their own, and we even see Martinez telling Nagbe to stay back at one point rather than helping. As the ball progresses forward, Garza and Escobar both are playing much deeper than before, although the three center backs instead of two allow them to step up just in front of the defensive line, resulting in a rushed final ball and a wonderful slide tackle from Pirez.
One final adjustment was bringing on Ezequiel Barco for Villalba. With fresh legs and many others around him tiring, Barco provided much of the work in pressing high, and was also asked to come back and provide yet another defender through the middle.
Atlanta United weren’t the vibrant, expansive attacking side many have become accustomed to. But this scenario called for an atypical approach. And Martino showed why he is a manager held in such high esteem, setting Atlanta United up almost perfectly, and holding the best home side in the league to zero shots on goal on their pitch.
In the first half, he frustrated the possession-based side by aggressively breaking up their attacks, while leaving little space in behind. Meantime, the Five Stripes enjoyed spells with the ball, looked dangerous going forward, and scored the opening goal of the match (and had another disallowed).
And in the second half, Martino stuck with the same formation. But the approach changed to a progressively more conservative play-style as the half continued, suffocating an NYCFC side who became increasingly desperate for a goal, and were still unable to create chances. Meanwhile Atlanta had a couple of big chances on the counter through Martinez and had a late effort from Garza saved spectacularly by Sean Johnson.
Maybe the match wasn’t pretty. But it was more or less exactly what Martino wanted. And his tactics played a big part in Atlanta’s 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium, becoming just the second side in 2018 to win there, and bringing a lead back home for the second leg this Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium.