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Roll the Tape: A look at Atlanta United’s defending in its 1-1 draw to Toronto FC

Pressing is the name of the game

SOCCER: MAR 04 MLS - Atlanta United FC vs Toronto FC Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s that time of the week again when we take a look at some of the film from Atlanta United’s match and break down some key moments. Today, we’re going to be analyzing the Five Stripes’ 1-1 home draw to Toronto FC.

You guys seemed to enjoy last week’s analysis, so here is week two of using pictures, tactics and my world-class artistic abilities to take a deep dive into what we saw in the latest game.

This week, I’m going to try something different. Instead of one article where I analyze both the attacking and defending, I’ll split them into two articles: one for defending and one for attacking. That way, we can look at more plays each week and I won’t have to worry about these getting too lengthy. In this article, we’re going to focus on defending.

So without further ado, let’s get right into it.

Big Chance - Toronto FC 50’

The first play we’ll be looking at happened just a couple of minutes before Toronto’s goal. The Reds found a way through with a series of quick passes and begin getting forward.

Ayo Akinola is totally surrounded by Atlanta United players, so he has a choice: he can take on the defender in front of him - none other than Miles Robinson (circled in red), one of the best 1v1 defenders on the continent - or he can pass to Jonathan Osorio on his left (blue arrow) to take advantage of space on the other side of the pitch. Akinola wisely opts for the latter.

What Osorio is probably thinking of doing here is taking on Brooks Lennon, dribbling past him and getting space for a shot (dotted blue arrow that looks like it was drawn by a drunk guy). That option goes out the window, however, when Luiz Araújo comes up from behind to block the space Osorio was eyeing (red arrow). The Canadian international is forced to pump the brakes and wait for support, which is coming down the left side in the form of Raoul Petretta (dotted yellow arrow).

Having found the window to pass to Petretta, Osorio sends the ball his way (blue arrow). Petretta will carry it to the edge of the 18-yard box (dotted yellow arrow) to try and find a target for a cross. Keep an eye on Federico Bernardeschi (circled in purple), he’s going to be key in just a second.

Petretta is quickly closed down by Araújo, so he can’t get a good cross away on his dominant left foot. Osorio sees this and runs out of the box (dotted yellow arrow) to get the ball back from the Italian fullback (solid blue arrow). Are you still keeping an eye on Bernardeschi (circled in purple)? Good, just checking...

Osorio is able to turn and now has the positioning he needs to fire an absolute dime of a cross to the edge of the six-yard box (blue arrow). But why? Who could possibly be... oh no. Bernardeschi is all alone and running to receive Osorio’s cross (yellow arrow) which puts him 1v1 against Guzan. To Atlanta’s relief, Guzan makes the save and the play was called back for offside anyways.


  • Every player has a role in defense - it’s a big part of the famous Dutch system of “total football” which is the foundation for most (if not all) tactics in the modern game. Having attackers like Araújo and Caleb Wiley get back and assume defensive roles is very important so the team can create numbers advantages, regain the ball easier and start a counterattack.
  • WATCH THE RUNNERS!!! Sure, Bernardeschi was offside, but Wiley didn’t know that. The youngster takes his eyes off the Italian for mere moments and the next thing he knows he’s getting ready to fire. You absolutely have to keep an eye out for those kinds of runs especially from a player as lethal as Bernardeschi.
  • Robinson and Guzan are back. Robinson’s skill in 1v1 situations forces opponents to look for other avenues of attack. Guzan’s save at the end of this play was not an easy one to make. Of course, the play was offside anyways, but seeing him react quickly to those shots from close range is a good sign.

Toronto FC Goal - Bernardeschi 52’

This play really started from the middle of the field, but the ball was worked back to Sean Johnson in Toronto’s goal.

Here we see Johnson under intense pressure from Araújo (red arrow). In the position he’s in, he has three options: attempt a pass to Richie Laryea (dotted yellow arrow) and risk Araújo (who is much closer and faster than he appears) intercepting it, blast it out for a throw-in or time a pull-back perfectly (solid blue arrow) and find Mark-Anthony Kaye wide open down the middle (dotted blue arrow). Johnson opts for the latter.

