After a thoroughly dominating performance last Saturday, it appeared Atlanta United were ready to cruise to three points against Toronto FC Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Without a healthy right back, Tata Martino had opted for a 3-5-2 formation. And in the end, as the game winded down, you’d have never known that Atlanta were a makeshift side. The hosts controlled possession, had only allowed three shots over the first 80 minutes, and were creating plenty of chances themselves.
Despite their dominance, the home side found itself up only one goal as the match neared its conclusion. And unfortunately for the Five Stripes, they were unable to close out the match, conceding a couple of late chances, including an equalizer from Tossaint Rickets in stoppage time.
Even more frustrating than the result itself was how Atlanta conceded the equalizer. Similar to the Dallas match last month (which we unpacked here), the team failed to execute late-game defensive adjustments made by Martino, giving up a late goal and dropping points when victory seemed imminent.
Martino Makes Moves
As we see below, Atlanta were an extremely attacking bunch for most of the match. Tito Villalba (No. 15) was announced as the second striker underneath Josef Martinez (No. 7), but as we discussed earlier in the season, Villalba prefers to drift right when in this freer role. We can see this from the average positions below, as Villalba drifted right, while center attacking midfielder Miguel Almirón (No. 10) played almost alongside Martinez (No. 7) up front.
But as the clock ticked down and his Five Stripes remained just one goal to the good, Martino did all he could to revert to a more defensive shape in an attempt see out the last ten minutes match. First, he subbed Romario Williams on for Martinez in the 80th minute, instructing the Jamaican to play a deeper role underneath a visibly tired Almirón, who was given less defensive responsibility to close the match. As has become custom, the taller Williams also was to come back to defend on set pieces.
In the 84th minute, Miles Robinson entered for Kevin Kratz. This saw Atlanta get more defensive in the center of midfield. Robinson moved into Atlanta’s back three, forcing Jeff Larentowicz (who started the game at center back) into his more familiar defensive midfield position alongside new boy Eric Remedi.
We see the shape below, as United drop deep into defense, typically not pressing high up the pitch. Remedi and Larentowicz serve as the CDM pairing, with the back 3 turning into more of a back five with “wing backs” Gressel and McCann staying at home.
Things didn’t exactly go to plan. With United playing deeper and the visitors throwing bodies forward, TFC began to look dangerous. And in the 87th minute, the defending champs fired a warning shot through talismanic playmaker Sebastian Giovinco, who found space and hit the bar from just outside the box.
Atlanta’s defensive shape is completely exposed here. Even with five across the back, Chris McCann needlessly steps to the ball, allowing his man in behind and pulling Larentowicz out of the middle. As we see soon after, this leaves Remedi on an island centrally, and he’s unable to effectively pressure the ball before Giovinco takes his shot.
While the Giovinco’s close miss made it seem Atlanta were off the hook, Martino was leaving nothing to chance. And in the 90th minute, he took off Villalba, who had been attacking at pace for the entire match. We mentioned earlier how Villalba had essentially served as a right winger. But with Gressel now playing deeper, Martino opted to bring in Brandon Vasquez for Villalba in order to get some balance down that side. We can see the adjustment by comparing the two screenshots below.
As we can see, Villalba is not even in the picture in the first screengrab (you can also refer to the earlier clip and see how much higher he is playing than McCann). But in the second image (taken after the sub), you can see Vasquez is positioned more evenly with McCann in a much deeper position (you can only see his feet at the top of the screen, as the ESPN scoreboard covers him up).
In essence, the move saw Martino go to six defenders, with Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Gressel and Robinson all defending very narrowly, and Vasquez and McCann serving as extremely defensive-minded wing backs to mark runners out wide.
Despite falling into a defensive shell, United capitulated almost immediately after the Vasquez substitution.
Incredibly, it’s the substitute Vasquez who makes a crucial error immediately after coming on, leaving his man and allowing an easy ball for Giovinco to slot through to Jonathan Osorio. Watch him throughout the clip - at first, the second-year man is well aware of Osorio behind him. But then, as the ball comes to his side, he loses his man, gets caught ball watching, and steps to Giovinco, even though the Italian is being tracked by Larentowicz and pressured away from goal. This triggers the Osorio run, and puts Gressel in a very difficult spot. Regardless, Gressel should also probably do better, as he gets his body positioning all wrong before the pass is played, perhaps giving us an insight into why Martino was insistent on using the German as a wing back rather than a traditional right fullback.
There’s also some blame to go around for Larentowicz and Remedi. After all, Martino had moved Larentowicz into the midfield for Kratz in order to limit space for the likes of Giovinco centrally. In the end, the former MVP is able to get onto the ball in the exact area where space should be limited on two separate occasions, first striking the bar and then setting up the equalizer. Rewatch the equalizer and watch Larentowicz as he fails to get tight to Giovinco despite having numerous chances to do so. In the end, it’s Michael Bradley who finds the No. 10 in space while Larentowicz is caught ball watching, leading the right side breakdown to occur in the first place.
No matter how you slice it, these are major errors from the right and central areas of the park - the exact areas Martino had looked to shore up defensively over the previous minutes.
Gressel and Vasquez were supposed to create a one-man advantage defensively on Osorio out wide. Instead, it appears too many cooks have spoiled the broth, with Vasquez’ erroneous step to the ball both confusing Gressel momentarily, and allowing for Osorio to get in behind untracked. Two perfect passes later, and the match was deadlocked at two.
Meanwhile, Remedi and in particular Larentowicz were supposed to form a wall in front of the back line, making things difficult on the likes of Giovinco. Instead, Giovinco looked more dangerous in the final ten minutes than he had the entire match previous.
A Frustrating Trend
The Toronto match was the fifth time this season Atlanta dropped points after conceding in the final 20 minutes. It was the third such time they had lost points in the 86th minute, or later. And perhaps even more upsetting, Martino’s effort to combat this trend with defensive-minded adjustments hasn’t worked. In Dallas, he subbed on Miles Robinson to add an extra defender, but the second year man made a critical error leading to a late FC Dallas equalizer. Last weekend, we also saw errors from the players that Martino wanted to help with defense.
Losing a late lead is one thing, but losing it because of a lack of organization and execution has to have the Five Stripes frustrated. Despite going to two more defensive minded center mids instead of one, Giovinco was able to get on the ball in dangerous spots through the middle on each of TFC’s final two opportunities. And despite bringing Vasquez into the match to help Gressel on the right, both players made errors leading to Rickets’ equalizing goal.
Many have criticized Martino throughout his career for sticking to his guns, and telling his sides to attack and press for 90 minutes no matter the scoreline. But as we’ve seen countless times this season, the manager has shown some flexibility depending on the game state. And this match was no different. Williams entered to help defend set pieces. Robinson came on to shore up the back line and allow Larentowicz to move to the CDM role in order to limit Giovinco and company through the center. And finally, Vasquez came on for the attack-minded Villalba, allowing Atlanta to drop into a complete shell defensively. Unfortunately, it was in these exact areas where the Five Stripes were undone.
Time will tell if United can shake their late game problems. However, this does not seem to be due to Martino ignoring his side’s defensive responsibilities late in matches, but more so that his players aren’t executing the plan.