In the match preview, I outlined a game plan for Atlanta United at Yankee Stadium that I thought responded to the unique challenges posed by their opponent and the allegedly inadequately sized field of play. Briefly, the plan was “don’t get caught in possession, hit long and press the 2nd ball, if the press is broken, foul. Make the game ugly if need be.” I also questioned whether Viera would continue to play the ball short and build from the back in possession, or specifically change it up against Atlanta’s high press and play the ball long. I also prayed for a Carlos Carmona screamer and worried about David Villa and Maxi Moralez.
How they played
NYC did in fact play a bit more direct against Atlanta. They played 17% of their passes long, compared to 14% which is their home season average through 10 weeks (for reference, MTL and VAN hit long the most at 20%, Columbus the least with 12%). And NYC completed 76% of their total passes compared to their season average of 86% at Yankee Stadium. For the most part, the shift towards more direct play was effective in neutralizing Atlanta’s high press, and even created a few good chances for the pigeons. Below are the defensive action maps for both teams as well as some indirect pressure stat tracking I’ve started.
By my count, up against Atlanta’s press, NYCFC completed 90% of the passes that terminated in their own half, failing only on 12 passes and 1 failed dribble in their own half. This is the best any opponent has done against United this season (alongside Montreal who was up a man and likes to play long). But the other thing playing more direct accomplished, because everything is connected, was it forced Atlanta to create chances not by winning the ball up the field with numbers advantages (and the resulting through balls), but instead by either playing long out of the back (which I think was probably the better option?), or building out of the back (please God no on this pitch). When Atlanta tried to build out of the back, NYCFC unsurprisingly pressed high, which forced the visitors into some bad passes and turnovers, which we’ve become used to so far this season. Atlanta missed 25 passes in their own half and failed 4 dribbles. The fact that this was not the worst performance in this regard of the season (39 missed passes and 3 failed dribbles against RSL) is testament that Atlanta did at times skip (or were forced to skip) the midfield buildup in favor of a more direct option. In fact they played also played 17% long balls compared to their season average of 15%. Also of note, to my eye, Carmona and Larentowicz seemed to me to play more of a double pivot than we’ve seen from Atlanta so far this year with Gressel more central ahead of them and Almiron (nominally left) in a free role. Very often, it seemed as though Garza was all alone on the left flank, or worse, too far forward when the ball turned over leaving the entire left flank open.
Experiencing the first half in real time vs on Memorex
When I watch my favorite teams in any sport, it’s very difficult to be objective. I’m anxious the entire time, and it’s easy for me to focus in on the negatives: chances not converted, bad touches, missed opportunities to shoot, individual mistakes. ASA put up a great piece this week on which MLS teams shoot or pass or dribble in certain situations relative to one other, but perhaps what I enjoyed most was the acknowledgement of “negativity bias” in the introduction to the article:
I bring it up because watching this game was a fairly negative experience (and I don’t just mean the facebook live broadcast). Because my own preference was to see more direct play, and because despite predicting a 3-1 loss, I was definitely hoping for a surprise away win to compensate for the very odd and perhaps unlucky home loss to DC, the first half was an anxious affair for me, and one in which I convinced myself that Atlanta were extremely lucky to not be run out of the building in the first half, and further I convinced myself that they were getting killed by turnovers. Upon watching the replay, there was some of this I guess. But mainly, there was just the one really good attacking move from NYC which David Villa finished well, (we’ll talk about the goals conceded further below). Up until the goal in the 18th minute, NYC really didn’t threaten much, and Atlanta had some half chances – which at the time seemed dreadful, but c’mon in hindsight, on the road in a weird stadium against a great team – this is very good. After the goal, NYC did create some chances off of Atlanta’s turnovers but nothing came of them. And Atlanta had some (but not much at all) success playing long and winning the second ball. Gressel laying off to Villalba for this shot comes to mind.
The Carmona prophecy goal was a nice mixture of skill and luck, which we can’t really count on to recur often, but it did get me thinking about how Tony Pulis should manage this NYCFC team after Viera, and how everyone should be trying long throws as often as possible. Quick tangent: since the pitch is so narrow, why doesn’t every team just hit diagonal balls to the corner flag, and press the subsequent throw-in? Then, after some pin-balling, if you get a throw-in yourself, send it into the middle of the box over and over again. This combined with a high line and a sweeper keeper behind it should be pretty dominant. Anyhow, at half, perhaps Atlanta were lucky to be level, but not as exceedingly lucky as I felt at the time.
In the second half, NYCFC killed us.
The most important point about the second half is just how much better NYCFC were. Here are the shots and dangerous passes for each side:
One thing that jumped out to me in the second half is that at times Atlanta really gave up the press, or in other cases NYC beat the press, impressively. For instance, the first half begins with NYC baiting Atlanta off the start and going right through the press up the center to create the dozen or so chances that happened on that one play in the first minute.