Johnson succeeds and Kaye receives with his back to incoming Franco Ibarra (solid red arrow) and a couple of options. The simplest one would be a pass to Petretta (dotted yellow arrow) - the teammate he’s facing and could most comfortably pass to with his dominant left foot. The problem with this choice is that (out of frame) both Matheus Rossetto and Brooks Lennon see that possibility and quickly move to close down Petretta (dotted red arrows). Petretta would then be left in a pretty awkward position and the move would likely end there. Kaye knows this. Instead, he waits for Ibarra to get close enough and sends a short pass into space (blue arrow) for Michael Bradley (blue circle) - now free from Ibarra’s mark.

This is where things start to look dire. Bradley receives with plenty of time and space to make up his mind. The easy choice would be passing to a static Jonathan Osorio (dotted blue line). But the 35-year-old American midfielder sees a better option: a long ball to Bernardeschi (solid blue arrow) who not only has a running start but also has the advantage that Atlanta’s numbers are waaaaaaay too far upfield to get to him in time. In this frame alone, there are seven out of ten of Atlanta’s players. The Five Stripes try to get numbers back (red arrows), but none of the players pictured here will get back quickly enough to have any effect on the play.

Now, we’re in this position. Seem familiar? That’s because this is almost exactly the same scenario that led to San Jose’s goal last week: right-winger receives with tons of space ahead and is barreling toward the goal while Andrew Gutman furiously tries to close him down (red arrow). The difference? That Cristian Espinoza is a right-footed right-winger - more of a support winger whose main role is to put in crosses, cutbacks and occasionally shoot if he gets the chance. Bernardeschi, on the other hand, is a left-footed inverted right-winger - in other words, he’s more likely to cut in and take a shot with his dominant foot. And that’s exactly what he’s about to do. That’s why he chooses to go toward the middle of the box (blue arrow) where he can get a better shot instead of continuing down toward the edge of the 6-yard box like Espinoza did (dotted yellow arrow).

This frame is a great illustration of just how screwed Atlanta United was during that play. First of all, Atlanta is outnumbered three to four in their own box. Don’t even bother counting Lennon, Rossetto or Wiley in this play as they’re too far to do anything. That 3v4 quickly turns into a 2v4 when Bernardeschi breezes past Gutman-

Uhhhhhh... sorry, Andrew. For what it’s worth, I think you had a great game overall! No hard feelings... right?

Anyways, back to business. Bernardeschi beats Gutman (blue arrow) and has the opening for his shot. There’s not much the defenders can do at this point, but Juanjo Purata moves back to cover the channel in case Bernardeschi opts to pass to Laryea (red arrow). That pass never comes, though, as the 29-year-old Italian fires a low shot toward Guzan’s near post to put the Reds up 1-0.


  • Seeing Atlanta United pressing high and harassing the opposing backline is great and all, but having numbers forward is a calculated risk. Unfortunately, a quick breakaway left them exposed and resulted in a concession during a game in which they were largely dominant. The team needs to be mindful of how many players are getting up and out of position during these plays to prevent them from getting burned on the counterattack.
  • When you press high, you’ve ABSOLUTELY GOT TO BE ORGANIZED. You can’t just leave someone wide open down the middle of the field and then abandon your man to go press him without someone covering the space you just vacated. Pressing needs to be executed as a unit because the whole point is to strangle the opponent by cutting off their options. That all goes out the window if even ONE player is left unmarked. That’s exactly what happened in this play and Atlanta got punished for it.
  • Save for a couple of errors, this play saw Atlanta United executing the kind of pressure that Gonzalo Pineda wants out of this team. From Araújo quickly going after Johnson when he got the ball to the awareness of players like Rossetto and Lennon identifying pressing triggers (such as Petretta potentially getting the ball from Kaye) and acting quickly. It didn’t work for them on this occasion, but there are encouraging signs that the system is finally clicking with the squad.

