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Lessons from Tata, Volume 2: True Grit

Tactical setups vs LAFC and what we can learn about red cards from the MNUFC match

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Lessons from Tata is back with a double feature. First we’ll touch on a tactical point raised in postgame of the Los Angeles Football Club match, and second there’s some analysis from the Minnesota match around red cards and chance creation. Yeah, I didn’t get that part done in time last week.

As a reminder, these posts are here in the hopes that we can make the most out of our time with Atlanta United’s world class manager Gerardo Martino. I’m always interested in what he has to say, whether it’s his opinion on VAR (one I share), or more specific observations and insights from the footballing itself - which is what this post focuses on.

vs LAFC (April 7, 2018)

On the game and the defensive performance: “I thought it was a good job defensively, but for me, we played a little bit too far back. We spent too much of the game in our half. With the scheme the way that we have it there were times where we weren’t able to stop their outside backs moving up the field.”

Between Atlanta’s back 3/5 and front 2 and Bob Bradley’s back 4, front 1/3, I was fascinated to watch a) how Bradley would set up to defend against the partnership of Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba and b) what priorities Martino would assign to Atlanta’s wingbacks. On a) the conventional wisdom suggests you generally want to have a spare man at the back to avoid a 2v2 situation. You can accomplish this with a more reserved fullback or by having a central defensive midfielder drop in between the defenders, or you can just say #YOLO, which is basically what LAFC did — Bob pushed his fullbacks up the field and and for the most part appears not to have given any orders to Benny Feilhaber or Mark-Anthony Kaye to drop back. This was a “risk-on” play. And it affected point b) which was that with the LAFC fullbacks advanced, Julian Gressel and Mikey Ambrose really had no choice but help out defensively lest their center backs be overloaded constantly (the scheme he refers to in the quote). One might contrast this with the early moments in the Minnesota game where the 3 CBs were often on islands (LGP’s tactical yellow card comes to mind). The result in this match though was that Tata’s back 3 played as a back 5 for large stretches of the match and LAFC mostly dominated the midfield because of this.

This meant a couple of things. One was that Atlanta’s high press never really got going the way Tata probably would’ve liked it. And that’s something to look at in a later post with the 3-5-2 compared to last year’s high pressing side - whether the Five Stripes can replicate the fury of last year’s 4-3-3 press. On the flip side, much like the early stages of the Minnesota game, when Atlanta did turn LAFC over there were very attractive 2v2 matchups or better for the home side because of the combined blazing speed of Miguel Almiron and the forward pairing of Josef and Tito. To some extent this was a battle of wills and Bradley’s stubbornness made for a very interesting game.

Could LAFC have opted to play with more reserved positioning away from home? Sure. And the result probably would’ve been Atlanta maintaining much more control of the ball and possession buildups. That’s the trade-off and Bradley to his credit set up to accept more risk in pursuit of 3 points on the road to a non-conference opponent - an approach I like because what does LAFC care if United get 0 points. They’re not competing against Atlanta for a playoff spot.

Something to note is that in looking at some of the passing and defensive metrics, LAFC pressed higher and with more vigor than in any other of their matches to date, attempting a defensive action once for every 17 passes in Atlanta’s half compared to an average of once per 28 passes in their preceding matches. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that this is the first game in which they’ve trailed for the majority of the match. Either way, it’s more evidence of the expansion team’s risk-on approach to this game, and it’s perhaps something to watch for as NYCFC comes to town this weekend. The pigeons are the second highest pressing side in the league so far behind their Red Bull friends (allowing 10.7 passes per defensive action in their opponents’ half). These stats come from courtesy of data from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.

OK, there’s some good juicy stuff in this next section. I hope you’ll continue reading even though this one’s been in the books for some time.

Away to MNUFC (April 1, 2018)

On Atlanta earning “toughest” three points: “Playing down a man is difficult in any league, but I think in this league it’s particularly difficult. I think we were organized defensively and that’s what allowed us to get the result.”

This is the second week in a row that Tata has had to talk about red cards and their impact on the games in the post-game. For someone who likes to explore the match stats to better understand the sport, I find these red card games to be very frustrating. However, hopefully there’s something to learn.

Here are some basic fundamental shot metrics mined from AmericanSoccerAnalysis data: the average shot is converted into a goal 11% of the time. When a team is down a man, this conversion percentage drops to 9%, and when a team is up a man, it rises to 14%. Shots taken by a team that is down a man AND chasing a lead are converted only 8% of the time whereas shots taken by a team that is up a man and chasing the lead are converted 13%.

These figures should match intuition which is that chasing a game is difficult, and it’s especially difficult down a man, but no walk in the park when up a player.

The average pass in MLS is completed 77% of the time. Within this total is the sub-population of crosses which are completed only 25% of the time. Something interesting and relevant to the Minnesota game happens when a team goes up a man. It’s overall passing increases from 77% to 84% (85% on non-crosses). But on average, its crossing accuracy increases only modestly from 25% to 26%.

This is all because teams that are playing short-handed and trying to hold onto a lead often form disciplined deep and narrow blocks and ask their opponents to possess the ball and create a high volume of lower quality shots (often from crosses or shots outside the box). The better way to create good chances when up a man and is to find overloads in the box and try to play the ball through with give and goes and one twos. But from what I could tell, Minnesota didn’t have the courage to over-commit this way because of Josef Martinez lurking high and waiting for the counter. It was only in the last few minutes of the match that meaningful chances were created by the home side, and even then they were just fine:

@11tegen11’s expected goals “race chart” gives us a decent framework to judge the quality and timing of the chances created by both sides. Each step up in the line is a shot and the height of the step corresponds to the rate at which similar chances are converted by the league on average. You can see that Minnesota didn’t get much going (even up a man) until the last few minutes of the match)

Perhaps in a future post, I’ll dig a little deeper into how Atlanta United fares versus historical average MLS teams in these various situations: up a man leading, up a man, and trailing etc.

On Minnesota’s performance in the first half: “I thought we circulated the ball and created three or four really good scoring opportunities between Josef and Miguel. What we did have trouble with was winning the ball back from Minnesota. When they crossed into our half, it was difficult for us to win the ball back. They got in a few good crosses, but they really didn’t create any obvious goal scoring chances.”

When Tata talks about not being able to win the ball back from Minnesota in their own half, he’s right. But I think implicitly, what he’s also referring to here is also that when his team recovered the ball (which they did do regularly as Minnesota created next to nothing in the first half), they were often unable to progress the ball past the halfway line to set up a possession without turning it right back over to the counter-pressing Loons:

That’s a very impressive (Atlanta-esque) defensive actions map for the first 38 minutes from Minnesota. When you win the ball in those advanced areas you should be able to create good chances, but they didn’t, which is a credit to Parkhurst and Co (and yes even LGP who did some - ahem - tactical... fouling. I should also note that when Atlanta were able to cross the halfway line with the ball, they were very, very dangerous (breaking Minnesota’s counter-press), and we saw very fast breaking moves from Villalba, Martinez, and Almiron.

In the end, any suggestions that Minnesota United dominated the game before the red card are ridiculous. The Loons had a lot of the ball, but they really weren’t able to create much at all compared to the Five Stripes who put together some very worrying counters.