March 31: Seattle vs Atlanta

The big news as soon as the team sheets were announced was that Atlanta would start without Carmona and Almiron, while Seattle was without Dempsey and Roman Roman Torres. This eliminated what I’d picked out as a major gameplan, which was exposing Torres’ passing. Also, the Larentowicz-McCann-Gressel triangle worried me slightly. Villalba lining up at striker was also surprising with Peterson filling in for him wide right. I should say that as soon as the lineups were announced, I thought a point would be a great result for Atlanta and feared a worse outcome, mainly because it was a strong Seattle team playing at home. Needless to say, I was pleased with the result. Let’s dive into the performance a bit. (pass maps from MLSSoccer.com/Opta)

Both Teams Pressed

A major prediction I got wrong in the preview/scouting report was the assumption that Seattle would let Atlanta’s press come on to them an be happy to sit back and counter. From the opening whistle, it was clear that Seattle were here to press just as much if not more than the away side, and in fact, they kept the press up for most of the game. To me this is the most important trait of the match and it made it a lot of fun. Below are the unsuccessful passes in each team’s respective halves (left: Seattle, right: Atlanta).

I count 16 failed passes terminating in Seattle’s half to 22 missed passes in Atlanta’s half. Not pictured above, but you can add 1 failed Sounders dribble in Seattle’s half and 9 from United in their own half. What this means is that the two teams were constantly turning each other over in midfield and countering at pace. The opening few minutes of the game demonstrated this, as Sounders immediately pressed high and forced a clearance from Kann (0:16) after Atlanta played the ball around and to the keeper. Atlanta immediately got the ball back and played it back around the back line while being pressed. It wasn’t long before Alvaro Fernandez had recovered a ball in the center circle and immediately played a ball over the top to the sprinting Morris (1:03) but it was dealt with by the Atlanta defenders (sequentially, Atlanta’s buildup on the left, Seattle counter on the right):

But 20 seconds later, Atlanta had a shot on target from Asad. To rewind, Parkhurst recovers Fernandez’ ball plays it to Mears, who has it taken away, then Seattle is turned over by McCann who plays a good forward ball to Asad (not unlike Seattle’s break only seconds earlier). Seattle’s turnover left, Atlanta swift counter, right:

I’m not going to torture you with these minute increment maps for the rest of the post, but my point is that within 80 seconds of the whistle blowing, possession had changed a handful of times, and both teams had at least one dangerous turnover and a countering ball forward to threaten (Atlanta with a SOT). This would persist for most of the match, happening time and time again. Other examples include the Gressel turnover, which Shipp turned into a great low Morris cross for Roldan (which Larentowicz barely thwarted) and shortly thereafter, the very very familiar looking, turnover and counter through ball from Asad to Tito, almost rounding the keeper just like Martinez. Here are some more comprehensive views of the pressing (recoveries, interceptions, tackles for Seattle, left and Atlanta, right) then below the location of dispossessions and unsuccessful touches according to whoscored.com:

Very high pressing. Both teams poured forward attempting to and often successfully turning over the opposition. It’s hard to pick a winner in this battle, but if I had to it would be Seattle probably. Importantly, both teams’ back lines did tremendously to make sure little materialized from these transition/turnover/countering opportunities (SEA left):

Chances

Well, there’s a lot going on there, but for Seattle, only 1 shot on target all game, and it was from outside, and in terms of chance creation, it’s primarily crosses that make their way into the box successfully. For Atlanta, I believe those two shots off target in the central areas are off of set pieces, so meh, but Atlanta’s key passes are deadlier overall here and not pictured are some great through balls that didn’t materialize in shots. As a fan, I remember seeing many transition opportunities for ATL, but the final ball often was not there or Seattle dealt with the chances well. And similarly, I held my breath several times as Seattle charged at our back line only to see Pirez or Parkhurst do something amazing. And that’s my point here. AmericanSoccerAnalysis had the expected goals tally at 1.28 – 0.88 in favor of Seattle and 11tegen11 had something similar but lower for both teams. For a game featuring the blistering pressy/countery throughball happy Atlanta and an equally pressing, Seattle with Lodeiro who can swifty punish with long balls on the counter, you would expect to see something different in the shots and shot assists graphics. Begs the question, why?

