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Talking Tactics: How Atlanta United overcame New York Red Bulls on the way to its MLS Cup title

Taking a forensic look at the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals to revel in precisely how Chris Armas blew it.

SOCCER: NOV 25 MLS Eastern Conference Championship - NY Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the MLS is Back tournament that is just over two weeks from kicking off, Atlanta United is gearing up to once again do battle on the pitch with its MLS archnemesis New York Red Bulls. This, of course, reminded us of the time when Red Bulls manager Chris Armas totally, utterly blew it. Amazing. So in memory of that nostalgic time nearly two years ago, we will take a look back to examine exactly how

Chris Armas Blew It

When Atlanta United travelled to Red Bull Arena on Sep. 30, 2018, the Supporters Shield was more or less on the line for the two Eastern Conference juggernauts. And the New York Red Bulls (NYRB) sent the Five Stripes home with their tails between their legs, administering a 2-0 beating, maintaining their unbeaten record over Atlanta.

Red Bulls went on to win the Supporters Shield, and broke the record for most points in an MLS Regular Season (broken in 2019 by LAFC). Much like today, their success throughout the season came through an ultra-aggressive high press that often suffocated teams like Atlanta United, who preferred to use their technical players to try and build out of the back.

With a clear blueprint for success at his disposal from previous matchups, NYRB manager Chris Armas sprung a surprise when the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Final two months later. The former US international opted for a more conservative approach in the first leg at Mercedes Benz Stadium, telling his team to sit back in the first half, and absorb pressure.

Let’s start off by looking at the data from two very different matches.

As we see below, NYRB’s press dominated throughout in the first matchup. Just look at how many times they attempted tackles, especially in Atlanta’s half. (NYRB in orange, ATL UTD in blue)

Now, let’s compare to the playoff matchup. Not only did NYRB attempt fewer tackles overall, but also notice how many fewer challenges were made in Atlanta’s half, indicating the disappearance of Red Bulls’ vaunted high press. (NYRB in blue below)

Now, let’s look at loss of possession.

First, let’s look at the regular season matchup (Atlanta in blue and defending the goal on the right, NYRB in orange)

Look at all those blue dots in Atlanta’s half. Incredibly, the Five Stripes lost the ball 14 times in their own half. But now look below, Atlanta loses the ball far fewer times in their own half, and in less dangerous areas.

Conference Finals (Atlanta in orange, defending the goal on the left):

We see the same story on interceptions. After intercepting six passes in Atlanta’s half in September, Red Bulls don’t make a single interception in the Five Stripes’ half in the rematch.

Regular Season (ATL UTD in blue defending the goal to the right)

Conference Finals (ATL UTD in orange, defending goal on left)

Tata’s Tactics

Meanwhile, Atlanta entered the match with much of of the same gameplan from the previous round’s first leg against NYCFC. And Tata Martino also opted for an identical starting 11 to that match.

As was the case against NYCFC, Martino played Darlington Nagbe (No. 6 below) and Julian Gressel (No. 24) together in midfield, asking for both to play an industrious box-to-box role, that saw Nagbe cover the right side of the pitch to support right back Franco Escobar (No. 2), with Gressel assigned to cover the left. We see this from the average positions below (and we’ll see the plan come to fruition later).

But elsewhere, Martino made some changes both from the first leg against NYCFC, and more critically, the embarrassment at Red Bull Arena. Firstly, unlike the trip to Yankee Stadium, he played far less conservative with his back line, instructing both fullbacks, but especially Franco Escobar, to bomb forward into high and wide areas (notice both No. 2 Escobar and No. 4 Garza’s average positions in the attacking half above). By doing so, Atlanta had outlets to bypass the Red Bulls pressure with long range passes out of the back. This was dissimilar from the approach in September, as Martino’s side failed time and time again to pass right through the NYRB pressure.

Now that we know what to expect, and what changed from the September fixture, let’s take a look at the film to see how things worked out on the pitch.

First Half:

As discussed, NYRB manager Chris Armas decided he’d throw a “curveball” at Atlanta’s technical and high octane attack, telling his team to sit back and absorb pressure, rather than pressing Atlanta into submission as they had in the side’s last match.

We see NYRB’s gameplan quite clearly above. At least to begin the match, Armas’ tactical switch appeared to work. Atlanta’s long ball play from the back three is rushed and overly direct, as Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst launch the ball forward early, perhaps wrongly anticipating NYRB’s high press.

But around 15 minutes into the match, the Five Stripes figured things out. With the Red Bulls dropping off, Atlanta simply cycled the ball around or dribbled out of the back, taking advantage of their time on the ball, and looking to pick out their long balls with more accuracy.

Notice Nagbe and Escobar overloading the right side, as intended. And finally, watch how Atlanta’s recognition of NYRB’s approach sees their entire attacking shape able to move higher up the pitch, and force the visitors deeper in defense.

Eventually, Atlanta would break down their stubborn opposition.

If the first half was a battle of the two managers’ tactics, this was the moment where Martino’s won out. The obvious part is that again, the deeper line of NYRB allows Jeff Larentowicz to dribble forward, and pick out the cross to Josef Martinez. But also, a crucial part of the play comes from Nagbe, who moves to his right to temporarily fill the space out wide, and drops to Escobar to maintain possession. Then, when the ball returns to the right side of the pitch, Escobar has moved further forward as well to create an overload, forcing the NYRB defense back even deeper down that side, and giving Larentowicz that important space and time to dribble out of the back, and pick out Martinez (see below).