The second goal for NYCFC in the 60th minute surprisingly came from a moment of seeming defensive rest on the part of Atlanta off the ball. NYC has no problem whatsoever cycling the ball through midfield and then out wide for the low cross into Wallace. I couldn’t find any good gifs or screens of the buildup because … I don’t know facebook? but here’s the map. When you watch it, it’s striking for the lack of pressure that Atlanta puts on NYC. Interestingly on this topic, if you break the defensive actions on the field down by half you see this (left, ATL first half. right, ATL second half):
If anything, it looks like Atlanta’s press slowed up in the second half. The travel and high intensity style could be getting to the boys — something to keep an eye on.
Shortly after, Atlanta gave up a goal on a long ball from Sean Johnson that Pirez and Parkhurst both tried to play but misplayed (similar to last week’s OG against DC where they both kinda tried to be involved but neither really cleared it, and not too terribly dissimilar from this play from Parkhurst from the opening game – a mildly bad clearance). And for that matter, while it’s hard to find the highlight footage of the buildup to the Villa goal in this game, Pirez comes way too far out hunting for the ball, which creates the opportunity for Villa to run uncontested at Parkhurst and into the box. Look, I’m not saying there’s a crippling issue here. I think we’ve got one of the best centre back tandems in the league, and it’s easy to *negativity bias* your way into evaluating centre backs. But I bet it’s safe to say they’re working on their overall positioning and communication a little bit after the past couple weeks. I know if I’m an opponent scouting Atlanta, I’m looking at the route one approach as a second half alternative to pressing.
On building identity versus optimizing points
While a second viewing suggested the team was more diverse in its tactics than I felt watching live, I still think Atlanta’s approach to this game wasn’t tailored enough to the opponent and to the field. To me, it seems obvious that on such a short and narrow field you’d want use somewhat barbaric tactics to maximize your chances on goal and minimize your opponents. This would mean hitting long, focusing on winning second balls and clogging the midfield. Any turnovers in the center in such a short playing area mean you could be facing a shot within a second or two. Now, I am completely willing to accept that there’s a tradeoff between optimizing for your opponent week to week and instilling a philosophy and playing style for the long haul in a brand new team. To the extent that some of these failings were down to putting long term goals in front of short term ones, I can be persuaded away from my opinion, which is this: MLS teams have to grab whatever points they can on the road, expansion teams more so, expansion teams missing key players even more so. The goal is to make the playoffs, and once you get to the playoffs, if anything, the game will be much uglier and back-and-forth, so to the extent that you sacrifice crucial points in the short term for the hope of having a pretty possession style of play locked down come postseason, you may be find the fruits of your efforts underwhelming and ill-fitting. Having said all that and having come dangerously close to suggesting I know anything at all, here’s why I know Tata Martino “gets it.”
Martino is not pulling punches, and he makes the rare and refreshing managerial choice to downplay a somewhat lucky goal the team scored rather than say some hackneyed crap you might hear someone like Brendan Rodgers (shots fired) say, like “we were level on points at the 60 minute mark, unlucky to not come away with a result.” Martino’s quote here, and others from Parkhurst and the rest of the team suggest to me that they understand the game is first and foremost about creating chances and minimizing your opponents — he sees a lack of chance creation from his team and too many conceded to his opponents. In the end, this assessment mirrors what the expected goals models tell us of the game (2.91 to 0.52 — a bludgeoning).
If you’re going to walk into one of the best teams in the league’s stadium, down a DP striker and your main assist creator, and play them “straight up” on their funky pitch, you have to be OK walking out of there with nothing — I said as much in the preview. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team isn’t too beaten up about this very thing happening. The alternative of course is to call an audible and do something less attractive to maximize points on the road, but it’s hard to get too worked up about that trade-off until we have a more clear playoff picture, much later in the season. Hey, no red cards!
Postscriptum: Return to Finishing
To return to the finishing soap box for a moment. I think it’s worth reflecting on Atlanta’s supposedly poor finishing last week early against DCU and to compare that to NYC this week. The play to begin the second half featured several point blank shots in a row for NYC which Kann, Pirez, Mears, and Pirez again ultimately kept out. I can guarantee you that no one is pulling their hair out in the NYCFC organization (nor in their fanbase) about not finishing those chances and putting Atlanta away. That’s because the quality of their side came through in their sustained chance creation in the second half, not in their clinical finishing or elite focus to put teams away in a singular moment. Just more food for thought that can help us fight negativity bias and all the other fan impulses that come as added baggage for fans (like me) of other American sports.
Travelling this weekend beginning Thursday afternoon, so I might miss the Portland preview post. @ me on twitter with any observations ahead of that PTFC match, and I can retweet them in place of an actual post this week 🙂