Talk about a nail-biter. Atlanta United pulled two goals back in the second half to win at home against Inter Miami on Wednesday night, but during the first half the playoffs seemed to be dwindling away.
Enter the Brazilian Chef, Luiz Araujo. Shortly into the second half Barco got fouled for the 145th time (that’s almost accurate). Araujo then set up to take a free kick from just outside the box. And for reasons unknown, no one decided to play the role of foundation for the wall that was blocking Luiz. He saw this glaring weakness and did what great players do: exploited it. He slotted a beautiful ball low through the wall that evened the score at 1-1, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s heart began to beat. In the post-match press conference, Luiz pointed out what he was thinking as he prepared the shot. “At the time of taking the free kick, I saw the wall was tall. At the moment, I decided to go on the ground to surprise the goalkeeper and the wall.” And surprise them he did. Araujo also mentioned that it’s his “job to score goals or give assists,” which is the statement you want coming from another star player when it’s almost identical to how Josef sees the game.
Speaking of Josef, this match also had some referee think he could rob El Rey of a goal. It was incredibly frustrating because it was an outstanding header, which is an aspect of Josef’s goal-scoring that has been missing a bit. He was called offsides somehow and the goal was disallowed. But a very short time later, Lennon played a quick pass to the Brazilian Chef, who chopped it up nicely and served it on a platter for Josef. He finished it with class and ultimately gave Atlanta United the full three points to push further towards playoff contention.
One very important and likely underestimated effect of this match is this: Atlanta showed they could fall behind and fight back to a win, which is probably one of the most crucial confidence builders a team can have, especially going into the playoffs. George Bello hits on that in his interview, and Gonzalo Pineda and the Chef himself also chime in below.
Atlanta United FC head coach Gonzalo Pineda
On his opinion of how the match started:
“Inter Miami was playing a lot of balls in behind and trying a lot of those types of balls, with some that Brad [Guzan] took, some others that we dealt with appropriately, but some others that were very dangerous. So yes, we were worried about that, but we were more worried about possession. We felt that it was too lateral, a lot of lateral passes, but we never tried to break shape. I felt that in the second half, that was an adjustment, but specifically in the first half, yes, we were more concerned with ball movement being too slow or not fast enough to break lines. From the defensive side, [Gonzalo] Higuain was playing very well between the lines, and he is a fantastic player, so it is hard to stop him at times, but they were surprising us with those runs in behind.”
On his thoughts about the team’s play in the final third:
“I think that happens. When we trained during the week, we saw that Inter Miami was playing a 4-2-3-1 formation most of the games, but today they were playing a back five and changing the movements that we had just trained, which is not an excuse, but is something that maybe the players were not understanding the spaces or the gaps that we wanted them to expose. At the same time though, I thought at times we created a couple good half chances, one from [Luiz] Araujo that if he just passes it lateral to Josef [Martinez] then maybe it is a goal, a couple crosses from [George] Bello, a couple crosses from Brooks [Lennon], what we call the primary zones, and we just could not find those final passes or final touches, but I thought the second half was much better.”
On playing Josef, Araujo, Ezequiel Barco, and Marcelino Moreno together more often:
“We have been training, I think a couple weeks ago actually, we trained the whole week with a back four just in case this type of moment comes up, so that we do not feel like we have not trained this situation enough. The thing that maybe you guys do not know, is that [Marcelino] Moreno did not train the first two days of last week, which is one of the main reasons why he did not start the game, because he was struggling with some injury to his foot, and he could not even walk. That is one of the reasons we could not train the 4-2-3-1 again with him included, and then I had to choose the 3-4-2-1 that was also working very well, but we could have put Moreno in since the beginning. We know what he can provide to the team, and we know we probably look more dangerous with him on the field, it is just about the balance that we can sometimes lose with the four players in the back and two fullbacks going up at the same time, which can lead to us being exposed at times in transition. If we can find the right balance there, we can put those four attackers on the field at the same time.”
On having to defend another one-goal lead:
“We did not really want to change because we felt that with [Luiz] Araujo, [Ezequiel] Barco, and even Cubo [Torres] receiving the ball well against big center-backs like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez. I felt that we had good transition moments, but at some point, I started to realize that they started to put balls into the box through throw-ins, corners, so I needed an extra player there, and this time the defensive sub worked. It is always like that though, it is tough to adjust, but at the very beginning I did not want to take Araujo out because I felt that he played a very, very complete game, but the last five minutes I wanted to protect us from those direct plays, and I think George [Campbell] did a fantastic job on that.”
On the multitude of fouls that Ezequiel Barco is suffering:
“[Ezequiel] Barco is tricky, because even though he is small, he is very, very strong and very resilient, and he does not go down easily. Even in the training sessions, sometimes his teammates grab him a little bit because he is so skillful, so I am not worried about that. What I am worried about, is at times during the match when the same player is fouled numerous times and it seems to be a tactic from the other team, and that is the only thing that concerns me, because that is not an appropriate management of the game, and sometimes my players lose their minds because they get fouled so many times with no punishment. Today, I think there were 25 fouls against us, and yes, they had maybe four or five yellow cards, and maybe that is fair, but at some point, maybe during key moments of the game, we expect better. But no, I have no concerns about Barco going down or anything like that.”
