Despite being heavily favored for Thursday morning’s fixture against FC Cincinnati, Atlanta United did everything in their power to lose the match. The Five Stripes started poorly before going down a man after a horrendous defensive error, lost the possession battle to a team showing no desire to attack, conceded a goal thanks to a couple of individual mistakes, and got next to nothing from their high priced attackers.
In other words - it sucked.
A Slow Start
Atlanta came out in a similarly aggressive shape to the 3-4-3 we saw against New York Red Bulls. Jaap Stam’s FC Cincinnati countered by sitting back in a shell defensively, playing 5 across the back.
Unsurprisingly, Atlanta controlled most of the ball over the opening period of the match. But as we’ve seen at times in the past, the Five Stripes didn’t look dangerous in the last third. Just look at Atlanta’s pass chart below.
Despite completing 91% of their passes in the match, Atlanta only attempted three passes into the 18-yard box, completing one.
And if we needed any more proof that the attack was bereft of ideas, let’s look at the cross chart.
Before the match became 11-v-10, we did see a couple of semi-dangerous moments for Atlanta that ended up with Ezequiel Barco on the ball.
As we see, FC Cincinnati are sitting deep and Atlanta are in attack mode, pressing the FCC back line and forcing them to play the ball long, ending up with Barco on the ball in space.
Even though Atlanta looked mostly toothless in attack in the early going, they didn’t seem bothered on the other end. But a pair of poor decisions from left wing back Jake Mulraney changed everything.
Let’s watch his first yellow card.
Good lord. This could’ve been red. And there’s no reason for the challenge, either. Atlanta’s defense is behind the ball and settled, and Mathieu Deplagne is not in a dangerous position when Mulraney decides to go in with studs showing.
And now, the costly second yellow.
We’ve discussed FDB’s aggressive use of his wing backs and how this can put the defense in tough positions. But this is not the reason for the errors here from de Boer’s left wing back, as the defense is fully recovered in both instances.
Furthermore, Mulraney is caught ball watching and the wrong side of his marker, leaving a simple ball in behind. Let’s take a more detailed look from a different angle.
We see Mulraney early in the clip and he’s already back in his own half. He would have had plenty of time to drop goal side of Joe Gyau and cut off the pass. But when the ball switches back to the right, he’s not only out of position, but also ball gets caught ball watching for a split second before the pass, which likely costs him a chance to get to the ball first.
Positional indiscipline aside, Mulraney also makes a mental error by plowing through the back of Joe Gyau when he has cover inside from Miles Robinson, who we’ve seen run down even the speediest of attackers in these situations. Certainly this was a dangerous situation to defend because of Mulraney’s error, but it didn’t have to result in the Five Stripes being down a man.
FdB Goes Conservative
We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the pros and cons of Frank de Boer’s attacking system, which throws bodies forward and tries to dominate matches thoroughly. But once Mulraney was sent off, the manager fundamentally altered his team’s approach.
“After 26 minutes when you get a red card, then your plan goes overboard,” De Boer said afterward.
Indeed, de Boer overhauled the plan after the red. Watch this angle from the skycam just moments after the red.
Atlanta have switched to a back four, with a deeper line of four across midfield, and are now now dropping off the ball, setting their line of engagement around midfield. Comparing this to the press we saw earlier, it’s clear that manager was quite serious about changing his plan after the red card.
As we can see from their slow possession and lack of positional fluidity, FCC surprisingly remained conservative themselves, resulting in similar long spells of possession for the remainder of the first half as we see above, with FC Cincinnati cycling the ball around harmlessly, and showing little attacking initiative.
In the second half, Atlanta continued to sit off against FCC, and Jaap Stam’s group began to find a little bit of joy in attack, even though they continued to take few risks going forward.
As we can see, the previously docile long spells of possession are beginning to result in more dangerous chances for Stam’s group. And as the underdogs continued to grow into the match, they took the lead through a similar period of play.
There are several errors on this sequence. The main culprits being Jeff Larentowicz and Brad Guzan. Watch below how Larentowicz reacts late to goalscorer Frankie Amaya as he sneaks behind him, and is allowed to turn and face up Atlanta’s defenders.
And now we can see from this view that Atlanta’s goalkeeper didn’t cover himself in glory either.
Guzan is too far off his line to make the save, and the shot didn’t exactly hit the top corner.
After a brilliant opening match of the tournament, Pity Martinez struggled mightily in the defeat against Cincinnati.
Needing a bit of individual brilliance to get them over-the-top in a match where they were down a man, Atlanta didn’t get that performance from Martinez, or Barco, who was mostly quiet other than the half chance we watched earlier.
Without Josef Martinez available, Atlanta needs more from its two most dynamic attackers. The duo combined for one chance created and one shot on target against one of the league’s worst defenses. Even with their talismanic striker available, that wouldn’t be anywhere close to good enough from two players with hopes of playing in Europe.
As always, it’s important to put things into perspective. Atlanta haven’t played for four months and it’s only been two matches since they’ve returned to the pitch. But most importantly, Josef Martinez still isn’t here. And the Five Stripes likely would’ve been going through a similar transition without him back in March, had the league not taken a long layoff due to COVID-19. While much of what we’ve seen is discouraging, part of the struggles were to be expected without Martinez leading the line.
But yeah, context aside, that still sucked. And now, Atlanta’s MLS is Back Tournament hopes hang by a thread heading into their final group match against Columbus.