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Talking Tactics: When Tactics Don’t Matter

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Individual errors cost Atlanta United in Chicago.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Chicago Fire Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

By this point, we have a decent idea of Gabriel Heinze’s philosophy and system. And we’ve also documented Atlanta’s struggles trying to adapt. But last weekend in Chicago, a depleted lineup showed how little tactical systems can matter when players make individual mistakes, especially on the defensive side. Let’s take a look at the Fire’s three goals.

Goal 1

After a relatively even first 30 minutes of play, the Fire’s Ignacio Aliseda found the net for the first goal of the game.

Considering this play wasn’t a quick-developing counter against a scrambling defense, it’s hard to accept leaving a player of Aliseda’s quality unmarked inside the box. So, what lead to the chance? As we see below, Atlanta begins the play looking relatively comfortable, with everyone marked up.

But then, mistakes from Atlanta’s center midfielders, Mo Adams and Tyler Wolff, allow the opportunity for Aliseda. Watch below as Adams overpursues the skilled Álvaro Medrán, who turns him with ease and moves towards goal. We also see that Wolff could have easily slid over and covered this move. Instead, he watches Medrán cruise by.

The rest is academic. Miles Robinson is forced to step to Medran, and leave Aliseda unmarked. Adams shows great commitment in trying to recover, but is unable to stop the goal.

Goal 2

In Atlanta’s system that insists on passing out of defense, there is a lot of pressure on the defenders to play the ball accurately and efficiently out of the back. And if the pass goes awry, the Five Stripes defense is left exposed, with little they can do to prevent a shot on goal. And after a shocking ball out of the back from Anton Walkes, the Atlanta defense faced this exact dire situation.

Aside from the poor ball, you’d also like Erik Lopez’ to play a little “stronger” here, and not allow Walkes’ pass to be picked off so easily.

Now, let’s take a look from a few more angles.

Put simply, there is no positional or tactical system that can account for this costly of a giveaway. Once Miguel Ángel Navarro intercepts the pass, there’s little to nothing Atlanta can do to prevent the strike from Aliseda.

Goal 3

The nail in the coffin came behind another goal featuring defensive errors from the visitors. Once again, a lack of balance and awareness in defense allows the Fire into a dangerous attacking position.

We know that Heinze likes to leave an extra man back to protect his two center backs. Usually, this player is Santiago Sosa. But with Sosa missing in Chicago, Adams took on much of this responsibility. But as we see below, this cover is non-existent for Atlanta’s center halves as the attack develops.

Let’s watch one more time as Atlanta’s midfield abandons its responsibilities, with Adams overcommitting forward, Tyler Wolff getting caught in no man’s land, and Ezequiel Barco failing to track back. This leaves a gaping hole for Aliseda to make his move off-the-ball run through the middle, and drive into the space that leaves Atlanta’ backline exposed.

Adams probably should drop into space and cover as Brooks Lennon initially pressures the ball in midfield. But instead, somewhat similar to his mistake on the first goal, Adams comes rushing in to challenge, this time bringing the double team alongside Lennon. It’s this overzealousness that leaves the aforementioned gap in front of Atlanta’s center backs. And once the Fire break through the the center, the rest of the Atlanta defense are playing catchup.

Mistakes, Mistakes, and more Mistakes

There’s been much discussion of Atlanta’s failures from a tactical side this season. And on one hand, the team perhaps deserves a bit of slack, as it is still adjusting to the demanding system of Heinze, and also still awaiting the full speed return of Josef Martinez. On the other, the failures of Atlanta, especially in attack, have been quite unsettling after 2020 yielded similar results, and considering the Five Stripes brass’ constant insistence on attacking soccer.

But aside from the teams shortcomings between player and manager, the loss in Chicago was not about tactics or philosophy. The individual errors made defensively certainly aren’t acceptable and cannot be overcome by any system or strategy. Regardless of how Atlanta continues to evolve under Gabriel Heinze, the results will not come if mistakes persist like those we saw in Chicago.