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Talking Tactics: Atlanta United’s Defense Struggles in Toronto

Toronto had a plan. Atlanta didn’t have an answer.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A Tough Loss

Atlanta United returned to MLS play in Toronto after a 26-day hiatus in the league, and the Five Stripes certainly looked like a team who hadn’t played a league match in over three weeks — despite TFC missing a handful of crucial players. In the end, a wild encounter finished with Frank de Boer’s team headed home disappointed after a 3-2 defeat.

One would’ve never expected the hosts to have such success in attack, as Atlanta’s typically stingy defense faced a side missing front man Jozy Altidore, plus influential midfielders Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio to the Gold Cup. With a lack of proven personnel (other than danger man Alejandro Pozuelo) at his disposal, TFC manager Greg Vanney’s side had to stick to a specific tactical game plan to create chances. Toronto executed the plan perfectly, while Atlanta failed to adjust and committed a number of individual errors en route to the defeat.

Attacking Down the Left

With Franco Escobar out due to suspension, Michael Parkhurst started at right back for Atlanta United. And without question, this was the side that Toronto attacked throughout the match. As we see below, TFC (in orange) focused their play down the left (Atlanta’s right), while Atlanta’s attack was more balanced.

So, why did Vanney decide to attack down Parkhurst’s side? After all, the captain has performed well at both fullback positions so far this season. As we see from the average positions below, the choice likely had to do not with Parkhurst, but with Pity Martinez, who is instructed to remain high up the pitch and/or drift inside (as we’ve discussed before) with impunity, making it virtually impossible for him to get back and help Parkhurst on defense, at times.

Atlanta’s right is vulnerable. Pity (No. 10) is virtually right on top of center attacking midfielder Julian Gressel and striker Brandon Vasquez. Meanwhile, Parkhurst (No. 3) is isolated on the right.

We saw a consequential attack of Parkhurst’s side just moments into the match, leading to a cross from left winger Jacob Shaffelburg to Tsubasa Endo for the Toronto opener. Notice how the passes from Pozuelo and Marky Delgado (No. 8) instinctively seek out Shaffelburg out left before he puts in his cross.

Unbalancing the Defense

While some passes like the first goal were a simple matter of finding the left winger in behind Parkhurst on the break, other attacks had to be more complex when the Atlanta defense was already set. This is where Pozuelo was crucial. The Spaniard started at “striker” in place of Altidore, but played as much more of a “false nine,” often drifting back into midfield to help spring attacks. We saw just that in the first goal, as he dropped in to get the attack going.

Toronto’s right side of attack was also critical in exploiting Parkhurst’s side. As we can see from the average positions below, the left side shows a clear impetus to isolate Shaffelburg (No. 24) with the similarly-isolated Parkhurst, remaining high and wide. But on the right, the plan was for winger Endoh (No. 31) and Richie Laryea (No. 22) to get forward together, looking to overload the right when possible and most importantly, force the Atlanta defense to shift to their side, leaving Parkhurst on an island once again.

Toronto’s second goal provides us with a perfect example.

The goal comes from a similar position as the first - a cross from the left side. But the build up to the cross is different, as this time it comes after a spell of possession, with Atlanta recovered defensively. It all starts with the movement of the aforementioned Pozuelo and right wing. Look how unbalanced the Atlanta defense becomes as the ball moves from the right side to the left.

The entire back four is occupied with Toronto overloading the right, leaving the left side of the field wide open. We can’t see him in the frame, but Shaffelburg is left unmarked somewhere wide left at the bottom of the screen, waiting to play in the cross. We also see Pity’s positioning in an advanced attacking position at the bottom right of our screen, and his attack-first role is costly in this case, as he’s a split second late attempting to defend Shaffelburg’s ball for Pozuelo.

But this isn’t just about tactics, it’s also some objectively poor defending from Atlanta United. As we see from the screenshot below, Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Brek Shea, are in position to get tight to their marks.

A free header from the 5’7” Pozuelo shouldn’t have been in the cards here, regardless of TFC’s tactic to get space for the cross.

FDB Adjusts. Atlanta Doesn’t Execute.

Late in the match, Frank de Boer decided to address the issues in the wide areas by subtracting both Gressel and left winger Dion Pereira in favor of Florentin Pogba and Jeff Larentowicz, shifting his formation completely in the process to a 5-3-2. Pogba played as the extra center back, while Parkhurst and Shea were employed as wing backs. This meant that if an attack came down Shea or Parkhurst’s side, a center half could help out with plenty of cover behind them, hopefully limiting vulnerability to crosses. Meanwhile, Pity was able to retain his attacking freedom up top, playing freely.

In theory, this move should’ve paid dividends. Instead, individual errors, combined with Pozuelo’s clever movement as a false 9, resulted in a late penalty for the home team.

Laryea (No. 22) is at the bottom of your screen, and he’s the man who ends up winning the penalty. Needless to say, he shouldn’t be streaking unmarked into the box from this position.

But before you blame Shea for losing track of Laryea, it’s important to recognize how things changed once Pozuelo was allowed to drop into midfield without a reaction from Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi. As we see below, Pozuelo is showing for the ball in the midfield with space to turn, and neither holding mid is addressing the problem. Once Pozuelo makes the run to his left, he receives the ball in said space, and things change quickly.

With Pozuelo’s movement once again unbalancing Atlanta’s defense, we can see that the defenders are in a much more precarious position than they were moments ago. Shea is forced to try and delay the run of Pozuelo, rather than sticking with Laryea. And by the time he tries to recover, as we see below, it’s already too late.

Atlanta’s back four broke down on the first and second goals. But in this case, a large finger must be pointed squarely at Atlanta’s center midfielders. Inattentive to Pozuelo behind them, Nagbe and Remedi allow Toronto’s most dangerous attacker time and space to receive the ball and turn. And it’s this that sets off a cataclysmic sequence of events resulting in the winning penalty.

One of Those Nights?

Whether it was Toronto exploiting natural vulnerabilities in Atlanta’s shape, or making making atypical individual errors on defense, the Five Stripes certainly showed a litany of weaknesses not seen often on the defensive side this season.

To be fair, injuries and the long lay off probably impacted the performance. And the result may well have been different had Atlanta buried a slew of opportunities they created throughout the match, including Pity’s missed penalty in the dying moments. On the other hand, did Vanney just provide the tactical blueprint to attack Atlanta where they’re most exposed? Were the defensive mistakes a sign of a turn in fortunes on that side of the ball? Only time will tell.