Securing the Defense
After 85 minutes on Wednesday night, things were looking up for Atlanta United. Leading 2-1 late on in Dallas, the Five Stripes found themselves in the familiar position of having to close out a match on the road. We discussed how they did this in Columbus several weeks ago, reverting to a more defensive structure through the center and countering down the flanks through Tito Villalba and Miguel Almirón. But in Dallas, Tata Martino tried something different. To combat Dallas going all-out attack, Martino opted to switch to a back five, bringing on an extra defender in Miles Robinson for the knackered and attack-minded Ezequiel Barco.
Conventional wisdom would tell us this move was in place to create a deeper, more conservative five-man backline. And Julian Gressel essentially confirmed the manager’s tactical maneuver after the match.
“On the second goal, we switched to five in the back and we kind of make a couple moves where we don’t necessarily have to go after the ball and can just wait a bit,” Gressel said.
But then, this happened
United have finished off several matches with an out-and-out back five this season, and if we are take Gressel at his word, we can assume that was supposed to be the case in Dallas. But United’s defense did not execute this plan and made several critical errors leading up to Tesho Akindele’s equalizer, both from an individual and tactical standpoint defensively.
With that in mind, let’s torture ourselves briefly and address the two major errors that allowed the hosts a free run at goal when AU were supposedly playing on the back foot.
it’s fair to deduct that the first error belongs to Franco Escobar. Escobar had played the previous 85 minutes at right fullback in a four-man backline, a position where Martino wants attacking pressure whenever possible from that spot. But again, assuming that the defenders were now supposed to sit back and soak up pressure, Escobar was surely meant to mostly abandon those attacking duties. But for whatever reason, he simply doesn’t make this adjustment after the substitution, pressing high into the attacking half in the buildup to the equalizer, creating a difficult situation for AU behind him.
Looking below, we can see that Escobar’s movement is not just a violation of tactical instructions, but also that there is little danger as Ryan Hollingshead dribbles upfield. As we see below, all three center mids are already in decent defensive positions working towards that side . Kevin Kratz has a good angle to stop the attacker, Gressel is behind his countryman should Hollingshead elect to cut inside, with Jeff Larentowicz ready to step into the passing lanes, when needed.
Simply put, Escobar does not need to be this high up the pitch. And once he reaches the FC Dallas player to provide pressure, it creates a chain reaction behind him that sees AU completely lose their intended defensive shape. Let’s take a look from another angle below.
Escobar’s movement has forced Atlanta into a most undesirable high defensive line - exactly the opposite of what Martino would have wanted. The black lines show us where Escobar, Robinson, and Michael Parkhurst should be. Escobar should be marking the eventual goalscorer, Tesho Akindele, on the right, instead of Robinson, who is forced to cover. In turn, Robinson would be on Maxi Urruti, rather than Michael Parkhurst, with the skipper playing his familiar role behind the defense to sweep up any long balls. But Escobar’s decision to press has instead forced both of his fellow defenders to press high on to their marker, leaving all sorts of space in behind.
Escobar’s actions in the buildup to the goal indicate he either hasn’t gotten, or has misunderstood the switch in tactics after the Robinson sub. Or maybe he just made a split second bad decision. Regardless, this error leads directly to FCD’s goal.
Robinson Leaves his Man
While Escobar’s mistake appears of the tactical variety, Robinson makes a fundamental defensive error. The second-year player commits a huge no-no by leaving Akindele to help Parkhurst in the middle on Urruti. This leaves Akindele unmarked, and creates even more space in behind for him to run on to once the ball comes his way.
Simply put, this is a bad defensive mistake by Robinson. Regardless of team shape or mentality, leaving your man here to help Parkhurst, who is already pressuring his marker properly, is rarely the right move this far from goal. Despite Escobar roaming up field, there is no 1-on-1 with Brad Guzan if the 21-year old old sticks with is mark.
To be fair, Robinson was forced into a tough situation having to cover for the wayward Escobar, only to then see the slower Parkhurst getting isolated with space in behind. He likely wasn’t expecting to be forced into such an unfamiliar position out right, especially just moments after coming on. Even so, a player of his level and quality will know this is a mistake, whether in an unexpectedly wide position, or not. And said mistake leads to a type of chance Dallas wasn’t even close to creating over the rest of the match.
Like Escobar, Robinson’s aggressiveness appears miscalculated, as he is unable to make any sort of play on the ball, allowing an easy flick through. In essence, Robinson leaving his man has allowed Akindele a free run at goal should Urruti’s flick come off as intended. Unfortunately for the Five Stripes, that is exactly what happened. Seconds later, the score was tied at 2.
Not a Trend
The bad news is that the mistakes on the equalizing goal, coupled with some poor corner kick defending minutes later, resulted in three points evaporating in Dallas. No doubt AU players and coaches will be sick to their stomach’s watching the film on both Dallas goals.
However, it’s far from all bad for United. The good news is that the team.performed indisputably well over the first 85 minutes. And more importantly, the manner of the Five Stripes’ downfall in Dallas has been a rarity this season. After all, AUFC have already successfully sat back and held on multiple times away from home this season, getting results by doing so in Minnesota, Columbus, Chicago and Orlando.
If this were a trend (and let’s hope it doesn’t become one), there would be cause for concern. But up to this point at least, those bad five minutes appear an isolated incident. Should Atlanta perform as they did over the first 85 minutes, and close matches as they typically have so far this season, there’s no reason to think Wednesday’s disappointing result is a sign of things to come.