General Robert Barrow of the Marines famously said “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” Not that I would equate a soccer game with waging war, of course. As another noted leader of men, Bill Shankly, explained, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
Faced with the (temporary) death of Miles Robinson while nobly serving his country, Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer was faced with a big logistical problem that would ultimately drive the tactics he would employ for the opening game of the 2019 MLS Playoffs.
Just 2 weeks prior, in what was effectively a must-win game, FdB had used a 3-1-4-2 (basically an adjusted 4-4-2) against the same opponent to great effect. Playoff games, of course, are a different animal, being in some ways a must-not-lose situation, and a slightly cagier approach was called for. In terms of manpower, the only change made was a straight swap of Michael Parkhurst for Miles Robinson, but rearranged into the 3-4-3 we have seen on numerous occasions this season.
This was inherently rather more defensive and resulted in far fewer shots taken: 14 vs. the 20 on Decision Day. In the 65 minutes the 3-4-3 was maintained, 11 shots were taken, and only 2 on target. The New England Revolution outshot the Rapidly-dwindling-number-of Stripes in that period, with 12 taken and 6 on goal.
At that point, FdB considered his study of military history again, and remembered Helmut von Moltke’s axiom that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Reviewing the logistical options available to him on the bench he realized that a change in tactics was feasible. He sent in the cavalry (Tito Villalba) and brought up his defensive reserves (Florentin Pogba), simultaneously switching the formation to a more aggressive 4-2-3-1, that Atlanta staple of old.
The effect was immediate. With Leandro Gonzalez Pirez now shifted into a centerback pairing with Parky, both Pogba on the left and Franco Escobar on the right were freed up to play more advanced. Consider this screenshot:
This was just 114 seconds after play resumed following the substitution. The guy with his hand up at the top of the frame? That’s Escobar, with only Josef Martinez and Tito Villalba (out of the picture and getting up from a fall) in more forward positions, and that not by much. Also, the entire sequence was started by Pogba, who was likewise pushing up and is at the bottom of the frame.
Franco does in fact receive the ball on this play. Revs left back DeJuan Jones is tracking Julian Gressel (just below Franco in the shot), anticipating that he will be the target of Darlington Nagbe’s pass (you can just barely see the ball at his feet just outside the center circle). Jones has not adapted to Atlanta’s change in tactics and doesn’t spot Franco hanging around in the space that Julian usually occupies. The ball sails over Julian’s head and he barely recovers in time to cut the play off.
2’59” later, Franco scored by moving in from a similar position and United pretty much went into clean-up mode.
Not that Atlanta did not control this game. Indeed, they did so more or less from the opening whistle. Despite the weaker shooting numbers, United dominated possession, maintaining 55% over the entire game. Despite playing 31% of the game in the defensive third, and having one less shot on goal, United did not look under much stress with the exception of one blast from Cristian Penilla in the 37th minute, heroically saved by Brad Guzan. Atlanta finished the game with an xG of 1.41, compared with the Rev’s 0.91. A much closer game than the 3-1 win two weeks earlier, but again, this is the playoffs.
Moreover, the team played with intensity. They looked focused all game. They were definitely ready for the playoffs, and were a team for whom losing was not an option. Going forward, this is extremely positive.
But the win did not come without its costs. Parky’s injury late in second half stoppage time gives FdB a whole new set of logistical headaches ahead of Thursday’s conference semi-final clash with the Philadelphia Union. Back line options have been limited all season, and they just got worse. We shall have to see what he comes up with.
The good news is that Philly played 26 hours later than Atlanta, and had to go 120 minutes, plus about 18 minutes of total stoppage time, to get a result. They have to travel as well of course, and could be without Alejandro Bedoya who was injured during the game (although he does not appear on the official injury report). Problems are not unique to Atlanta.
