As expected, RSL came out with an intention to play on the front foot with high pressing and a commitment to building out of the back. This may have been just what Atlanta was hoping to see, and they capitalized on 2 goal keeper distribution mistakes similar to last week’s goal against Montreal. Atlanta’s pressing intensity remained high (despite Kenwyne Jones presence up front) and the overall team speed was exciting to watch throughout the match. Importantly, Atlanta was willing to play more directly in the face of RSL’s pressure and this helped to minimize high quality chances for the opposition. There were some nervy moments in the last 20 or so minutes of the first half, and then as the game was brought within one goal midway through the second half, but Atlanta kept up the pressing and remained dangerous and were ultimately rewarded with the sublime Gressel to Vazquez transition night cap.
Atlanta dominated the chance creation game, suppressing the home side’s shot output (9 shots, 2 on target) and more importantly keeping the quality of those shots exceedingly low. I suspect
playing more directly in the face of RSL’s press had something to do with this. Often Atlanta would line up as if they intended to build out of the back (CBs aggressively on
either side of the 18 yard box horizontal to Kann), but the keeper did not force it when it wasn’t there and when RSL pushed high to challenge this setup, Kann would boot it long to Kenwyne who was handy for this. Importantly, Atlanta minimized RSL transitions from these types of plays with ATL defenders quickly pressing up to eliminate space should RSL win those balls in midfield. Overall, RSL seemed to create some joy on their right flank from Brooks Lennon often one-on-one with Garza (with Asad often floating and pinching in), but the winger’s crosses rarely were accurate.
On the attacking side of things, Atlanta’s 11 shots isn’t particularly high (in part due to game state effects – leading most of the game), but the quality of the shots is very high (6 shots on target, and overall averaging 0.22 expected goals per shot compared to RSL’s 0.05). Quality chances happen when you win the ball high up with very few defenders between you and the goal. It also helps to be insanely fast as a team (both in terms of raw pace) and also speed of thought in transition. Atlanta are creating “open,” “one-on-one-with-the-keeper,” and empty net chances at a seemingly historic rate.
Goal Focus: trapping keeper distribution, again
One such chance, the opening goal, will look familiar if you watched the Montreal match last week (or if you read my recap 🙂 ) RSL’s centre backs are split wide and Rimando, their keeper, plays a long pass through the middle while being pressed by Yamil Asad. Carlos Carmona, for the second week in a row, makes a play on the ball and sets up the transition move that will lead to the goal.The ball pops out into space which Garza chews up to recover possession and plays a well-weighted ball through for either Asad (who is onside and in plenty of space) or Almiron who is eagerly running into the gulf between RSL’s two centre backs. This is another one of those very good direct key passes (shot assists) to a streaking Atlanta attacker that’s not categorized as a through ball by Opta, but looks like one to my eye.Asad dummies, seeing Almiron’s run and Miguel has a great chance. A couple of rebounds later, Atlanta has its customary early transition goal.
A note on keeper distribution
The two keepers took opposite approaches in this game. Left (above), is Nick Rimando, faithfully trying to make his manager happy and build up possession playing short through the back line. Look at all those green passes! Right (also above) is Alec Kann hitting it long time and time again, completing a mere 52% of his passes. Thing is, Kann had a fine day and Rimando had a nightmare with 2 of Atlanta’s goals coming from pressing his distribution. This is not the first time (nor the second) that I’ve stressed how critical it can be for Atlanta to play direct when pressured. Against a team who’s willing to play ATL straight up (and RSL was), direct play does not diminish Atlanta’s greatest strengths which are pressing aggression, speed, and transition play. Against a team who sits back and puts bodies between the ball and the goal, more possession and buildup play will be necessary (and who knows, we may see that very soon), but Martino and company played it right this time out, on the road against a confident RSL side.
Is there no one else?
It might be obvious that I’ve been holding out so far on the most important moment of the match. And for that I apologize. Thank you for your patience. It is time.
