First off, I must offer my humble apologies.
In our emergency roundtable on Thursday I predicted that Frank de Boer would play with 4 at the back. I got that part right. As to the lineup I made a total hash of it, getting just Franco Escobar at right back completely right. I would not have expected Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to play at right center back, nor would I have guessed Florentin Pogba at left center back (and judging by the way he played, neither did he). Most of all, I would never have picked Mikey Ambrose at left back. Even though he is one. Why not? Well, for the simple reason that I had completely forgotten about him. That he had played just 266 minutes in 4 games this season, and none since July 7th, is not an acceptable excuse. Again, sorry Mikey.
Frank de Boer, on the other hand, did not forget about him. Or at least, he dusted off the depth chart, given that his options were, so it seemed, limited. At the same time, he channeled his inner Marcelo Bielsa (although I’m pretty sure he’s far too sane to have one) to dig out another previously unused formation.
If this season has taught us anything, and most especially this post-season, it’s that FdB can be flexible. Which, as a disciple of Johan Cruyff, he should be, but often does not appear to be. This time, he came out with the 4-3-3. Although he had always preferred 3-man back lines, he did use this setup a number of times at Ajax, and with success. We haven’t really seen it with United so far. ESPN apparently didn’t think that was the plan, as it presented the Atlanta lineup as a 4-2-3-1.
The 4-3-3 is an aggressive attacking formation, and also lends itself to the total football concept that FdB grew up with. That is to say, it is flexible in its own right. It can easily morph into a 4-2-3-1, so ESPN wasn’t really too far off. They had Pity Martinez as an attacking central mid rather than a left mid, and he played the game that way, more or less. Here are the average player positions:
With Pity (#10) tucked close in behind Josef Martinez, that really does look like a 4-2-3-1. Philadelphia, by the way, were set up in a 4-3-1-2, which is basically a variant on the 4-3-3.
That FdB now trusts his team to play with such a fluid plan, and that his team is confident enough to execute it, says a lot about how the season has progressed.
Execute, given Josef’s trolling earlier this week, is probably the right verb here. Or completely inappropriate, take your pick. And that is exactly what they did, right from the get go.
83.8%. That’s the key stat for this game. That’s the possession Atlanta United had in the first ten minutes. During that stretch the Philadelphia Union attempted a total of 14 passes. Of those, 9 were unsuccessful. They were thoroughly and completely dominated. They looked precisely like a team that had had little rest after an emotional 120-minute 7-goal shootout and were also missing their leading goalscorer (Kacper Przybylko, who netted 15 of Philly’s 58 regular season goals, more than double any other player).
After that, the foot came off the gas pedal a bit, with the Union maintaining 55.6% possession the rest of the way. Not that they did much with it. They managed a total of 12 shots, with only 3 on target, and only one, from Brendan Aaronson in the 17th minute, that was an actual scoring threat.
In other words, the 2-goals-allowed-in 8-playoff-games Stripes were in effective control of the game all the way, and if a few near misses had found the net could have had a blowout on their hands.
Peaking at the right time is of course a cliché, but it seems to apply in Atlanta’s case. In the two playoff games so far, they have been firing on all cylinders. They are focused, and are playing with intensity. Our overly-caffeinated (or something) Twitter manager had this to say during the game:
Playoff Franco has gone full rover. He has no positions. Positions are for regular season Franco. Regular season Franco is weak. https://t.co/rwOtNw6bcB— Back-to-Back Conference Final Soccer (@DirtySouthSoc) October 25, 2019
True, of course, and, I would argue, applicable to almost every member of the team.
Until then, here are the Dirty South Soccer Staff Player Ratings:
Man of the Match is Julian Gressel, for obvious reasons. Special Mentions go to Brad Guzan for a monumental save and to Pity Martinez for an excellent game despite not having played in nearly a month.
GK: Brad Guzan – 8. Another clean sheet. Ho hum. 3 saves in the game, 2 of which were late and routine, but that kick save to deny Aaronson was pure class. He also had a clearance well outside the penalty area to prevent another promising chance, and was generally the boss as ever.
