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Breaking down Atlanta United’s two goals vs. Chicago Fire

A lesson in criminal goal-scoring.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Another game, another way to win. It’s getting hard to keep up with master magician Tata Martino, who seems to have a bottomless bag of tricks.

As is often the case, the stats sheet does not tell the whole story. Atlanta ended the game with a small 51.1% possession edge. Similarly, they had slightly more passes (449 to 425) but equal 80% passing accuracy. Further passing breakdowns also indicate fairly level play. The heatmap for the game also indicates problems penetrating the attacking third on both sides:

If anything, this suggests that Chicago actually forced play higher upfield than Atlanta did. That would run counter to expectations for both teams, but there are reasons for it.

Veljko Paunović was not without a few tricks of his own in this game. First, he came out with a completely different formation than he had played most of this season. So far in 2018 Chicago had favored a 5-3-2 lineup, with Bastian Schweinsteiger at the middle of the back line. For Saturday’s game he completely flipped the script, coming out with a 4-4-2 diamond (announced as a 4-3-3 though), with Dax McCarty as the defensive midfielder and Basti as the attacking midfielder.

Tata stuck with the 3-5-2, and despite dominating possession for the first 45 minutes (62.1%) the team was unable to find the breakthrough. In fact, Chicago outshot Atlanta in the first half 6-5, although none were on target (2 of Atlanta’s 5 were on target).

A fairly frustrating 45 minutes for the Five Stripes, then. But as with last week, Tata made half time adjustments to turn the tide. Unlike last week, though, which took another 25 minutes and a second adjustment to bear fruit, the results this week were almost immediate. Rather than pulling Jeff Larentowicz for Tito Villalba again, he instead had Jeff push further upfield to bolster the attacking strength. Additionally – and this was key to one of the goals – Michael Parkhurst also pushed up. By the 57th minute, Atlanta were up 2 goals and were able to cruise in a defensive mode the rest of the way:

(The 50/50 split indicated at the top of this graphic is mathematically wrong, by the way; that’s on MLS, not me).

More interesting for our purposes here is an examination of how the two goals were created, and there are in fact some clear similarities between the two. In brief, here are those similarities:

  1. Both resulted from dispossession in the midfield.
  2. On both goals, the Chicago back line was drawn far to the right, in large part tracking to Josef Martinez.
  3. Off-the-ball movement was key to both, in particular movement from deep in the midfield.
  4. Using the offside trap to the attacking advantage.

By the way, before we dive in, if you are an ESPN+ subscriber the inaugural edition of their new show MLS Rewind is available for streaming. In it Taylor Twellman takes his own look at the goals, and also has a great interview with New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. Well worth the viewing.

With that in mind, here we go.

Goal No. 1: Ezequiel Barco

To start off, here’s the video of the goal (out of concern for your delicate sensibilities, I cut this off before the Chicago announcer credits “Gonzalo Prizere” with the goal):

Miguel Almiron’s victim on the takeaway is Mo Adams, a 21-year-old Syracuse Orangeman from England selected #10 in this year’s MLS Superdraft, playing only his third MLS game. Almost cruel, really. That was the easy part. It’s what transpired afterwards that gets interesting. Let’s look at a few freeze frames. First, here is the situation when Miggy steals the ball:

In this picture, Barco is positioned at the top of the center circle, a good 5 yards behind the play and almost half the width of the field across from Almiron. Josef is positioned as the only striker, and all four defenders are either facing him or tracking Miggy. No one is paying attention to Barco, who appears to be out of the play.

Miggy then moves diagonally towards the penalty arc:

Barco began his run as soon as possession was taken, and has already chosen his angle. However, the defenders have all tracked towards Josef like moths to a flame, and Barco now has literally half the field to work in. Also by this stage Barco should be in Miggy’s field of vision.

Here is Barco’s position when Miggy plays him the ball:

The Chicago defense have finally left Josef alone to fall into the offside trap and have converged on Miggy, thinking he has no other options. Barco is still behind the ball, although he has already covered about 30 yards.

Finally, here is where he gets to the ball:

That’s about another 16 yards upfield. In all, his straight-line run was about 45 yards to make a brilliant one-touch play.

Goal No. 2: Josef Martinez

We’ll take two looks at the video for this one. First, here’s the main camera view:

This one was much more of a team goal than Barco’s, which was at most a three-man effort, including Josef keeping the defense on his tail. Here’s the breakdown:

This is from the very beginning of the play. There are two things of note in this shot. First, Chicago has 7 men behind the ball but is trying for a counter-attack. Second, the Atlanta player nearest the ball is Greg Garza. The ball itself is heading for Bastian Schweinsteiger, at the bottom right.

Now, this shot is right after Michael Parkhurst has picked Schweinsteiger’s pocket:

This shot shows both teams with 7 players in frame. However, Josef is out of frame towards the goal. Note that Parky, who ventured very far forward to make the tackle, has remained back in defense, so effectively the play is still 7-on-7. With the ball is Julian Gressel. To his right is France Escobar, and Darlington Nagbe to his left. Also seen are Barco, Jeff Larentowicz playing fairly high and, importantly, Greg Garza just above the center circle. In the brief time it took for Schweini to collect and lose the ball, he has tracked that far back.

By this point in the play, several Atlanta players have touched the ball: Parkhurst, Gressel, Miggy, Nagbe. But making this key pass is Greg Garza. He is now back close to where he started the play.

Note also that here again Josef is in an offside position, but he and Nagbe have collapsed the defense to the right and have 6 of them bunched up tight. The defenders make the same mistake: they think the offside trap is working in their favor with no other options, especially since Barco this time is not making a run. But Nagbe started his run as soon as he laid the ball off to Garza. As this shot clearly shows, Nagbe is not offside. He has timed the run to perfection, and the AR is likewise in a perfect position to judge it, although the defenders will raise their arms in objection. As soon as Nagbe draws level with Josef, he too is no longer offside, and can coolly tap the ball in.

Here’s the goal camera angle on Nagbe’s run:

Remember that in order to make this run work, he has to know that Garza can manage to thread the needle through the defense. Despite that, he does not hesitate at all. He has full confidence in his teammates to pull the stunt off.

In all, the play included 7 passes from start to finish, and 2 key off-the-ball runs.

Both goals were larceny of the grandest kind. Barco’s got the nod for Goal of the Week, but I’ll finish with this: all things considered, which was really the better score?