It wasn’t pretty, but Atlanta United huffed and puffed and finally blew the Montreal bus down, in no small thanks to Kevin Kratz’ sublime free kick goals. Here’s what we learned from the win that sent Atlanta to the top of the table.
Montreal controlled the first half
Yes, Canadian side only had little more than 20% possession of the ball in the first half, but thanks to Saphir Taider’s goal early in the first half, Montreal was able to sit very deep with numbers in their own box and deny Atlanta any valuable real estate. Atlanta probed, and passed around the back -- trying to switch the ball from side to side to open up some space but without much success. Montreal had a couple dangerous counters after Atlanta United players would cross the ball with players pushed high upfield. Montreal made it very difficult for Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where it’s usually one-way traffic for the home side.
Atlanta is in the driver’s seat
Speaking of traffic, Atlanta is now in the driver’s seat as it sat atop the Major League Soccer standings following Saturday’s match. This presents a different psychological challenge for the players and staff compared to last season, when the team didn’t get off to such a hot start and also had games in hand with a back loaded schedule. Now, teams are gunning for Atlanta. Most teams in the league see them as a notable scalp and might give that little bit extra effort and concentration. Atlanta will have to do it’s best every week on the field to maintain its position in the league, and refuse to become complacent against teams lower down in the table like Montreal. The Impact showed us Saturday afternoon that there are no easy games in this league.
Tata’s halftime substitutions paid off
Montreal’s deep defense stifled Atlanta for the entirety of the first half, and something needed to change at halftime. But I, for one, did not think a player of Jeff Larentowicz’s importance would be the one coming off. While the substitution was definitely a gamble by Tata Martino, it was one that paid off. Villalba’s presence forced Montreal even further back in the second half -- so much so that the Canadians really struggled to get the ball out of their own half. But the real money move was the substitution of Kevin Kratz, who ended putting two beautiful free kicks past Montreal GK Evan Bush.
Atlanta did well to readjust the shape twice
Tata Martino talked midweek about his desire to move the team back into a 4-3-3 type of shape that the Five Stripes deployed for almost the duration of last season. Saturday, we saw Atlanta United switch from a 3-5-2 to the 4-3-3 mid game. They did so in almost seamless fashion, and Martino said postgame that the only mistake he noticed was on one play from leandro Gonzalez Pirez judging a through ball. The first tactical shift came at halftime, when Darlington Nagbe was forced to play alone in central midfield with the back three behind him. At that point, LGP and CHris McCann, the outside CBs, did well to push up alongside Nagbe and help him recover balls in midfield when needed. THos two players player were the de facto defensive midfielders when the team needed a ball recovery. Kratz’s introduction saw the team move into a traditional 4-2-3-1 with Kratz helping to stabilize the game with his quick, smart, safe and accurate passing. Finally, Tata went back into a 3-5-2 to close out the game in the waning moments with the introduction of Franco Escobar. Phew! Credit the team for not getting completely confused like I was.
Atlanta’s depth is a major key
Atlanta has done one of the most difficult things possible for an MLS club, -- building a roster with depth -- and they’ve done it less than two years into its existence on the field. Atlanta’s bench is great in particular not only because it has quality players, but it has types of players and qualities that differ from many of the starters and allows Tata to change the game with a new element. Need some height and physicality in the attack? Romario Williams and Brandon Vazquez are available. Need someone to lock down midfield? Kevin Kratz is your man. Several of the defenders are more than capable of playing multiple positions -- guys like Chris McCann, Andrew Wheeler Omiunu, the list goes on. These players have already given the team valuable minutes this season, and if Atlanta United does go on to win a Supporters Shield, it will be because these types of players allowed it to happen.