Rotating Rosters & Dueling Timelines
The 2018 campaign really started with Tata Martino’s reaction to the Houston debacle: a switch to a 3 man back-line which would last for roughly the opening third of the season. Then the team returned to the vintage 2017 4-3-3 Peachtree Press setup, eventually adding a previously injured Tito Villalba. Somewhere in there, actually exactly halfway through the season, Darlington Nagbe went down with a long term injury. About 7 games in, Ezequiel Barco became a regular starter and then found himself out of the first team after 15 straight starts. During this time, Eric Remedi the team’s big midseason signing, walked straight into the starting lineup (presumably Nagbe’s place) and has not relinquished it. After about a month, Barco returned as a starter.
In a parallel plot line, the fullbacks went on their own injury adventures. Franco Escobar went down after 3 games, not really returning until well into the middle 4-3-3 phase of the season. At this exact moment, Greg Garza was sidelined and hasn’t returned. He was replaced with Mikey Ambrose, whose season ended 8 games later, and ever since then, it’s been McCann on the left. All the while, Julian Gressel filled in where he needed to and stitched the team together.
This all forms a rather compelling story about the club’s squad construction and strength in depth, and we should discuss that at some point, but that’s not what I’m after here. I’m trying to figure out why the high pressure came and went, for this is certainly a thing that happened. Sure, you can notice Atlanta’s high press tactics when you watch the games, but to try to put it all into one picture and eliminate some biases, I’m going to use a metric that approximates pressing intent. It’s the number of passes attempted by Atlanta’s opponents in their own half divided by the number of attempts to win the ball (tackles, interceptions) by the Five Stripes in their opponent’s half. The lower the number, the more vigorous Atlanta’s high press. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start. Below, the bars are the individual PPDA scores (away bars are lighter), the black line is a 3 month average trend line, the color shadings indicate 4-3-3 with the un-shaded regions 3-5-2, and I’ve noted the general spans over which certain players have come in and out of the lineup.
The first 10 games of the season are fairly explainable. In the off season, Tata had the team work on playing out of a back 3 as an alternative to the more 4-3-3 he employed in the previous season, but I don’t think he anticipated using it regularly to start games, at least not in the form we would later witness. Essentially in the first game of the season, Atlanta came out firing in a back 4 and pressing high in the Houston half at full throttle, and unfortunately, they got ripped to shreds - not so much a failure in the press, but some individual defensive errors and a plug-and-play midfield and back line that were often overwhelmed. This was the first and last time we’ve seen Chris McCann play in the center of the park. Following this match, the team switched to a back 3/5 for a few months. Direct quotes from Tata indicate 1) that this was his temporary solution to losing Carlos Carmona in the shuttler/destroyer role, and 2) that he did not enjoy this setup as much, citing it was harder to press the opponent in their half. Despite this, the team’s pressure slowly, if marginally improved over this stretch (slowly marching from MLS average figures around 30 towards the very pressy mid to low 20s) with the switch back to the 4-3-3 ushering in a spell of high pressing, suffocating performances in which Atlanta United started to look (at least stylistically) like the inaugural vintage (with press metrics trending in the mid teens - the sort of stuff that rivals that of the New York clubs). I should note, while the pressing started to look like 2017, the profile of attacking chances the team created did continue to look very different from last year’s team, a 2018 feature which you can read about here). If you look back at the graphic, you’ll see that not only did the return of the 4-3-3 coincide with a positive pressing trend, but in no short order so too did the introduction of Ezequiel Barco, Mikey Ambrose, and to some extent Tito Villalba.
This Goldilocks period lasted just about half a season worth of games until Ezequiel Barco was suspended just before Eric Remedi entered the starting eleven, and this was the beginning of the decline in high pressing output (as measured inversely as passes allowed per defensive action in opponent half in the above graphic). I can’t point to directly to the missing link here, but I strongly believe this is an area to watch, and it’s perplexing because Eric Remedi appears to be a tough, rugged, and energetic midfield destroyer with a pep in his step - the kind of player that should work well in a high pressing scheme. It could be as simple as the team doing their best (but struggling) to gel around the new addition, with Remedi still fine tuning the “where to be and when” side of the team’s style of play. It could also just be that point in the season where energy levels plateau or drop for a bit, similar to “the stall” for you BBQ people out there.
With Barco now back and Escobar still out, the team appears to have settled into a 4-3-3 with this sort of extreme, “shades of 2017” setup when in possession of the ball:
And while, the last two matches against Orlando City and DC United appear to show a slight uptick in the pressing metrics, watching the DC game, I couldn’t help but feel there was a disconnect when we lost the ball in DC’s half — not a lack of commitment to the press, because they definitely went after it at times — but an inefficiency, something broken in the structure that allowed the Other United to play through the lines, ultimately to Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta for 2v2s (or worse) on the break.
Zooming out, speculatively assigning blame, and looking forward
Outside of a cold, cold night in Minnesota playing down a man for most of the game, Atlanta United’s overall high press numbers haven’t clipped the league average but one time (recently against Columbus), so overall they’re still more vigorous than most teams, but the recent trends do fascinate. Looking again at the pressing timeline, and focusing in on the player specific observations at the bottom of the graphic, there could be something up with Eric Remedi. He’s registering high press events at a decent clip, and he may deserve some slack as he’s only played a handful of games and more away from home than not, but when he’s in the lineup, the team allows an average of 25 passes per defensive action (higher than that of any other contributor). Next highest of the players who have played the current 4-3-3 is Chris McCann (in stark contrasts to the very good press numbers when Mikey Ambrose was in the team), so there could be more than one answer here. I don’t really have the tactical chops to prove this, but when I close my eyes, I can see Remedi on the wrong side of the ball when an attack breaks down with Jeff Larentowicz on an island in the center hoping to disrupt the opposition counter. I can also see a surprisingly high and wide Chris McCann having difficulty catching up to the play if he’s ahead of the ball when it’s lost. I’m not suggesting these individuals are definitely to blame as one could argue it’s up to the team as a whole to compensate for these structures, but it’s something that I picture happening when they’re around.
These call-outs seem fixable, with Remedi continuing to absorb the tactics and persona of the team, and Chris McCann... well, it could take some tweaking if he remains on the left. It could also mean the beginning of the George Bello era or return of the GOAT Greg Garza.
I could see this turning around pretty easily if it gets some attention in training, but if it doesn’t it, it could be an early warning that something is wrong. Let’s keep an eye on it. If there’s anything you’re picking up on when you watch the games, call it out in the comments and we’ll compare notes in between diatribes about the role of statistics in soccer and how it’s different from baseball.