1st Half – 11 v 11
Kenwyne Jones’ suprising inclusion in the team sheet aside, the first half played out as one would expect, with Atlanta on the front foot and pushing high and pressing decently at times, and Montreal sitting back and countering, decently at times. I thought the balance of chances was fairly even going into half time, Atlanta getting some extra credit for going about their plan confidently and proactively on the road. As is the case with most ATLUTD matches, there were plenty of dangerous counters thwarted at the last minute with the final pass just off or the ball lost in a take-on in the final third. There were many empty seats in Montreal for some reason.
Atlanta’s Press with Kenwyne in the side
With Martinez and Asad out, Kenwyne starting was definitely one of the few real options for Atlanta, and one that made sense given Montreal’s propensity to sit back and counter. It still surprised me (I’d assumed more of the same from last match) because I was very curious to see how the pressing action would work with Kenwyne leading the line. In the first half, it worked well, and here’s how it worked from what I could tell.
While Kenwyne did put in shifts pressing the back line, it was much more common to see Almiron or Gressel or others sprint at the Montreal defenders passing Jones as they moved forward. Also, when Atlanta played long out of the back, Kenwyne would also try to flick on to Almiron advancing ahead of him.
Kenwyne opens the scoring
Atlanta’s goal in the 40th minute fascinates me. It seems to be first and foremost a goal keeper distribution error on the part of Montreal’s Evan Bush, but it’s unclear if it’s just Bush’s mistake or if his defense shares blame, or if Atlanta set a clever trap and deserve more credit themselves.
I’m not an expert, but I’ll give this a try. There are several ways to play the ball out of the back from the keeper. But, as I understand it, there are two main branches in the decision tree. You can split the centre backs wide (and push the fullbacks higher) and try to play the ball out of the back through the CBs, or through the center to the central midfielder if the CB’s are covered. If the #6 is also covered, you are now potentially playing a more difficult diagonal to the high fullbacks (which is what Montreal attempted). That’s all 1 branch of the tree. The alternate branch of the tree, and the one you default to if you don’t see an opening in the above line is to push everyone up and keep your centre backs tight together and hit the ball long to your striker and deal with the second ball. The centre backs must be tight here because if your opponent wins the ball in midfield, you don’t want them playing a ball through the center to an open forward 1-on-1 with the keeper. Here’s how it happened for Atlanta.
I. Bush (GK) plays the ball out of the back. Notice the centre backs are split wide and the fullbacks (just off screen) pushed higher as a result. Any turnover here would be a real problem for Montreal because Kenwyne is in a great position for a counter. Perhaps Bush sees Villalba pushed so high on the right, Montreal’s left, compared to Almiron on the opposite flank and he thinks the most advantageous play is to start something with the fullback pushed higher behind Villalba? Notice Camara (CB) at the bottom of the screen free to receive a pass although Almiron is more than willing to sprint up and press him upon receipt. Ciman (top) probably shouldn’t receive a pass with Villalba close enough to make things difficult for him, which is fine (see image below)
2. Below, the ball is played towards the fullback Oyongo on MTL’s left, but it’s not a great ball and Carmona does exactly what you should: press someone who’s in a vulnerable moment. Villalba is making himself available in acres of space for the ball to bounce out of there to him or for a pass. Centre backs are still wide with Camara off screen and Ciman has the added conundrum of needing to deal with Villalba. Kenwyne is completely free should something happen (it does). (see image below)
3. Carmona wins the ball off the long distribution and plays it forward quickly to Villalba who immediately turns and looks upfield in one motion. Kenwyne knows the run he has to make and stays onside, which is key. No sign of Camara who is caught too far wide, and Ciman has a lose-lose decision to make with Villalba turning to run at him (see images below) but no one else to cover Jones.
The ball is perfect and Kenwyne’s one-time shot from the top of the box is a true finisher’s touch — the keeper still on his way out and not in a position to get bigger and make a save, expecting a controlling first touch from Kenwyne to allow him time to plant or spread. Jones just puts it right by him at the near post with his first touch. Sweet. It happens so quickly. The verticality
A note on this goal. For whatever reason that ball from Villalba was not coded as a throughball by Opta. It’s not important, but it is odd to me. I’ve seen this several times this year for big Atlanta chances. Wondering what’s up. If you care about the expected goals models (and you don’t have to), it seems to me like this would underrate some chances and might result in perceived overperformance versus the models. shrug.
The Red Card
John Fuller has a good write-up at DirtySouthSoccer on the rules surrounding fouls in the box and denials of goal scoring opportunities as it relates to LGP’s red card at the end of the first half. I suggest you read it. The most important point I take away from his piece is that the rules are written (and the spirit of the rules are such that) if you believe Pirez fouled Mancosu on that play, then it is very hard not to give a red card. That is to say, if it *is* in fact a foul on Pirez and not just two players going for the ball and getting tangled up, then the rest of the facts start pointing towards a red card. Mancosu would be free on goal if he were to control the ball, and because of the nature of the contact (two players boxing one another out) Pirez is by definition not playing the ball, and Mancosu is between Pirez and goal. If (big if) it were a foul, it probably would be categorized as a push given that it’s not a ball tackle, and a goal scoring opportunity that is a push is a red card. This is all important because it seems like a vast majority of ATLUTD fanbase (count me among them before i read John’s piece) is saying the penalty is debatable but probably fair but the red isn’t. And while this is the most conceptually fair decision (rewards Mancosu for his positioning but doesn’t unduly punish ATL), it is not a decision that was on the table. So, it’s either no foul at all (or a yellow for simulation to Mancosu) or it’s a red. I’ll save my treatise on why soccer is the best sport in part *because* the ref has so much latitude to apply professional judgment to important moments for a later date. Suffice it to say, I would’ve preferred the ref ignore the rules for a moment to get the call “right” as they so often do. But faced with the choice between two lesser alternatives, I suggest it was not a foul at all.
I’ll also spare you a rant about Cabrera’s two-footed scissors tackle from behind on Almiron in the 13th minute, the one that got *none* of the ball after Almiron left him in the dust like an And1 mixtape while starting a dangerous numbers-advantaged counter that was halted by the….*passes out*
The second half opened with Atlanta, down a man, playing a 4-3-2 or something like that with Villalba working his ass off alongside Kenwyne, who would drop back occasionally to defend set pieces. Walkes came on for Gressel. Amazingly, Atlanta kept the press up throughout the 2nd half, even as late as the 85th and 88th minutes, when Almiron won the ball high up and created counters. Did I mention they were down a man? Rewatching these sequences makes me happy to be a supporter of this team, and not a team like Montreal (however good Piatti is). There’s not much to say about the Montreal goal at the end of the match. Nothing Atlanta can do. Can’t stop what’s comin. This team should be proud of the performance.
Almiron first half (left) vs second half (right). I love how he plays further forward in 2H.
1st Half Atlanta defensive actions (left) vs 2nd Half Atlanta defensive actions.
Look at that. Kept the pressure up despite being down a man. I’m not sure how many teams in MLS would try this.
Special shoutout to Tito
Hector Villalba had a great game even if you can’t tell it from the charts. The team asked a lot of him this weekend especially after the red card, and he delivered. Ran constantly, pressed threatened on the counter. These are things that are difficult to keep up for long stretches, let a lone when you are down a man. Villalba’s throughball assist was sublime. He now leads all ATLUTD players except Josef Martinez in expected goals + assists per game with 0.45/96min. Almiron put in an incredible effort this game as well, but it seemed fair to highlight Villalba after he started the season out with a couple quiet games. This guy is a proper designated player.