Second Half:

Armas adjusted at halftime, and pushed his team a bit further forward. But with the lead, Atlanta’s looked mostly unbothered, and stuck to the gameplan of playing long range balls passes out of the back.

Bradley Wright Phillips had a goal rightly called back for offside, as NYRB worked back into the match over the first part of the second half. But again, with the lead, Atlanta were quite comfortable on the back foot.

As the half wore on, Atlanta scored their second goal of the match. And once again, we saw Martino’s game plan bear fruit.

The play begins with a usual tactic from the match, as we see the long ball out of the back for Escobar, with Nagbe drifting to the right side of the pitch to help out. Then, it’s Gressel overlapping from his center midfield position and taking space on the left, setting up the final ball to Escobar, who is never in position to score if not for Martino’s insistence on him bombing forward down the right side.

Soon after the goal, we saw Martino make a similar adjustment to what we discussed in leg one against NYCFC, as Tito Villalba entered the match, and Atlanta’s midfield dropping deeper to focus on defense. We see such below, as Gressel and Nagbe drop behind the half line before engaging, with Villalba and Almiron remaining high up the pitch to try and generate a counter.

A Decisive Final Ten Minutes

Let’s not forget that Armas blew it not once, but TWICE, in this match. Trailing 2-0 and with the hosts sitting back, Armas countered by throwing caution to the wind. And it backfired. Striker Brian White entered for center midfielder Sean Davis in the 88th minute, as NYRB switched to a 4-4-2 and sacrificed a player through the middle.

Meanwhile, Martino made one final adjustment in the late going, with Ezequiel Barco entering for Almiron. Much like he did in leg one against NYCFC, Barco’s fresh legs allowed him to play a deeper, more box-to-box role than the knackered Paraguayan, but also launch counterattacks with his supreme vision and dribbling ability.

First, let’s watch this half-chance for Villalba immediately after the White substitution.

It would be foolish to say that a chance straight from this throw-in is due to the NYRB substitution, but another body in the middle would certainly help here, as the throw-in alone bypasses both CMs in Tyler Adams and Marc Rzatkowski, and Villalba is able to create space.

Now, watch below as Barco tracks back with Michael Murillo (No. 92), wins the ball back, and starts a dangerous counter, as Villalba is afforded space to run into with NYRB in all-out-attack mode.

In the end, the chance went begging, as the Five Stripes were left to rue what appeared an opportunity to drive the nail into NYRB’s coffin.

But there would be one more chance left for the hosts in stoppage time. And this time, Atlanta broke through for one of the most famous goals in club history. But before we show that epic goal from Villalba, watch Barco performing his assigned duty to a “T” to begin the attack, holding the ball up to to win a throw in that would lead to goal No. 3.


And now, the big moment.

Straight from the throw, we see the vacant space in the middle as Gressel is able to dribble into a dangerous area, but his shot is blocked. Once this happens, Tim Parker and others desperately hunt the ball, leaving the space in front of the defense (usually covered by one of three CMs) wide open. Villalba smartly drops into that space, and his quality does the rest (I love you, Tito).

Let’s take one final look.

From this angle, the space in the middle is more glaring.

Once again, Martino’s tactics win out. Villalba and Barco’s introduction gave Atlanta two pairs of dangerous fresh legs to spark the counter, while Armas’ substitution of White for Davis removed one midfielder from NYRB’s shape. The combination of the two gave Atlanta the space they needed, and the Five Stripes’ quality took care of the rest.

In all, Martino’s team did the talking on the pitch in Leg One of the Eastern Conference Final. And Martino also outsmarted his adversary, as his team stuck with its original gameplan to combat Armas’ surprisingly conservative approach to the first half, and then soaked up pressure and made deliberate changes to exploit an increasingly desperate Red Bulls side in the final 45 minutes.

NOTE: Let’s always remember that it’s players, not coaches or tactics, that win matches. Martino’s tactics don’t matter without the class from Gressel and precise finish from Escobar (both with their weak foot!), Barco’s majestic run leading to an incredible finish from Villalba. And hell, if not for a pinpoint cross and composed settle and finish from Josef Martinez, Armas perhaps looks like a genius at halftime with his side holding a 0-0 scoreline on the road (Chris Armas still totally blew it). Football is a funny game innit?

What this means for 2020

A matchup with NYRB looms for Atlanta in next month’s MLS is Back Tournament.

Of course, we can’t take too much from that 2018 matchup, being that it was nearly 18 months ago. But Frank de Boer will have a similar decision on his hands as Martino. Will he stick with his methodical possession style, or revert to a more direct game out of the back to bypass the high press of NYRB?

Considering FDB’s 3-4-3 isn’t too dissimilar from Martino’s 3-5-2, he could easily use his wide players to camp out in space on the touchline to provide an outlet, as we saw with Escobar and Garza in 2018. And playing with three up front instead of two as Martino did, de Boer could also ask the likes of Barco and Pity Martinez to shift into these spaces to spark the attack. Of course, if Chris Armas wants to blow it again and sit back in the first half, he’s more than welcome.