Now that the dust has settled on a dismal performance in Houston, it’s time to look back and highlight a few areas of concern. A game like this can be considered “a game to forget,” but it is important that it is not forgotten and the team learns from its early mistakes.
Bear with me, this could take a while.
Awareness and communication
One of the most important parts about defending at a high level is staying focused and being aware of your surroundings. It seemed as if the Five Stripes defensive unit had a few mental lapses in concentration on Saturday, which really put them in a hole they weren't able to dig themselves out of.
To get specific, on the first goal Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was expecting Guzan to come claim or clear the long through ball that was played behind him. If Pirez was aware of where exactly he was on the field he would have seen that it was too far out for Guzan to come and he could have dealt with the pressure accordingly.
To take some of the blame off of Pirez, Guzan should be communicating to him letting him know that he is staying put in his goal.
The second goal was another frustrating sight to see for the fans and all goalkeepers watching on because this is a goal one hates to give up. Defending corner kicks is a difficult task for any team, especially one that can be considered height challenged like Atlanta United. While it’s hard, there are a few common tactics for defending short corners that Atlanta did not execute.
First off, if a team sends a second player out to the corner flag a team should respond by sending at least one if not two of their own to disrupt any rhythm in the set piece. Secondly, as soon as a corner is played short it is important for everyone in the box defending to quickly step up to create a higher offside line. Not only could it catch an attacker offside but it could also simply disrupt the timing of runs into the box, which is vastly important. Neither of these were done so Houston was able to easily get into a dangerous area to put in a cross for an easy back post header.
As shown on Saturday if you get caught ball watching, a team like Houston will punish you quickly. This was emphasized on Houston’s third goal, coming from quick combo play at the top of ATL’s box.
As one can see, there are four Atlanta players surrounding the two Houston players with the ball. Two of those defenders (Gonzalez Pirez and McCann) should be backing off and providing cover and blocking passing lanes for the two putting pressure on the ball (Gressel and Lawrentowicz). Gonzalez Pirez and McCann were effectively caught watching the ball instead of being proactive to prevent the defensive breakdown.
Another error that helped lead to this goal came from Franco Escobar. He got caught ball watching during the play as well. The through ball could have been cut out by Escobar if he had fixed his body shape. When defending, it is important that one is able to easily see the ball, and the man that he is marking. Instead he had his back turned on his man, only seeing the ball, so he was able to make a run in behind him and the rest of the backline. If the young right back had taken a step or two drop and opened up his body to face the whole field, he might have been able to prevent the goal.
Since Atlanta is such an offensively gifted team, they are knowingly susceptible to counter attacks. While it was a problem last season, it looks as if it could be an even bigger issue this season. The changes that have taken place in the ATL midfield are the driving forces for this problem. While Darlington Nagbe might be an upgrade over Carmona from an offensive and possession standpoint, Carmona was an amazing ball winner and relentless presser on the defensive side. Losing him and Yamil Asad, another persistent presser of the ball, would take its toll on any teams defensive capabilities. It also did not help that last years starting holding midfielder, Jeff Larentowicz, is playing center back for the time being. Jeff may not fly around the pitch like Carmona but he was essential in defending counter attacks. His discipline to sit in front of and shield the backline was just what the team needed on Saturday. While I do think Chris McCann might be getting a little too much hate for his performances, (please don’t hurt me) he is just simply not suited to play in that role for a team like Atlanta.
This counter attack right before half time is a prime example of the problem occurring in defensive transitions.
After losing the ball in midfield it is important for the midfield and backline to quickly drop and compress, but most importantly someone needs to put pressure on the ball. In this instance after losing the ball, the outside backs are still pushed up, and the center backs spread wider than normal. So while they should have done a better job of recovering, a midfielder or forward needs to step to the player with the ball to make his job more difficult. Not doing this made it easy for Houston to run at our exposed backline. Even though the end result was not a goal it is important that this problem be addressed.
Not great but not terrible.
Timing and spacing
While the main focus after the game, naturally, was to examine what went wrong in the defense it is also important to recognize that Atlanta did not look fluid going forward. Although they did have a few clear cut chances to put the ball in the back of the net, they had major problems with their timing of runs, and spacing around the box. While that can be an oridanry problem for many teams in the first game of the season, it was a bit surprising since the four main players going forward were all part of a deadly attack from last season. Nonetheless, this is not a huge problem, and it should work itself out with more game time.
What were your biggest concerns? Let us know in the comments.