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The AfterMath: Atlanta United 3-1 Chicago Fire

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Chicago gets burned again in Atlanta

MLS: Chicago Fire at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

If Johan Kappelhof ever sees an early-season trip to Atlanta on his team’s schedule again he should run away. Very fast. Back in 2017 it was his red card for DOGSO that led to the 4-0 mauling that was the Five Stripes’ first ever home win. This time he scored the winning goal in another mostly one-sided affair. You almost feel sorry for the guy.

Not.

That aside, the key number for this game was 18. That’s the number of shots Atlanta took during the game. By comparison the team averaged 9.5 shots per game last season, the lowest in team history, and averaged 15.0 in the championship season of 2018. That’s quite a hammering on the opposition goal, and 6 of those 18 shots were on goal (more should have been, too) for a healthy 33.3% accuracy rate. Further, 12 of them were from inside the penalty area, although of those 12 only 1 scored.

Again, the team’s xG only rose to 2, which conveniently happens to be how many the team scored, although the xG on Barco’s golazo must have been pretty low, and Jake Mulraney’s miss should have had an xG of at least 2 all by itself. Chicago’s xG was only 1.3, by the way, and the actual goal was down more to defensive miscommunication than anything else. And yet, Bobby Shuttleworth was forced into 4 saves on the game (as was Brad Guzan in fact).

But quantity has a quality of its own. Keep pounding away and the ball will eventually find the net. If nothing else, it’s fun to watch. No more of that Dutch Totally Boring Football. The South American flair is back with a vengeance. And if Atlanta can keep up this form of entertaining attack soccer all year, it’s going to be a fun season. Heck, by midsummer Gabriel Heinze might qualify for the Olympic high jump competition.

But of course goal-scoring opportunities don’t create themselves. And it’s not as if Heinze is not a cerebral manager. Far from it. So the question is: how did Atlanta get itself into scoring position so frequently?

Well, possession was a major factor. United had 61% of the ball during the game. That’s pretty dominant, and it’s not like they were messing around with it in the backfield as they did much of last week in Orlando. That being said, the heatmap seems to suggest that they did precisely that:

Chicago looks almost identical to Orlando, but note that Atlanta did get penetration into the final third. Pay particular attention to the green blob in the lower right corner. That’s a combination of Jake Mulraney and Jürgen Damm, as well as to some extent Emerson Hyndman (who was a major factor in this game even before his goal). Between them they got very deep On the opposite side of the field, it’s George Bello (who had a quietish but very effective game), but mostly Ezequiel Barco, who did what he has always done: force his way into the middle from the wing. The difference with Zeke is he seems to have finally figured out what to do with the ball once he gets it inside.

And then here’s the kicker: United were ruthlessly efficient with the ball once they got it deep. Passing accuracy overall was 83.8%, a respectable but not abnormal number. In the attacking half it dropped a bit to 73.6%. But in the final third it picked up again to 74.5%. that doesn’t seem like a big improvement, but for that third it’s unusually high.

OK, back to the heatmap. Note that on the Atlanta side there’s a gap in the middle of the attacking half. They simply went around Chicago. Or rather, they forced Chicago to compress into the middle. The passing network charts show this quite well:

Chicago was playing a 4-2-3-1, which usually lends itself to a wide press. But look how tight their front 4 were playing. That’s somewhat true of the back 4 as well. Atlanta on the other hand is spread fairly wide, and note also the heavy interplay between Bello (#21) and Barco (#8) we have already highlighted.

The Five Stripes were set up in a 4-3-3, which seems to be Heinze’s formation of choice. But as in previous games, it was used flexibly. In his system, it operates as the defensive version, the 4-1-2-3, with Santiago Sosa as the defensive mid. That is the formation that Jose Mourinho preferred when he was at Chelsea, so scratch everything I already said about not being boring.

Except of course Heinze has found a way to make it not boring. For one, he uses it as the basis for counter-attacking, which United is now doing more than it perhaps has ever done. Second, he uses speed, and that’s with Damm starting on the bench. Barco is clearly getting faster, and Mulraney isn’t exactly a tortoise either. Third, he uses midfield pressure. In this case, Emerson Hyndman was the key man. As measured by Second Spectrum (an advanced tracking firm hired by MLS last year), he pressured the ball almost 50 times. He also played relatively centrally, which means he was able to push the ball inside into traffic.

One more thing about Heinze: he is not afraid to use younger and less developed players. That was also the case with Stephen Glass, of course, except that Glass was working with a very fewer good options. Heinze has been given the senior talent he needs to help develop that younger talent. Already this season we’ve seen Machop Chol. This week we saw Jack Gurr’s senior debut (OK, he’s 25, but he has only one USL season under his belt). And let’s not forget Rios Novo, who was unable to play in the weekend’s season opener against Louisville City as he will likely be on the bench for tomorrow’s CCL game against Philadelphia. And Heinze has complained, with justification, about MLS’ rules on academy players too.

The fun is back, people. Feels good, doesn’t it?