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How Atlanta United contained Zlatan and delivered the decisive blows

Entertained by angels unaware.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Los Angeles Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United have now played 3 games against teams from the City of Angels, and most hospitable they have been, thank you very much. We have a 3-0-0 record against them, with total scoring of 11-0. Granted, two of those games were at Fortress Benz, but still.

This one was yet another tactical evolution in the ongoing experiment with the 3-5-2, playing this time in a 3-4-1-2 setup. By now, all Atlanta fans should have fully embraced this formation. After all, we are in a six-game unbeaten streak with it, dropping only 2 points over that stretch (to arguably the best team in the league), and generating a goal difference of 13 (17-4). If you haven’t, here’s your homework: go back and read all our previous posts on it.

Obviously, this game was all about Zlatan and how to contain him. Or at least, that’s what all the pundits thought. There was actually a very crafty plan in place to achieve this, involving three key steps:

  1. Don’t let the other 10 guys provide him with any service.
  2. Allow Jona to injure himself in warm-ups, so that the Galaxy went from Dos a Cero Santos.
  3. Have Zlatan take corners.

In the end, Ibra ended up with no shots on goal. Prior to this game, he was averaging a shot every 11.5 minutes. The Galaxy as a team only managed 7 shots, of which only one was on goal. That was a long-range attempt by Romain Alessandrini from way out of the penalty area and hardly challenged Brad Guzan at all. By comparison, Atlanta bombarded David Bingham with 19 total shots, 7 on goal. And of the 12 that weren’t on goal, at least 3 hit the woodwork (on Josef’s goal the frame was hit twice, and I’m not sure if that counts as 1 or 2) and so were barely off-target.

Possession factored heavily in this game too. Atlanta ended the three-game streak of sub-50 possession, but look at the possession graphic:

LA barely touched the ball in the first 30 minutes of each half but totally dominated possession in the final 15: 67.7% in the first half and a massive 76.6% in the second. And yet they generated nothing out of those advantages. There are a couple of reasons for this, both to do with defense.

First, Sigi Schmid apparently still thinks it’s the 90s because he went with a 4-4-2. That meant he had 2 strikers against 3 centerbacks. That’s not optimal, and worse, both Zlatan and Ola Kamara have played most of their careers as a single striker and clearly have not yet fully adjusted either to the formation or to each other.

Second, here’s the heatmap:

Kinda weird-looking, this one. The big red blob on Atlanta’s side is Miggy, by the way, but on the Galaxy side, you can see that they experienced the same problem most other opponents have; namely, they ran into a brick wall in the attacking third. This means that not only is Atlanta’s 3-5-2 a strong defensive formation, it is also a defensive formation that presses relatively high and that plays into Tata’s attacking style. Much of Atlanta’s offense in this game was on the counter, and here you can see why.

Also, LA was forced out wide, as the two red areas suggest. Again, the 3 centerbacks are in large measure responsible for this, but so is the packed 5-man midfield. The Galaxians were therefore down to one attacking option, as have several other teams: they shipped in a total of 26 crosses. Check this out:

A bunch of those crosses correspond with the two red offensive blobs in the heatmap. Extreme long-range, in other words. Also, look at the timing of the crosses (at the bottom of the graphic). All but 6 of them were in the final 15 minutes of each half. Desperation work, that is. And only 4 of the 26 were successful, including 2 short corners. Atlanta? 12 total crosses, also 4 successful, but a much better ratio, and only 1 in the final 15 minutes of the first half.

This game was a thoroughly dominant performance in several ways. Another indication of this is the Audi Index. The top nine spots for the game are all held by Atlanta, the only starters not in that group being Guzan and Greg Garza. LA’s top player was…Rolf Feltscher?

All in all, a very successful trip to the other Mickey Mouse city. With NYCFC managing to lose to Portland on Sunday, Atlanta United now have the longest active unbeaten streak (jointly with FC Dallas), and are only 1 point behind them and Sporting KC in the Supporters’ Shield race with a game on hand on both teams, and now lead the league in points per game. As it happens, Atlanta will make up that game in hand over NYCFC at home on Wednesday May 9th against...wait for it...Sporting KC. Score one for the MLS schedulers.