Three Points Needed
Atlanta United returned home on Wednesday in desperate need of a victory after consecutive away defeats to New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake. A visit from a decent Minnesota United side (fifth in the Western Conference) presented a challenge for a weary Atlanta, who were playing their seventh match in 25 days. And the hosts had to be doubly alert from the opening whistle, as Adrian Heath spurred a tactical surprise, opting to play a 5-3-2 formation for only the second time this season.
Atlanta adjusted to the change impressively, exploiting the formation’s weaknesses through clever off-ball movement that enabled them to overload the Loons in wide areas, especially through Franco Escobar and Pity Martinez on the right side of attack. In the end, this tactical shrewdness would provide the difference, leading directly to Escobar’s winning goal.
Exploiting the Space
Atlanta United fans should be quite familiar with the 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2 depending on your interpretation), the shape that won them MLS Cup in 2018. But like all formations, space is conceded somewhere, and as we discussed last season, the formation is sometimes vulnerable in wide areas.
Let’s take a look at Minnesota’s basic shape below.
As we can see, the third center back (as opposed to two in a back four) gives the Loons the ability to better track Atlanta forward Josef Martinez’ movement in the middle. But it also concedes space in wide areas, where wing backs Miguel Ibarra and Hassani Dotson don’t have a traditional winger to come back and help them defend. This means that when Atlanta’s outside backs can forward to support their wingers, there is potential to overload Minnesota in these spaces, establishing a 2v1 advantage and creating havoc. In order to combat this potential 2v1 disadvantage down either side, the right center back (RCB) Michael Boxall or left center back (LCB) Brent Kallman are asked to fill in out wide on their side of the pitch, as the formation shifts.
To Minnesota’s credit, they executed the plan relatively well in the first half, and defended well for much of the match overall. But Atlanta continually went after the visitors in those naturally vulnerable wide areas, smartly looking to attack into these spaces through quick switches of play, exploiting the Loons’ weak side of defense after it shifted to one side of the pitch.
On the left side, Dion Pereira and Michael Parkhurst had good matches for Atlanta. But with Parkhurst less mobile than Escobar on the other side, the idea was more so for Pereira to go 1v1 at Dotson, which was indicated by the Englishman completing an astonishing seven dribbles on the night. Meanwhile on the right, Escobar and Martinez moved forward together as one, with Pity often moving into the middle and Escobar filling the space of a traditional winger out wide, although those roles were at times reversed. We see this in the average positions below from the match.
Pity (No. 10 above) moving central provides an extra challenge for Minnesota’s shape, as it forces one of the center backs to turn their attention away from Martinez. This movement would lead to the opening goal, and the interaction between Escobar (No.2) and Pity was critical all match long.
Now, let’s take a look at Atlanta’s movement in action.
We can see the Loons’ potential vulnerability just seconds into the match. Look below - Ibarra is back to deal with Pity. And the absence of a second wide player gives Escobar space to run into, especially as Minnesota shift to Atlanta’s left side of attack and momentarily lose sight of him, as we see below.
The Five Stripes came close to executing the plan in the 16th minute, as a quick switch of play this time saw Pity into a dangerous area out wide, who fizzes a dangerous cross into the box.
The play doesn’t come off this time, but the warning bells are certainly ringing. As the play begins, we once again see Minnesota’s are vulnerable to the quick switch as the ball moves left.
And with the aforementioned space available in front of him, Escobar moves forward to exploit it, finding Pity soon after.
Also intriguing are Escobar’s mannerisms at the beginning of the sequence. Watch below as he raises his arm while the ball moves away from him in the back, knowing that a quick switch of play soon after should find him in space, and hopefully involved in the attack soon after.
Quite clearly, Escobar has recognized a trend - with Pity occupying Ibarra, he can become a critical part of the attack.
The Five Stripes continued to plug away. And then, this happened.
Once again, it’s the interaction between Escobar and Pity that leads to danger. This time, it’s Pity moving into the middle, which draws defenders away from the right back. Sure, the ball only finds Escobar after a bit of luck, but it’s the smart and aggressive movement of he and Pity that allows for that luck in the first place, and the Argentine does the rest with a classy finish.
Let’s break this play down bit-by-bit, as it’s a perfect execution of how to exploit the wide areas against wing backs.
The switch of play from the left is critical. Watch how Parkhurst and Pereira outnumber Dotson, which pulls RCB Michael Boxall wide to mark the run by Pereira. This eliminates one center back from the play in the middle.
When Josef Martinez drops in soon after to receive the pass from Gressel, he takes the other two center backs with him. And so this time, when Pity makes his run as we see below, Ibarra has no choice but to track him and fill in as the third center back, which leaves leaves Escobar completely unmarked behind him at the bottom of the screen.
We see the critical moment above. With all three center backs occupied, Ibarra has to follow Pity, leaving Escobar all by his lonesome on the back post.
Lessons of the Game
Despite the final result, Atlanta weren’t exactly enjoying themselves in attack throughout a match that saw them struggle to create chances until very late. This made their discipline and persistence in attack all the more crucial. And fortunately for the home team, the Five Stripes were locked in, forcing Minnesota’s defense to shift side-to-side time and time again, looking to expose them in wide spaces their shape sometimes left vacant.
Atlanta could’ve gotten frustrated with their lack of attacking success. But instead they stuck to the plan, trusting that the breakthrough would come. It would, spurring the Five Stripes to a hardfought three points.