Some games are entertaining merely because your team wins. This was not one of those games. Instead, we were regaled with 90 minutes of gloriously competitive play at the end of which the good guys emerged victorious.
Kudos to the Columbus Crew, who came into the Benz with no intention of imitating previous guests by making themselves utterly unwelcome by bunkering the entire game. No, they came in all guns blazing and had every intention of grabbing the three points. In the end, it was a pretty balanced game:
Not much to differentiate the two teams there. Atlanta had a major edge in corners, offset by Columbus’ edge in clearances. Otherwise, really close.
What did end up being the difference was the quality of the press. Let’s start with a look at the heatmap:
Atlanta’s penetration into the final third was far more effective. Indeed, 33% of the total play was in the Columbus defensive third, as opposed to only 23% in Atlanta’s. Here’s another look at how well the Five Stripes pressed:
This chart shows the average player positions of the starting XI. That’s Atlanta on the left again. Note how much higher the Atlanta back four (2, 3, 5 and 16) played than their visiting counterparts (4, 16, 17 and 25).
The high press is of course not without risk, and that is precisely how Gyasi Zardes scored. The Atlanta back line was playing high and wide, and got caught out leaving Zardes in zone 14 all by himself. A couple of other Columbus chances arose in similar fashion early in the second half until the team settled back into rhythm.
Note also the relative positions of Josef Martinez (7, in the unlikely event you didn’t know) and Miguel Almiron (10). They are reversed from what would be expected. This is evidence of Josef’s increasing willingness to track back and support the midfield (and occasionally the defense too). In fact, Josef is even behind Tito Villalba (15) and Julian Gressel (24).
In the same chart, Tito appears to be much closer to Miggy than Julian is. That’s because after Julian’s exit he switched to the right. In fact, Tata’s substitution patterns were instrumental in winning the game. Tito moved right when Ezequiel Barco entered the game, replacing Julian. Instead of a straight swap, Barco played on his favored left and Tito moved to his favored right. As a result, Tito made three thundering runs towards the box, two of which produced goals (and the third – the first of the three - really should have as well). Tata sacrificed the cross (Gressel’s forte) for the charge and it worked beautifully, with the Crew unable to adjust. The first goal was just 2 minutes after the shift and the third 6 minutes after that.
Later, as the team was killing off the game (for once, thankfully), Tata pulled Miggy for Miles Robinson to stiffen the defense, which allowed Barco to move to a more central position. He had been somewhat invisible to that point (he had had just 2 touches) but made five plays in stoppage time to see the game out.
I talked last time about the dual problems of finishing and defensive depth. With 3 absolute bangers, the finishing appears to have been solved. The team easily outperformed its XG of 1.57 for this game. With Escobar clear of yellow card suspension and Greg Garza reportedly on the mend, the second problem may also be nearing resolution. Ain’t life grand?
On then to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Men of the Match are Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba and Miguel Almiron. All three goals were true beauties and equally deserving of recognition. If anything, MLS in selecting Josef’s record-tying goal for the Goal of the Week ballot does disservice to Tito’s score, which was if anything the best of the three. With that, no Special Mention this week.
GK: Brad Guzan – 6.5. 2 saves on the game and there was little he could do to stop Zardes’ rocket, although he came close. Other than that he was only moderately tested, unlike his opposite number Zack Steffen. Gets dinged a half point for time wasting.
LB: Chris McCann – 6.5. I’m probably going to get some pushback on this, but I thought this was McCann’s best game yet in an Atlanta shirt. Most notably, it was his pass from all the way across to the right-hand side that started the sequence that ended with Miggy’s game-clinching goal. Gets docked a half point as much for hurting himself on a foul as for the yellow card. 4 tackles, 1 interception, 2 clearances and 2 blocks.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 6. With the exception of McCann, who was well out of the play, I’m going to be a tad harsh on the entire back line, who screwed up as a group on the Zardes goal. LGP also had a few other shaky moments, as he sometimes does. Otherwise he led all players with 88 touches and 79 passes, both low numbers and an indication of how balanced this game was. 5 tackles, 1 interception and 1 clearance.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 6. See LGP above. 1 tackle, 1 interception, 2 clearances and 1 block. Not a very active game all told by Parky standards. He was drawn too far right on the Columbus goal, partly because Escobar was too high.
RB: Franco Escobar – 6. Franco in fact played very high all game (see the chart above), but was not at all involved in either goal that came from the right side. 5 tackles, 2 interceptions and 1 block.
DM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Not sure how much credit he deserves for the assist on Tito‘s wonder goal, because the play was really just a massively punted clearance with his head down. Still, one for the highlight reel he will drag out every Christmas for his grandkids. Defensively stout: 4 tackles, 1 interception and 5 clearances.
DM: Eric Remedi – 7. Eric is going to make it very hard for Darlington Nagbe to get minutes once he’s back to game fitness. For this game he essentially parked himself in the center circle and forced Columbus to go the long way around. Pretty much what you want, in other words.
LM: Tito Villalba – 8.5. Loses a half point for time-wasting as he was subbed out after 86 highly productive minutes. Otherwise he was great, especially after the switch to the right, where he was simply unstoppable. Tito is in fact even more a crew-wrecker than he is a lion tamer: he has now scored in all 4 regular season games against the Crew, notching 5 goals.
CAM: Miguel Almiron – 8.5. He’s baack! I’ve complained about Miggy’s play over the past few weeks but this game he was his old self. Blasted by just about everyone and could have had at least one more. Gets a half point docked for removing his shirt even though that’s a dumb rule.
RM: Julian Gressel – 8. Only 74 minutes for Julian this week, but they were an effective 74 minutes. His passing chart is littered with unsuccessful crosses deep in the attacking third, but that does not mean they were poor deliveries. On the contrary, if players had been in postipon to capitalize, the game would have been over well before half time. And he did of course get the assist on Josef’s goal.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 9. It’s getting hard to think of new superlatives for Josef. He came oh so close to breaking the single-season scoring record. Which is probably just as well, because there would have been an all-night party delay. Instead, here’s what he can do Friday against the
Lions sacrificial lambs:
- With 1 goal he would set the single-season scoring record at 28, tie Diego Valeri’s 9-game scoring streak record and extend to 10 games the MLS road scoring streak record he already holds.
- With 3 goals he would set the single-season hat-trick record at 4.
- With 4 goals he would reach 50 MLS goals in just 46 games, obliterating the current record of 67 games.
Here’s some additional statistical depth on his scoring prodigiousness: his scoring percentage (goals/shots) is 37.5%, highest among all players with at least 7 goals and 500 minutes. His 45 shots on goal are also tops in that group, but his 72 total shots only rank 6th. His 16 home goals alone are enough to lead the Golden Boot, and his 11 road goals would be tied for 6th. Finally, his goals per 90 minutes is 1.16, with only Adama Diomande anywhere close at 1.02.
SUB: Ezequiel Barco – 7. Replaced Gressel in the 74th minute and it’s good to see him back. Didn’t do much until stoppage time, when he became key to killing the game off.
SUB: Kevin Kratz – N/R. Replaced Tito after 86 minutes. He touched the ball just 4 times in 9 minutes on the field.
SUB: Miles Robinson – N/R. Came on in stoppage time for additional defensive strength. He had 2 touches, including a very late clearance when the game was beyond doubt.
COACH: Tata Martino – 8. As discussed above, Tata’s substitutions and game management were spot on.
JEFF LARENTOWICZ’S HAND: 8. Why was it not credited with the hockey assist?