Before this match, I had a feeling Yamil Asad was my favorite player on the team, but since there are so many great players on the team (#gresselmania) I wasn’t willing to commit. Until now. In the opening minutes of the second half, following another goal keeper error / high press / turnover / empty net Atlanta United goal (I know, I know), something remarkable happened. I haven’t seen this covered yet, but Yamil Asad pulled off the goal celebration of the season. Please watch the slideshow below as Asad channels his inner Achilles as played by Brad Pitt in 2004’s Troy. Immortality, take it. It’s yours!
I doubt we’ll see anything as class as that for the rest of the MLS campaign. Let’s see if another on-fire ATLUTD attacker, with even closer ties to the Greek epic poem can top it.
Hector! …. Hector!
I heard some nonsense on a certain Atlanta United focused podcast… something about Hector ‘Tito’ Villalba not carrying his weight as a designated player so far this season. I’m not sure what more you want from this guy. He’s tied for 7th in MLS in goals (4). He’s tied for 10th in MLS in assists (2). He’s averaging 0.96 goals + assists per 90 minutes (10th), which is very very good and probably will not continue. He’s putting 62% of his shots on goal, and converting 50% of his shots on target into goals. He’s done all this with flexibility, putting in the hard work at the #9 spot and wide right. He’s the fastest player in the league and he stretches defense and creates space for the other attackers. Soccer is a difficult game and scoring goals and assisting goals is hard. When you watch the games, it’s OK to be frustrated in the moment when a chance isn’t converted, but you have to have some perspective. The very best players in the world miss big chances, but they also create chances. At the moment Villalba is both scoring goals and creating goals for others at a rate that’s unsustainably good. For reference in 2016, Giovinco ended with 1.1 G+A/90, Valeri with 0.65, Mauro Diaz with 0.53. Villalba’s 0.94 through 7 games is in good company. Which is a mediocre segue to…
Postscriptum: Atlanta’s Attacking Output (7 matches in)
Atlanta continues to find themselves towards the bottom of the league in shot attempts per game, but at the top of the league in almost every other shooting metric. Excel, engage.
We’ve talked about what’s going on behind these numbers. Aside from the likely impact of pure chance, Atlanta are creating a low volume of exceedingly high quality shots, many of them 1-on-1 with the keeper or facing an empty net, mostly by turning teams over in their own defensive thirds and breaking at pace with numbers advantages. The high quality of these chances in turn probably makes it is easier for the players to keep their shots on frame and also more likely that the shots on target are converted into goals.
I often complain about the expected goals models undervaluing the quality of Atlanta’s chances because they can only indirectly measure the extent to which Atlanta’s chances are uncontested by opposition defenders. I wonder if, going forward, we can monitor the openness of a team’s shots in another fairly indirect way by looking at an aggregate ratio of shots on target to blocked shots. Here’s how that looks through 7/8 weeks in 2017:
Atlanta is seeing very few of its shots blocked relative to how frequent it gets shots off that test the keeper. Watching the games, I know why this is the case with Atlanta (superior breakaway chances). While I don’t watch enough of the other teams on the top half of this list to know whether it passes the eye test in terms of “open-lookedness,” I’d like to keep an eye on it going forward. Let me know what you think as well.
Similar to the discussion about Tito above, I’ve heard some chatter around the need for Atlanta to “do better in the final third” or if only the players would “finish their chances better.” While, I take a more lenient stance on this sort of discussion than proper analytics people do, it doesn’t appear to me like finishing is a problem for this team. So to the extent that you find yourself frustrated with the team or a player’s inability to put a game away, you may be able to find some solace or zen by looking at those bar charts above and thinking more holistically about the nature of chance and randomness in soccer. The sooner you accept that chances will be missed, the sooner you will find inner peace with your team and the sport itself. You can also look at this table:
While, this will surely regress, Atlanta United are more accurate than AND are converting their shots on target at a better rate than every global giant of the sport this year.