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Film Room: How Atlanta United crumbled in the face of Crew’s pressure

A failure to press, and a failure to beat a press is a bad combination.

Atlanta United FC v Columbus Crew SC - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Crashing Out

Atlanta United suffered its third consecutive 1-0 defeat on Tuesday at the hands of the Columbus Crew, surprisingly being eliminated in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, in the process.

Needless, to say, Atlanta’s performance in Orlando was poor. In the first match, we saw Atlanta go down to New York Red Bulls, as Chris Armas’s side took advantage of a natural vulnerability in Frank de Boer’s system and also some poor defending from the Five Stripes. Against FC Cincinnati, we looked back on Jake Mulraney’s costly lack of discipline, and saw Atlanta’s defense disappointingly concede against an FC Cincinnati side that showed little attacking onus.

And against Columbus, we’ll see Atlanta losing the battle of the high presses over the first 30-minutes, unable to successfully pass out of the back against the Crew’s high pressure, while also seeing their own press broken. All of this eventually would lead the only goal of the match.

Looking back, the match was surely won in that crucial opening half hour.

Columbus’ Press Breaks Atlanta

We’ve discussed already how de Boer wants to play, controlling possession and dominating games. The Crew began the match ready to challenge that desire, pressing Atlanta from the opening whistle.

Below, we witness Caleb Porter’s tactic right from the opening kickoff, as they pressure Atlanta’s defenders and Brad Guzan, forcing a direct ball from Guzan out of the back. Atlanta actually does a nice job of breaking the pressure. But commit the below sequence to memory, as it was one the few times the Five Stripes were able to successfully maintain possession from back-to-front.

Atlanta didn’t have many ideas for beating the press, with their spells of possession often ending either with a hopeful long ball from Guzan or the back three, or an individual error from the Five Stripes on-the-ball. Let’s watch below, as Columbus force the ball back to Guzan on multiple occasions, and eventually win the ball after an individual mistake from Pity Martinez.

Now, we continue to see Atlanta bamboozled by the press, with a predictable ball from Guzan, and an on-ball mistake under pressure, resulting in goal scoring opportunities for the Crew.

Columbus Breaks Atlanta’s Press

We saw above how Atlanta were unable to break Columbus’ press. And now, we’ll watch as their own press is broken.

The key to it all was Harrison Afful. Watch below how the Crew use their right back as an outlet to break Atlanta’s press.

We already discussed how Atlanta’s inability to break Columbus’ press lead to chances for Caleb Porter’s side. And the Five Stripes’ inability to effectively press their opposition yielded similar results.

And now, watch below as the Crew use Afful not once, but twice, in the buildup, continuing to find the soft spot in Atlanta’s press, and eventually culminating in a chance for Gyasi Zardes.

The Goal

The match’s only goal exposed both of Atlanta’s aforementioned issues.

Let’s watch below, as the sequence of play begins with Columbus winning the ball back in familiar fashion.

And now, the goal. Columbus hold possession beautifully, again using Afful, when needed, to break into space.

Pivotal Moments

De Boer did adjust to Columbus’ tactics.

“I said some things during the hydration break that Fernando Meza needs to play like a defensive midfielder and Barco like a winger,” de Boer said. It wasn’t exactly how we wanted it. So, I changed two guys at halftime. They couldn’t build up anymore and I think we pressured them very well. That’s why I think we created enough chances in the second half.”

Indeed, Atlanta did look more dangerous in attack with an extra player through the midfield (Eric Remedi subbed on for striker Adam Jahn in the second half to solidify the move), while also using Barco and others to track Afful and correct the weaknesses in their press. But already trailing 1-0 by that point after conceding the only goal of the game, those moves clearly came too late.

In all, Atlanta’s subpar opening half hour cost them dearly, as they found themselves pressed into submission, whilst seeing their own press sliced through like a knife through hot better, eventually culminating in the game’s only goal. In the end, those opening 30-minutes made the difference in the match.