Larentowicz on Lodeiro

Larentowicz had a great game (86.5% passing compared to his midfield peers Gressel and McCann at 69% and 79% respectively). He thwarted the early Morris to Roldan chance even if he got beat by Dempsey on the free kick in the 2nd half. But he did an admirable job keeping an eye on Lodeiro. I might be making this up, but it seemed to me at times that Larentowicz was “man-marking” Lodeiro when Atlanta was in possession, and when Seattle were in possession, if Lodeiro roamed away from the central area, Larentowicz would hold and shield the centre backs. Otherwise, he stayed at Lodeiro’s hip, at least until Dempsey came on. Lodeiro still created plenty, but I can’t help but think that it should’ve been more given how wide open the game was for so long (left Lodeiro, right Jeff).

But it wasn’t just Larentowicz. Parkhurst and Pirez did some really great stuff, especially in that first half to thwart otherwise promising moments from the Sounders.

Corner Kicks

So after, three consecutive matches of almost exclusively short corner routines to open its inaugural season, Atlanta mixed it up against the Sounders, taking 3 “proper” corners and 0 short ones. These caught my eye as I was watching the broadcast live, because they seemed a bit more thought out than your average “send it into the box” corners you expect to see. So I thought we’d explore a bit.

First, there was some inherent misdirection here as 2 ATL players (Asad & McCann) stood on the ball at the corner for each attempt – implying they would continue to play them short – and the Sounders covered the short corner threat adequately with 2 players of their own. Seattle played a predominately man defense in the box + Alonso covering the near post zone. For each of Atlanta’s corners, they had Villalba make a near post-ish run, and a couple different things happened.corners.png

  1. 27th minute – Villalba darted from the center of the box towards the corner flag, shading the near post area as he started his sprint, Alonso stepped forward off the post in a moment of hesitation and Asad fizzed in a ball into the six yard box. Something about this whole routine (the short corner expectation & the run from Villalba and the step from Alonso made the keeper to hesitate as well, and he ended up on his line as Larentowicz was able to get a head on the ball at very close range (you can see it if you scroll up to Jeff’s chart in the above section). It wasn’t a free header but it was a header. This first corner may have been the best chance. When I watch it, Seattle seems fairly surprised, as I was, that it wasn’t played short.
  2.  51st minute – Same set up from both teams. Villalba made a near post run into the zone where you’ll often see a defender standing (the “first man,” but in this case the zone was somewhat vacant cuz of the short corner threat), and Asad fizzed the ball into this area and Villalba flicked it on into the box causing some panic. Alsonso on the near post was late to cover the zone just past Villalba’s flick . Ultimately cleared.
  3.  53rd minute – Same set up from both teams. Villalba again makes the near post run, but this time his run is shadowed by Larentowicz as the ball is played over the head of Villalba towards Larentowicz. Alonso comes off his line to challenge Larentowicz and heads it clear, effectively. [sorry I don’t have the video clips].

Fascinating. First, why did Atlanta change it up and move away from the exclusive short corners strategy. Was it because Almiron is such a big part of those routines? Or was there a grander design here? I’m not ruling out the latter. I see a clear progression of simple yet potentially designed plays to exploit the near post zonal aspect of Seattle’s otherwise man-to-man corner defense. First, the Villalba run designed to break the near post zone a bit, with ball low and into the center of the box – caused real panic. Next, the near post run for the flick on, bypassing that zone, and third the near post decoy run, with a shadow run behind it, again exploiting the near post zone. Look, I could be totally wrong here and assigning credit to something that was not rehearsed at all, but I think it’s also possible that the team set these up specifically for the Seattle game. Reminds me of choreographed play action or option plays in American football, where each play stands on its own, but the sequencing also threatens by the time the third comes around. There’s enough smoke here. Regardless, I’ve been pretty impressed with the corner routines throughout the season, despite no tangible results from them.

