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Analysis: How Tito Villalba sealed Atlanta United’s win over Columbus Crew

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Tata Martino’s late substitution in Columbus was a stroke of genius.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Making a Change

With 15 minutes remaining last Wednesday in Columbus, Tata Martino’s Atlanta United had seemingly retreated into a shell. And although they defended relatively well on the back foot, the Crew were looking increasingly dangerous, creating several good chances against Brad Guzan and some last-ditch defending was required on more than one occasion.

Then, in the 76th minute, the manager made a critical move, subbing on Tito Villalba for left winger Ezequiel Barco. It was the injury-plagued Villalba’s first appearance since May 21, and the winger had yet to show his form of 2017.

The move from Martino paid dividends as United shored things up on the defensive side. But the big pay off came in attack, and was almost immediate - just over five minutes after coming on, Villalba was on the scoresheet, and AUFC were cruising to a 2-0 victory.

Adjusting Defensively

Having employed a 4-2-3-1 shape for just the third time all season, we saw the usual center midfield triumvirate of Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe, and Miguel Almirón. Both American internationals played deeper, with the Paraguayan roaming more freely underneath Josef Martinez (Romario Williams in the second half after Martinez took a knock and was subbed at half time). After Villalba entered for Barco, Martino was able to tweak this center midfield as Almirón was moved to the left side for the departing Barco. Mean time, starting right winger Julian Gressel moved into the middle, with Villalba moving into the now-vacant spot out right.

Moving Almirón out of the center saw AU get a bit more conservative in this area of the pitch, a common adjustment for any side trying to hold on to a late lead. After the move, we saw a much deeper shape in the middle, with Martino insisting on Larenowicz sitting deep at all times, and Gressel and Nagbe just in front of him.

Securing the middle of the pitch would prove critical, as the more defensive outlook was a big reason for United solidifying a defense that was under tons of pressure before the substitution. In the end, Columbus finished with 12 shots. Not a single one of those came after Martino tweaked his team’s central shape.

Going Forward

While Martino’s move secured the defense, there was also an attacking element to the substitution. With the speedy Villalba going to the right side and the quickness and technique of Almirón on the left, Atlanta became a real danger on the counter attack.

Martino also knew that Columbus’ fullbacks, Haris Afful and Milton Valenzuela are both of the attacking variety, and with their side chasing the match late on, they were attacking even more than usual, leaving huge spaces to counter into down the flanks.

While Almirón and Villalba were clearly instructed to track the fullbacks when they attacked, the abilities of the two players made it virtually impossible for Afful and Valenzuela to recover defensively should one of the two receive the ball on the counter. It was no coincidence that Atlanta’s two wingers combined for the game-icing goal.

Simply put, this is a wonderful goal on the counter. And the sequence is more or less exactly how Martino would’ve imagined. Let’s look at why in the the screenshot below, as the counter attack begins to develop.

Just as Martino had hoped, both of Columbus’ fullbacks are caught out on the counter. You can see Afful trailing Almirón at the bottom of the screen, while Valenzuela (upper right hand corner) is caught in no-mans land on the far side of the pitch and has no chance whatsoever to catch up to the speedy and fresh Villalba. Make no mistake about it, while this second goal was in part due to the qualities of Almirón and Tito, this is exactly how Martino would’ve wanted his team to hit the Crew on the counter, as his two attacking wide players completely expose Columbus’ attacking fullbacks on the counter.

Getting it Right

In all, Martino’s move very well may have saved his side from suffering a late equalizer, as moving the attack-minded Almirón out of the middle helped solidify AU’s under-fire defense. But while the primary intention of the move was to help the defense, swapping Barco/Gressel for Villalba/Almirón out wide added a new attacking wrinkle meant to expose a pressing Crew side on the counter.

Quite clearly, the substitution worked wonders from front-to-back, as United locked down on the defensive side, and flourished with a new look in attack. In the end, the substitution worked wonders, allowing the Five Stripes to cruise to an impressive road victory.