Good Pressing - Atlanta United 86’

For the last play, we’ll be looking at what happens when the press is organized and executed well. Here we see Toronto trying to make the best of one of their few chances toward the end.

In this frame, we see Atlanta United set up in a good mid-block where everyone involved is covering space well. Bradley just received the ball, but his options at the moment are few. In this frame, only Petretta and Bernardeschi are left open (circled in purple). Why? Because they’re very close to the far touchline.

One of the important things to keep in mind is that the touchlines act as a constant source of pressure for attackers: they can’t be dribbled past, force a turnover if crossed and will never go anywhere. Most (if not all) pressing systems instruct players to force the opposition toward the touchlines because that makes it much easier to close them down.

In this case, if Bradley chooses to pass to either of them, they’d probably be closed down quickly by Rossetto (circled in red) or the incoming Araújo and the ball would go out for a throw-in. He also can’t pass back to Kaye because Almada will see it coming and immediately close him down (red arrow). Had Brandon Servania on the near side chosen to make a run toward the box (dotted purple arrow), Bradley might’ve been able to send a long switch of play over to him, but the 23-year-old American never did.

Seeing no other options, Bradley chooses to run into the space (solid blue arrow) to draw Rossetto toward him and free space for Jonathan Osorio to receive the ball (dotted blue arrow). Before we move on, I wanted to call attention to how well set up the backline is in this frame. All four defenders are in a straight line (yellow line). This allows them to move together and execute an offside trap or get plenty of numbers in the box should Toronto somehow find an avenue inside.

After passing the ball to Osorio, Bradley tried to run around Rossetto to receive the ball again (yellow arrow), but Rossetto stays in front of him the entire time. Being closed down quickly, Osorio needs to pass it to whoever he can, so he opts for Bernardeschi (solid blue arrow) hoping that Petretta can offer him support with an overlapping run (dotted blue arrow). Note the triangle being formed by Araújo, Rossetto and Lennon near the far touchline (red lines). This gives Atlanta a very good defensive structure as they’re sort of pinning down three of Toronto’s players to the touchline. This is all part of the plan.

Bernardeschi is immediately under pressure from behind by Araújo and has Rossetto quickly closing in from the side (solid red arrow). He can’t pass to Bradley, Rossetto would easily intercept it. He’s not in a great position to return it to Osorio (circled in yellow) and passing to Hugo Mbongue (circled in purple) is just asking for a quick turnover since Purata would handily win the ball from the 18-year-old Canadian. Bernardeschi instead decides to continue forward (solid blue arrow), draw Lennon toward (dotted red arrow) him and pass to Petretta (dotted yellow arrow) making the overlap on the touchline (dotted blue arrow).

Lennon breaks off his run toward Bernardeschi to press Petretta (solid red arrow) who only has one option in this position: pass it straight back to Bernardeschi (solid blue arrow) and hope he can beat Rossetto. Ibarra reads the play and identifies an important pressing trigger: Bernardeschi is about to receive the ball with his back toward the Argentine midfielder. Ibarra makes his way over to Bernardeschi (dotted red arrow)...

...and puts in a really good tackle to regain possession and begin a counterattack.


  • Pressing works really well when everyone is on the same page and no gaping holes are left for the attacking side to expose. Each player in this play knew when to step forward and when to stay back and cover, which allowed them to break down the attack before it turned into a legitimate chance.
  • Atlanta United’s players are getting much better and quicker at identifying pressing triggers. This is key to executing an efficient press and it’s a very encouraging sign moving forward.
  • The touchline is your best friend when defending. USE IT. The more you can back the opposition against the touchline, the harder it’s going to be for them to find options.

That’s it for this week’s defensive analysis! Stay tuned for an article analyzing Atlanta United’s attacking plays later this week. Let me know what you think of this breakdown in the comments down below!