A Rough Start
The source of Atlanta United’s early struggles has generated a litany of theories, but we can all agree that the team’s performance has simply fallen below standards. With just two wins in six in all competitions, the defending MLS Champions enter the weekend out of CONCACAF Champions League, and winless in the league.
So, what’s the problem? Well, there are a lot of them. But the most alarming part of Atlanta’s struggles has been their listlessness in attack under new manager Frank de Boer.
On paper, it simply doesn’t make sense. Despite losing talisman Miguel Almiron to Newcastle, Atlanta returned one of the league’s best ever goal scorers in Josef Martinez, new signing and Argentinean international Pity Martinez, the uber-talented Ezequiel Barco and the pacey and powerful Tito Villalba. And yet, the team is firing blanks in the early season.
Even worse, not only are Atlanta’s offensive struggles obviously keeping them off the scoresheet, their attacking woes are creating all sorts of problems for their defense, as well.
Possession Ain’t Everything
Five games into the 2019 season, the most obvious difference from Tata Martino's Atlanta United to de Boer's is in tempo. While Martino preferred a quick-hitting attack inspired by high pressure, de Boer wants his team to go about their attacking business in a more patient and methodical manner. When we look at Atlanta's possession numbers, it's clear the team are looking, and succeeding, in holding possession. The problem is they're not generating any substantive attack when on the ball.
So far this season, Atlanta have averaged over 60% possession and nearly 83% passing accuracy (already impressive numbers that would be even higher if not for an outlier performance in Monterrey).
But despite having so much of the ball and passing accurately, Atlanta have created next to nothing when it comes to actual goal scoring opportunities. Since the Herediano matches, the Five Stripes have only managed a putrid seven shots on goal, all while averaging under one xG in three of their last four matches.
Imagine such possession under Martino - surely it would result in a dominant Atlanta performance to play at such pace and enjoy so much of the ball. But that isn’t the case under de Boer. Possession is a prerequisite for his style of play, while it was previously more so a consequence of Martino's aggressiveness. So far, the Five Stripes have struggled to turn de Boer's type possession into goal scoring opportunities.
To make things worse, holding long spells of unthreatening possession can leave your defense completely exposed to counter after counter attack. In Frank de Boer’s 3-4-3, the center midfielders and wing backs are expected to sneak into the attack in possession. But with nothing being created going forward after long spells with the ball, opposition have been able to comfortably absorb Atlanta’s non-threatening attack, knowing that they can counter quick and direct once Atlanta inevitably lose the ball. This often catches those wing backs and holding midfielders in attack, and leaves just the back three to deal with multiple attackers.
In essence, if Atlanta are enjoying a lion’s share of possession and passing with accuracy, but creating nothing, this simply means they are holding the ball for long periods and then losing it with bodies caught forward in attack. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
Tale of the Tape
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples
First, let's watch the third goal conceded at Herediano last month.
We see the end of Atlanta’ possession with Julian Gressel’s misplaced pass into the box. Then, with bodies caught forward in possession and the subsequent high press to try and win the ball back, the hosts are able to go quick and direct to goal, overloading Atlanta United’s back three with numbers.
Now, let’s take a look at another example from last week’s trip to Monterrey. Once again, things start with Atlanta United in possession, and then slowly deteriorate once they turn it over.
This time, Atlanta are even higher up the pitch than the first example. Once Monterrey win the ball back, it’s the usual formula as the hosts get into attack quickly, and overwhelm Atlanta’s back three.
Just look at the similarities in the screenshots below, as the Atlanta United back three are put into an extremely difficult position, with the rest of their teammates caught up the pitch.
In both cases, we see the result of Atlanta’s attacking woes, a dangerous counterattack against a vulnerable back three, with everyone else caught high up the pitch after yet another failed attacking sequence. This is a trend that must cease for Atlanta to turn the corner.
They say defense wins championships. But a good offense can also yield an effective defense. In Atlanta’s case, it’s been the opposite so far this season. And for results to change, it's quite clear that Atlanta need to find a way to generate opportunities from their possession, as it greatly impacts the team's attacking and defensive fortunes.
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