LB: Mikey Ambrose – 7. Putting in a guy who hasn’t had first team minutes in almost five months was a ballsy move by FdB, but Mikey was clearly prepared, good Boy Scout that he is. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 4 clearances and 4 recoveries in 84 minutes. He did not get as far forward as he could have, though, and got just one ball into the 18, and that from distance.
CB: Florentin Pogba – 6. 1 tackle, 2 interceptions, 6 clearances, 4 recoveries and an untallied number of staredowns. Including at least one to LGP. However, his preferred position is left back, and he spent considerable time effectively playing that position, ranging outside Ambrose on a number of occasions and drifting further upfield than could be deemed safe given his slow speed.
CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez – 7. Most importantly, no yellow card, which means he is eligible for both the Conference Final and a potential MLS Cup appearance, barring a red card against Toronto. Playing out of his typical left center back position, LGP was all business. 1 interception, 5 clearances, 2 blocks and 4 recoveries. And a shot on goal.
RB: Franco Escobar – 7.5. More than anyone else, Franco ups his game come the playoffs. He did pick up a late yellow card, but no big deal. 3 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 clearance and 4 recoveries. One shot on goal, and 4 deliveries into the box.
LM: Pity Martinez – 8. His last competitive game was September 29th. He evidently got the message FdB was trying to send. He was on top of his game. He exhibited a turn of speed we haven’t often seen from him, he was hard to dispossess and was a constant threat. He got the very nifty assist on Julian’s goal, and in 79 minutes racked up 44 passes for an impressive 84.1% accuracy rate, and got 7 of those into the 18. Oh, and 2 shots, 1 on frame.
CM: Jeff Larentowicz – 7. Jeff being Jeff, and no tactical yellow card to also avoid a suspension. 85.7% completion rate on 42 passes, but several of those were late long distance boots with no intention of reaching a target.
RM: Darlington Nagbe – 7. Not an outstanding game for Darlington, who found himself stuck around the center circle, although he was as hard as ever to take off the ball. A relatively low 52 passes with 88.5% connecting.
LAM: Ezequiel Barco – 8. Surprisingly, Zeke was the first man out after 73 minutes. Up to that point he had been nearly as impressive as he was against the Revs. 93.8% accuracy on 32 passes and 1 shot off target that he should done better with.
RAM: Julian Gressel – 9. The goal was just genius. The assist was opportunism run riot (I estimate it at 55 yards in the air). The yellow card was for persistent infringement, one of the sillier reasons to get a caution, especially when the persistence was largely on other players, so he doesn’t get docked for it. His 46 passes were 71.7% accurate, but look where he was putting the ball:
Constantly dumping the ball into and around the box, creating utter havoc.
FWD: Josef Martinez – 7. He got the insurance goal but wasn’t happy with himself. He felt he should have had 3 more. He’s right. On the other hand, Andre Blake had already expired and that would have been flogging a dead horse. Still, a striker who scores but thinks he could have done better is a good thing.
This was the first time we saw Josef, Pity and Zeke play together for a while. Barco had his teething problems last year, and Pity has had his share this season too. All 3 had to adjust to a new manager and system while under the pressure of being a defending champion. If this game was any indication, they are finally clicking. Whatever happens in the next game, and hopefully the one after that, the attack in 2020 could well be unstoppable.
SUB: Emerson Hyndman – 6. A surprise early-ish replacement for Zeke, Emerson had just 3 passes (all connecting) in 17 official minutes.
SUB: Eric Remedi – 7. Came on for Pity in cleanup duty. He got the job done with 2 tackles and 1 pass, and drew 2 fouls.
SUB: Mo Adams – N/R. A late replacement for Mikey, and had just 1 short pass.
COACH: Frank de Boer – 7. The chief is getting creative. A craftily conceived plan that definitely worked.
INSTAGRAM – 0. I don’t care if it’s found its true purpose in becoming Josef’s personal trolling platform. It still sucks.