Preview: Montreal vs Atlanta (4-14-17)

Perhaps a lighter, more rushed preview this week. Let’s see how it goes. Sorry no pictures.

Montreal look bad so far, but

Montreal has the lowest expected goals differential per game in MLS at -1.23 (thanks AmericanSoccerAnalysis), primarily due to the lowest expected goals for in the league at 0.58 per game and the second highest expected goals against, averaging 1.81 per game. They are also second to last in the East and in the Supporter’s Shield table. Having said that, I think this could be their first win and Atlanta could fall for the first time on the road on Saturday.

Montreal has only played one home game thus far, drawing the Sounders after going up 2-0 in the first half (final expected goals: 0.71 – 2.28) which we referenced in the Seattle scouting report a coupe weeks ago.

Somewhat similar teams, unexpectedly

Montreal shoots infrequently (9 times per game compared to Atlanta’s 11 who is 17th in the league in shot volume) though Atlanta is much more accurate, tied for first in the league with 5.2 per game compare to Montreal’s 3.2 (second to last). Montreal allows 15.6 shots per game compared to Atlanta’s 13 (both teams allow plenty of shots).

Montreal plays the 4th most long balls per game of any team. But both teams want to play very direct and in transition. Montreal leads the league in interceptions with 17.2 per game (Atlanta at 6th with 14.4) and fouls per game with 16 (Atlanta at 6th with 13.8). Neither Atlanta nor Montreal like to cross the ball (20th and 22nd, respectively). I think these teams are more similar than they are different, Atlanta with a greater appetite for applying high pressure.

Monoscu & Piatti are the two most dangerous for the home side (0.59 expected goals + assists per game each over the course of the 2016 season).  Their numbers are about half that so far this season (reflected in the bad expected goals output to date), but they’ve played 4 out of 5 games on the road, and it’s a smaller sample size, and there’s not much reason to think the full 2016 output is not representative of what we might see in Montreal this Saturday. It seems like a similarly formidable test as Jozy + Gio was from last week.

Throughballs

 

Atlanta United loves a throughball (1.4 key pass through balls per game so far). Twice as many as the next highest team and putting them at elite levels if they were to sustain this throughout the season. The league leaders in through-ball-key-passes for the past 4 seasons were Dallas (0.5 per game) in ’16, Red Bulls (0.6) in ’15, Montreal (0.9 & 0.8) in 14′ and 13′. So Atlanta *probably* won’t sustain this, but if they even get close to sustaining it, they are going to be very successful. This is critical because if you’re averaging a successful key-pass-through-ball per game, it means your’e consistently getting the best kind of scoring opportunity (1on1 with the keeper). Will they be able to unlock Montreal and find one of these passes on Saturday?

 

Game Plan to Replicate

As I like to do, I went looking for games in 2016 where Montreal was significantly bested in terms of chance creation at home. And I got 3 hits.

9/29 vs San Jose (-0.88 Exp Goals Difference) although Montreal won the game. So I’ll keep going.

10/16 vs Toronto (-0.87 Exp Goals) and they drew the game. From the highlights, it looks like while there were some break chances, Toronto was mostly successful with crosses into Altidore (I see you Kenwyne).

8/21 vs Chicago (-1.1 Exp Goals) and the Fire killed Montreal 3-0. This one looks like it could be a winner as Montreal were very vulernable to countering throughballs in this game. The key in this one, to my eye at least, is that the Fire got on the board early and then were able to counter Montreal who had to chase the game a little bit. Montreal looks vulnerable to the types of passes Almiron loves to play, but we probably won’t see much of that weakness if they are able to bunker in and counter. So it would be critical for Atlanta to score early. Remember now, I have a terrible record at predicting teams not to press us, so the less I say about this the better probably.

Why this might not work…

I fear that Asad’s absence will be a huge blow for Atlanta. If United’s defining attacking threat so far this season is throughballs, and further, if its success against Montreal is dependent on these chances, then Atlanta will miss Asad who has contributed roughly a third of this very high quality output. When you watch him, you can see that he’s got an eye for a pass in addition to his great work ethic and commitment to making runs for others to play throughballs as well, but I’ve gushed about Asad on this blog before. How should Tata replace him?

Shape

My best guess is we’ll see the same setup we saw against Toronto (the weird false 9 / lopsided diamond thing) with Almiron pulling strings between the lines and wide forward/wingers, but with Peterson replacing Asad on the left. The trouble with this is that while Peterson should provide plenty of engine and a willingness to get forward, I’m not sure he can replicate the combination play and general position fluidity of Asad-Almiron, nor the penetrating passes. The most like for like replacement for Asad might actually be Andrew Carleton but it would be asking a lot to start the youngster in his first MLS appearance on the road in Montreal. With so few tested options, the Kenwyne led 4-3-3 is also possible. It would just be a drastic change in pace/style for a team that has played mostly the same way so far this season.

Prediction

If Piatti plays, the pessimist in me says 2-0 to Montreal, the first coming from a fast counter off of an Atlanta turnover in midfield or with the away side playing the ball out of the back. Then as Atlanta pushes fullbabcks forward to chase the game, they get hit with another. This goes differently of course if Atlanta scores first or if the game is played end to end at a high pace.

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