On the atmosphere of this game:
“That is a great question because we were just talking about that in the locker-room. It was a playoff atmosphere, and we felt that the players understood how to play this type of game, so the atmosphere in the stadium, the energy that the fans brought into the field, the energy that the players brought into the stands, it was fantastic, and that type of atmosphere is what makes us happy that this is our job, because those moments are very meaningful for us. I felt that the players felt the energy, the atmosphere was great, and I hope the next game can be something similar.”
On the reactions from players during halftime facing a deficit:
“I am very proud of the reactions of the players. They were very mature in the locker-room at halftime, and there was no panic and they knew we were ok, it was just one goal, and I think we had more possession than [Inter Miami], and with the adjustments, we expected to create some final product. But the reaction from the players was very mature, making people accountable for certain things, certain movements, correcting certain things, but overall we were all very positive, and that is the type of reaction that I want from my team. I could not be more proud of how this group of young, talented players reacted in this moment, which tells me again that the mentality of this team is getting stronger and stronger. For me, the first comeback of the year, for this group of players, is massive. For me, this is a testament of what they are going to do at the end of the season, coming back when three months ago no one was saying a good thing about any of them, but now they are back and in a good position. I am very, very proud of them, because at the end of the day, it is those guys in the locker-room and the guys that log minutes on the field are the guys who deserve the respect, so I am very happy about that.”
Atlanta United Defender George Bello:
On the team rallying from a deficit for a win and what it says about team:
“I feel like it says a lot. It shows our grit, our determination in these last few games. We are showing teams that we are still here and we want to finish the season well. We want to make the playoffs and do well in the playoffs. So, like I said, yeah it’s the first time this season it happened (coming back to win after conceding the first goal) and it shows where we are at as a team. If we are down, in the moment or in the game, we can come back and do it. It was good to see.”
On if he took a knock in the first half:
“In the first half there was that 50-50 challenge near midfield and I got my ankle clipped. I was hurting, but it was a counter attack so I didn’t want to miss the play. After the attack was over, then I went down cause it was sore. It’s pretty sore now after the game, but I’ll take care of it tomorrow and I’ll be good to go.”
On the physicality of the match tonight:
“It was a very physical game, a tough game. It always is like that against Miami. That’s the type of games you want to be in and experience. I feel like it’s good for us as a team to experience that. Like I said before, I think tonight we showed where we are at as a team right now. A lot of teams may be tired or on the downswing this time of year and I feel like we are on the upswing.”
On the team’s performance in both halves tonight:
“I wouldn’t say we were worried in the first half. Football isn’t always perfect. We found ourselves down in the match and maybe not playing as well, but I have the confidence in my teammates that we will be ok and fight through it. Nobody was blaming each other. We just looked at what the situation was and work from there. We showed a lot today and I’m proud of the team.”
Atlanta United Forward Luiz Araújo:
On if he practices the type of free kick he did tonight:
“Yeah, in training we train this a lot. At the time of taking the free kick, I saw the wall was tall. At the moment, I decided to go on the ground to surprise the goalkeeper and the wall.”
On today’s match:
“I’m very happy with this match and it was a big game for us. I’m very happy about scoring and giving an assist to Josef (Martinez). This is very important for my adaptation here. The most important thing is that we got the three points as a team.”
On his role/importance in the team:
“I think every single player is important. When Josef is not in the team, when Barco is not in the team, when Marcelino isn’t in the team we notice those absences as well. We notice the absence of every single player, but we need to find ways to win the game with absences or not.”
On being concerned about the physicality with team being fouled 25 times tonight:
“Our attack is very fast and at times the only option is to foul us. We have to be focused and ready that every opponent is going to try and do this. We have to be smart and if they foul us in and around the box, we need to take advantage of those opportunities.”
On how he keeps his cool with so many fouls in the match:
“This is my profession. It’s my job to score or give assists. The profession of the opponent is to stop us. Sometimes they have to resort to that.”
On how the team is balancing wins with playing attractive style:
“In football you have to get points in order to qualify for the playoffs. We work a lot on this in training, how to balance the attack and defense. Today it was a great job from our team. We were down 1-0, then we were up 2-1. We had to attack first, then close the game and take the three points.”
On meeting the club’s expectations of making the playoffs:
“Like I’ve said, I’m a young player. I have a little bit of experience playing at Sao Paulo, a big club in Brazil, and I won a title in Ligue 1 with Lille in France. I have to use what I’ve learned at those clubs and help my teammates here and help us get in the playoffs. Gonzalo is a great coach, that’s why he’s here. You don’t come to a club like this without having great potential. We are going to continue to push for our objectives.”
Torcida de Atlanta, 3 more matches! Let's go pic.twitter.com/OopoJZPKHS— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) October 28, 2021
As close as the match was, and as scary as the finish was, it must be known that Atlanta showed some heart. Listening to (or reading) Pineda’s quotes about how the team reacted in the locker room at halftime is very telling. On a personal note, I distinctly remember seeing Josef and some other players coming out for the second half smiling and joking around with each other and I thought, “Their mindset is right, they can turn this around.” Earlier in the year, this team would have been down in the dumps after going down a goal at home.
Marcelino Moreno and the halftime changes were also significant, and though Pineda and the team have some fine-tuning to do on finishing and managing games, credit needs to be given to the manager for seeing what wasn’t working and fixing it. It’s much better than the square-peg, round-hole, hammer-hard concept of his predecessor. The question then arises in relation to the front and midfield, to BAMM or not to BAMM? What if the full BAMM is actually the next level of super sub?
Finally, someone please take Josef’s reaction after the goal and add in the Super Saiyan effects. For me. Simply because of my angry tweet at halftime. He set it up perfectly.