Substitutions

It was interesting that the two biggest stars came on in the second half and had similar roles, and created similar results. Dempsey and Almiron both came on with very little defensive responsibility or position rigidity (aside from some very active high pressing from Almiron). Both were there to create something special in an otherwise gridlocked contest. Dempsey struck first, out jumping Larentowicz on the long free kick to head the ball off the post, then he created some danger with a nifty backheel pass that became a cross that almost became a Will Bruin headed goal. Then, later after a period of somewhat chaotic shape from Atlanta, Almiron created a chance for himself, and then ultimately for Kenwyne (the 3rd sub), two of the best Atlanta chances of the game. It was great cinematic dueling. Carmona was also substituted on not long after Almiron, and I should note that the team’s shape was really confusing me at this point. Asad slid right (from the left), and Carmona occupied the McCann #8 spot with Gressel the other and Jeff the #6, and Almiron played left, but only nominally. I rarely saw him there. He floated everywhere when Seattle had the ball – often high and central, looking for space to receive a ball and create a good counter chance if Atlanta were to regain possession (this didn’t do Garza any favors). When Atlanta had the ball, Almiron would drop deep to receive it and potentially help out against a Seattle press, although their press did finally die off some late in the game.

Conclusion

It was a really big, and not unearned point for Atlanta. I think this game more than any other so far, suggests that this isn’t just any expansion team. Atlanta is ready. Missing its MVP striker, and starting the game without its superstar #10 and central hub #6, it still threatened the defending champions early and often on their home turf despite the home team unexpectedly (to me at least) coming out with a surprise attack high press tactic. The team dealt with it admirably when in reality this is difficult to cope with for any team, regardless of experience of chemistry. At times they passed through the press and created chances (rewind to the 8th minute for something special); at other times, they turned the ball over and scrambled to cover. The turnovers in midfield made the first half quite tense for me, and I’ll be interested to see if ATL continues to play on the ground through the back all the time going forward. For my money, I find this team to be just as dangerous playing more direct and pressing the second ball when the longer passes are not completed– and that has the added benefit of fewer less dangerous turnovers for the opposition to pounce on. At the same time, it felt great to see this team pass with confidence under those conditions. It’s also worth noting that Kenwyne played well when he came on, and you wonder if he could’ve caused real problems early on for the second choice Seattle centre backs. I know Martinez with Villalba wide right would’ve been a handful.

Postscriptum -thoughts on individuals lest I forget them4ATLGressel

Gressel – I can’t get enough. He definitely made some mistakes in this match but he’s allowed to in his first MLS season. In my opinion, in traditional American Sports Leagues with salary caps, this is the type of player that you have to have to achieve excess returns. Further, watching this guy you can just tell he’s a true footballer. I was skeptical when we drafted him and the manner in which we identified him (small sample size of the combine), but I’m almost certain I was wrong. The two big chances for Atlanta at the end of the game were assisted by Gresselmania.

4ATLPirezLeandro Gonzalez Pirez – Man of the Match for Atlanta. In a game that was so wide open because of the pressing and turnovers in midfield, each team had to have a guy that saved them the point. LGP was it for Atlanta. A headed clearance comes to mind that saved a goal in the opening minute of the second half. And a last ditch tackle on a breakaway in the first. But there were many others that left me in awe.

4SEAroldanChristian Roldan. If Pirez was that guy for Atlanta, then Roldan was it for Seattle. He was everywhere, and his last ditch tackle on Kenwyne’s chance at the end certainly saved a point for the home side. He had moved over to right back? at this point, but for most of the game he was everywhere. And he almost converted an early chance, would’ve if not for Larentowicz’ interference.

Yamil Asad. This guy is #1 on my “plz tell me we’ll have enough TAM to trigger the 4ATLasadpurchase option on his loan” list (Garza is #2). Asad plays through balls. They often do not get coded by Opta as through balls, and I’m not sure why but who cares – watch Asad and you will see several dangerous forward balls each match? The ball he played to Villalba setting up the “round-the-keeper” chance. The quick restart he played into space for Garza towards the end of the first half. There was another great “through-ish” ball he played into Villalba that bounced off of Tito’s heel as I recall. The dude also hustles. And he makes good runs. A couple of passes were just inches away of finding him in space on counters. And lastly, he put 3 great “traditional” corners into the box today, even if none were converted.

A word on Villalba at #9. Despite not registering a shot, I thought he played really well honestly. There’s no replacing Martinez and while I was surprised to see him at striker in the lineup graphic in the prematch buildup, after watching it, he does seem like the closest like for like replacement. The important question is are we losing more on the right than we’re gaining in the center when he plays there? Easy to forget that Villalba’s presence on the right stretches a defense and creates some space for someone like Martinez. Hard to say what the right answer is just yet but Kenwyne played quite well after coming on. I’d be open to seeing Kenwyne at 9 and Villalba wide right.

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