Atlanta United finally returned to the pitch after a four month layoff last Saturday. And predictably, the Five Stripes looked rusty in 1-0 loss to New York Red Bulls (NYRB), as both teams opened up their MLS is Back Tournament fixtures.
In all, Atlanta did show some flashes of what we’ve come to expect, especially behind the brilliant play of Pity Martinez, and by exploiting wide areas behind Frank de Boer’s extremely aggressive attacking shape. But we also saw the team struggle for balance in FdB’s attack-minded system, leaving themselves too exposed on the counter and struggling to communicate and execute defensively when placed in these positions.
Let’s take a look back.
What Didn’t Work
As we discussed early in Frank de Boer’s reign, the gaffer’s 3-4-3 can be exploited on the counter when his aggressive attacking shape fails to create. NYRB opened up the scoring immediately with a goal that took advantage of one of these natural weaknesses, and also saw some very poor off-ball defending from the Five Stripes.
The most glaring aspect of this goal is just how simple it was for Florian Valot to get in behind. When we take a closer look, we can see why. Watching back, you’ll see Atlanta’s players have all flown into the attacking third, with the exception of left center back (LCB) Fernando Meza and CB Miles Robinson. George Bello and Brooks Lennon have advanced forward from their wing back spots, center midfielders Mo Adams and Emerson Hyndman are committed forward, and RCB Franco Escobar has advanced high up the pitch. This movement forces Meza and Robinson to shift to their right to cover for Escobar, which leaves the space in behind, as we see below.
Without question, you’d like Bello to be on his horse and sprinting back into a defensive position, and Meza also doesn’t appear to even recognize Valot has made a run in behind. A little bit better cohesion from the defense would’ve made this move much more difficult for NYRB to execute. But we also see that Atlanta’s aggressive ways in attack can leave them in positions like these. And if the defensive players aren’t on their toes, the opposition can carve out chances on the break with relative ease, as we witness on the Red Bulls opener.
NOTE: Every single shape concedes space somewhere. The pitch is large and there are only 11 players per team assigned to cover all of that ground. When I say that NYRB “exploited the natural weakness” in Atlanta’s tactics, I don’t mean to say that de Boer’s system is fundamentally flawed, just that every shape/formation must concede space somewhere, and this is one of the areas where his system does such.
Lennon and Bello bombing forward may leave Atlanta exposed to the counter, but it’s also hell to defend.
We see an early example below, as Lennon being stationed high and wide up creates issues and sees Lennon behind his man, after a beautiful ball from Hyndman.
No comment on the finish.
Now, let’s watch one of the biggest moments of the night, when Bello rattled the post.
Again, both wing backs are stationed in the attacking half, and we see again Escobar well up the pitch and getting a touch, as well. When the ball moves to Pity, Bello is already in position to make a run in behind, and the Argentine finds him with a perfect ball to create the chance.
De Boer’s system continued to help Atlanta create chances. Watch below how Lennon being so high up the pitch distracts the NYRB defenders, allowing Adams to fill in the space left empty by the preoccupied defense, before getting in behind and finding Manuel Castro.
No comment on the finish.
We see the tactic pay dividends again below, as Lennon gets the ball out wide and finds Pity, before making a great run forward and receiving an inch-perfect ball from Pity in behind.
No comment on the finish.
Red Bulls’ “Delayed Press”
Needless to say, Chris Armas did not blow it this time. Known for their high press, Armas tweaked the system after scoring an early goal, calling for a slightly lower line of engagement, and instructing his side to drop off Atlanta’s back three and allow them to pass harmlessly amongst themselves, before pouncing on any forward pass into midfield.
Let’s watch a few examples.
Quite clearly, the Red Bulls are sitting off Atlanta’s three defenders, and then looking to press once the ball moves forward.
As the match wore on, Atlanta began to dominate possession. But NYRB’s delayed press helped them alleviate pressure, as they were able to counter into the space left by Atlanta’s aforementioned ultra-aggressive attacking shape, and create chances.
Watch below how NYRB allow Atlanta’s back three to knock the ball around innocuously, then pounce once the ball progresses, and capitalize on the spaces left open with numerous Atlanta players caught forward.
Looking at the film, de Boer will have plenty of good and bad to draw from to prepare his side for Thursday’s match against FC Cincinnati.
Atlanta will certainly have to improve its defending. Their attacking shape is going to leave the defenders vulnerable when the rest get caught forward, and the defense reacted too slowly and didn’t track runners well enough in these situations against the Red Bulls. On the other hand, the lack of quality in attack was just as much to blame. Atlanta had 69% of the possession but couldn’t consistently break down NYRB, leaving their defense exposed too often with players caught forward. The Five Stripes will need to strike a better balance on Thursday.
On the other hand, de Boer’s idea of getting the wing backs forward did appear to work against NYRB, with a slew of big chances coming from wide (Josef Martinez finishes at least one of those opportunities, surely). We also saw a fantastic performance from Pity Martinez, who was involved in most of Atlanta’s big chances, and also completed four dribbles and won five free kicks for his team. With Ezequiel Barco returning to fitness, Atlanta is looking to have two truly dynamic players in the attack in no time.
After a frustrating defeat to NYRB, Atlanta United will surely be happy at a quick return to the pitch Thursday morning against FC Cincinnati. And after watching Jaap Stam’s side concede four goals against Columbus over the weekend, the Five Stripes have a great opportunity to right Saturday’s wrongs.