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Lessons from Tata Volume 1: Soccer is hard

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When he talks, we should listen

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Gerardo Martino is one of the best coaches in MLS. We’re lucky. He’s a protege of one of the most influential soccer minds to ever live in Marcelo Bielsa, and he’s coached the greatest player ever to play the game in Bobby Boswell Lionel Messi. We’re lucky. Somehow he’s in Atlanta right now, coaching and developing our team. He’s helping to put the finishing touches on the development of a 34 year old Jeff Larentowicz, and he’s shaping the very way that some of this country’s brightest young prospects in Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin approach the game on a daily basis. That blows my mind, but suffice it to say, we should not be taking this for granted. The players are learning from the best as are the coaching staff and the front office. It goes without saying that there’s a ton we can learn from Tata as well. I’m going to try something, and we’ll see how it goes. I’d like to take his very insightful and honest press conference answers (from the official quote sheet) to start a discussion about this week’s match, and the team, and the sport. Who knows? Perhaps if we keep doing this, in time we can learn something about life as well.

Lessons from Tata

On how Vancouver’s red card impacted the game: “Decisive. Any game where there is a player that gets sent off that early, and furthermore, on the same play we have a chance to score a goal, that is a before and after for the game.”

OK, this feels like a simple one, but it’s really important. In soccer, more than in any other sport, the order of events matters (this feels like deja vu). Things happen in all sports with varying degree of importance, but Soccer has #Events. Goals change games - they literally change what each team is trying to do and not to do. Red Cards have a similar effect but they’re ...10X? more powerful in the extent to which they alter the landscape of the game. It’s simply not the same game after a red card’s been handed out. You know this. Tata knows it. Perhaps, most importantly, we should remember to discount what we think we may have learned from the 70 minutes after the red card except for things that relate to playing in a game with a red card. See below.

On the missed opportunities in the first half: “I was a little worried in the first half but it wasn’t because of the chances we were missing, it was more because after the expulsion of Watson I didn’t think we handled the game the way that we should have. I think that we should have circulated the ball more from side to side and had more possession. I think that we didn’t take enough advantage of the width of Julian Gressel and Chris McCann on the sides. I thought that when we did, we created good chances. I was also worried when Jeff got a yellow card.”

This one is near and dear to my heart. Soccer is hard. Scoring goals is hard. Because of this, soccer is first and foremost about creating good chances and limiting your opponent’s good chances. So when Tata says he wasn’t worried about the finishing, he’s saying he was happy for the team to have created the chances it did, even that Almiron chance that went wide.

The second part of the quote is a call back to the first one about game states. Because the red card changed the game so significantly, the proper tactical response was also to change what the team was trying to do. Up a goal and a man, taking advantage of space and managing risk are paramount. He was happy with the chances, but he was wanting his team to do a better job keeping the ball and creating chances while limiting risk. My gut is he was unhappy with the balance of this tradeoff he was seeing in the first half, and he spoke to the team about it at half time. Below are Vancouver’s successful tackles, interceptions, and ball recoveries in the 30ish minutes in the first half when Atlanta were up a man, compared to the following half hour after the break (still up a man). I see an improvement in giveaways in that buildup area, better risk management.

On the choice of formation for the game: “I thought we played it well against D.C. so I thought it was prudent to play it again tonight. We thought that having two forwards with Josef and Tito, that they would be able to find space in between the defensive midfielders of Vancouver and the center backs. If they were able to do that, then their outside backs would likely push inside and we would be able to exploit the wings, using the width of the field when they received the ball.”

This is fascinating to me. I cannot be the only one that’s noticed Josef dropping way deep in buildup this year. I think Tata is explaining why here — that when we have the ball and we’re circulating possession against a bunker, we’re not going to find Josef sprinting in behind onto through balls, so I suppose they are using him (and Tito alternating) to cause havoc in between the lines. It makes sense that the defense would constrict (though I need to look out for this in future games) and create the acres of space that we saw for Gressel wide right. First here’s Josef Martinez’s activity against Vancouver. He was active:

And below are the passes from McCann and Gressel on the flanks.

On Carleton’s giveaway leading to Vancouver’s goal: “Nobody can say that Carleton was guilty or responsible for that goal because he is losing the ball in the opposing 18, it’s not like he is losing the ball at midfield. That is not the reason they scored on us. They scored because we were marking poorly and the ball still had to go 90 meters from where he lost the ball.”

Yep. This makes sense and is refreshing. Most attacking sequences end with an attacking player losing possession of the ball. I’ll say it again. Most attacks end in failure. Games are mostly a series of failures. This is why it’s important to think about team positioning when the ball turns over. When Atlanta attack they attack with numbers, but this doesn’t mean they won’t lose the ball. They absolutely will, more than they won’t. Or they’re not attacking.

Soccer’s hard.

It’s why the 4-3-3 the team played last year often included Jeff Larentowicz dropping deep between a widening pair of center backs. And it’s why further up the field, the team is instructed to press the opposition immediately after giving up a turnover, and why the midfielder sitting in front of last year’s “2 CBs + Jeff” and the midfielder sitting in front of this year’s “back 3” is tasked with slowing down anything breaking through. When Barco is back in the team, he will be taking players on in similar areas as Carleton did in the waning minutes of this game, and he will lose the ball...often I might even say. When he does, he will not be letting the team down, and neither did Carleton, even if he apologized for it to the coach afterward!