With that, on to the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Ezequiel Barco. He was a man possessed Saturday afternoon, at times seeming to channel a certain former Atlanta attacking mid. I know the community went for Brad Guzan as MOTM. That agrees with the Audi Index, in fact, and is certainly a very arguable choice, but I’m going with Zeke for his general playmaking contributions. He for sure gets a Special Mention, as does Franco Escobar.
GK: Brad Guzan – 9. OK, it was a really performance between the pipes. In working to yet another clean sheet win, he racked up 6 saves, with at least 2 being key. Brad has bettered that total just once in his Atlanta career, back on 6/9/18 when he stopped 9 shots against New York City FC in a 1-1- tie.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7.5. 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 clearance and 4 recoveries, to go with 1 shot off frame. He picked up a predictably dumb yellow card, which he cannot afford to do again against Philly. After that, he’s in the clear. But he just became much more important. He also looked much more comfortable as a paired centerback after the tactical switch.
CB: Michael Parkhurst – 8. 2 tackles, 1 interception, 4 clearances and 4 recoveries. Called on to go the full 90 for the first time in over 3 months, Parky used his veteran savvy to make up for the Robinsonian speed he lacks. He was also a whopping 93.3% accurate on 45 passes. Almost certainly this will end up as the final game of his career, and he exits with his head held high.
CB: Franco Escobar – 9. 5 tackles, 1 interception, 1 clearance and 6 recoveries. Just 1 shot though. Yeah, that one. Franco has scored 5 goals for Atlanta, 3 of them in the playoffs, and 3 of the goals have been game-winners. That’s stepping up when it counts.
LW: Emerson Hyndman – 7. Played 65 minutes and was generally pretty good. He could have done better with his 1 shot, but his 85.7% completion rate on 28 passes was solid. None of them got into the penalty area though.
LM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7.5. Big Red is Atlanta’s Dorian Gray. He had a very strong game. 5 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances and 4 recoveries. 37 passes for 89.2% accuracy, and 1 shot off target. The yellow card was probably smartly taken, but it adds to the pressure on the defense for Thursday, as he is a likely candidate to fill in on the back line.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 8. 1 shot on target, 53 passes, 90.6% connecting. Just another day at the office for Darlington.
RW: Julian Gressel – 7. Julian was somewhat invisible in the early going but upped his game after about 25 minutes. He got in 2 shots, 1 on goal, and went 75% on 36 passes. Of those, 7 were into the 18.
LAM: Justin Meram – 6. Justin was the weakest link on an otherwise high-performing team. He simply looked…disinterested. He was taken out after 65 minutes and was completely unsurprised by it. 77.5% accuracy on 40 passes, and he did get 3 into the box.
RAM: Ezequiel Barco – 9. 8 passes into the 18, including the assist on Franco’s wonder goal. In 88 minutes he totaled 47 passes with 83% completing, and in the early going was 100%. His movement was much more vertical, and at times he turned on the afterburners and really did look like Miggy. He also had 3 shots (all off target) and several other good chances.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7. I’m not going to dock him for the yellow card; that simulation call was barely legit. He did get in 3 shots, and 1 was on target, but he wasn’t quite as perfectly in position to receive service as he usually is.
SUB: Florentin Pogba – 8. Brogba is possibly the most inconsistent player on the squad. He is alternately great and awful. This was one of his good days. Playing 25 official minutes he came in and made an immediate impact. However, every time he gets near the ball, I have a habit of gritting my teeth in anticipation of dire consequences.
SUB: Tito Villalba – 8. Bringing Tito and Brogba on together was a masterstroke. Flo isn’t fast, but he’s strong and can push up the field. Tito is fast, and was there for him to provide service to. And at the same time, they drew the defense away from the right flank. As a pair they caused several problems for the Revs.
SUB: Mo Adams – N/R. Brought on to give Zeke a quick breather, and didn’t really do very much.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 8. This was, I believe, FdB’s best game as United’s field general. His initial game plan was solid, and his in-game adjustments were simply brilliant.
FLAIR – 10. Flair on the capo stand, flair on the field.