In an intimidating away environment, Atlanta looked much better in possession and building out of the back, topping basically all other relevant ATLUTD performances so far this year in that regard. Atlanta pressed Portland into turnovers with varying degrees of success, one such time to create Julian Gressel’s first “real” goal to open the 2nd half (my wife reminded me that he “scored one” against Chicago) Portland rarely threatened in the first half, with only 1 shot on goal, a long free kick from Valeri, and a close miss from range from Asprilla. Atlanta only registered one long shot on goal as well (LGP), but there were several chances that nearly materialized into shots but didn’t (Almiron in the 34th minute and this chance in the 44th minute which didn’t register as a shot). And, this seems like a defining characteristic of how Atlanta creates chances: very, very patiently (sometimes too patiently) for a lightning fast transition team. In the second half following Gressel’s goal, Atlanta still looked comfortable. Portland’s goal came against the run of play and should have been disallowed due to multiple offside infractions. Following this goal, Atlanta continued to threaten marginally, but the threats often did not convert into shots, let alone shots on goal or goals. Portland had a couple headers off of corners and other crosses (as did Atlanta), but generally did not look dangerous aside from Guzman’s improbable wonder strike and near winner off the bar late. The Timbers were at their best playing long to Adi or on deep counter attacks off of interceptions.
I quite like what he’s developed here. They tell a pretty convincing story very quickly, and you can read more about them on his blog and on twitter.
Timbers play direct. Atlanta build out of the back. Both sides press.
To me the most interesting feature of this game is how Portland approached it, at home. Generally speaking, in possession, they skipped the midfield in buildup and played the ball long so as to neutralize some of Atlanta’s pressing and transition danger. We can see evidence of this in the passing statistics. Coming into this week, Portland was averaging a completion rate of 79% (81% at home), and they were hitting 17% of their passes long (16% at home). Against Atlanta, the Timbers hit long 24% of the time, and partially as a result, they ended up with an overall pass completion rate of 64% (very low – for reference, the “worst” passing side in MLS is DC United averaging 71%). This worked to a large degree in preventing Atlanta from creating the number of turnover transition opportunities they like to (more on this further below). This “directness” shows up in 11tegen11’s pass maps:
I also entertain the idea that there’s a scouting report on Atlanta that suggests the defense doesn’t handle long balls well – there were a couple of shaky moments.
Defensively, Portland pressed opportunistically based on the situation. For instance, they would generally press Atlanta’s centre backs and midfielders in Atlanta’s half, but stopped short of hurrying Kann every time the ball was played back to him. They would also press the counter after a turnover to slow down any transitions for Atlanta. But generally once possession was established by Atlanta, and importantly once Atlanta proved early in the game they would play through the press (there’s a nice sequence in the 4th minute and then later in the 58th), Portland started to pick their spots and did not maintain the press as constantly as NYCFC and others have. There were long(ish) spells of Atlanta buildup as evidenced by the away side’s ultimate 70% possession and double the pass attempts of PTFC.
With Asad back in the lineup, and the team having reportedly worked on it throughout the week (Gressel alluded to a long video session), Atlanta’s tidiness in their own half improved drastically and their patient buildup from the back was genuinely impressive given the environment they were in. This shows up in the stats as well. In the table below, I’ve added up all of the failed passes that terminated in play in Atlanta’s (and its opponent’s) own half plus the failed dribbles, times dispossessed, and unsuccessful touches that took place in its own half (passes/dribbles were counted from MLS boxscores, and the rest from whoscored chalkboards).
What is apparent is that this was one of Atlanta’s most impressive matches in terms of overall tidiness in possession in their own half. Only in the Chicago game, in which they were up a man for most of the game did they complete a higher percentage of their own–half passes and give the ball away fewer times. Against a Portland side that was pressing, this should be seen as a positive development. Were there moments where they were too careless? Of course. I recall a deep giveaway immediately after the whistle blew, but overall this is better. Interestingly, Kann mentioned after the game that they did not expect Portland to press as high as NYCFC had.
Defensively, Atlanta unsurprisingly pressed high for most of the match and was able to create some good chances from turnovers — including the Gressel goal. Although you’ll notice from the same table above that by hitting long more often, Portland made sure those chances were fewer compared to other Atlanta opponents (they completed passes at an average rate for an ATL opponent but still gave the ball away way a below average number of times by skipping this part of the field). Lastly on this, At the risk of getting yelled at for my lack of statistical sophistication, here’s a trend line to look at how successful Atlanta is at creating chances so far this year relative to how successful they are at turnoving over their opponents in their own half. Each plot represents a match. The outlier at the top is DC.
It’s a very small sample, and I’ll continue to build on this as the season progresses, but it passes the eye test to me with Atlanta creating few chances but higher percentage chances, primarily in transition. You can get a similar looking graph looking at opponent own-half passing percentage as well.
OK, now for something more stimulating: complaining about officiating.
Portland’s set piece goal, which quickly reversed Atlanta’s joy, came against the run of play compared to the game overall. And what’s worse is that it should have been disallowed for multiple offside infractions. Let’s take a look:
The first offense at the bottom of the screen is that Ridgewell who ends up scoring the free header is most likely in an offside position when the ball is kicked. It’s a very close call, and looking at the top of the image, you can see the assistant referee’s vision is somewhat obstructed by the other offside player Miller (7), but I see Ridgewell’s head/shoulder as likely past the second to last defender (Carmona who admittedly seems to have slightly broken the offside line set by Asad). The second offense, and one that is even more clear in my opinion is Miller, who is clearly in an offside position when the ball is played, and then clearly makes a move to try to attempt a header on the delivered ball, which freezes Kann and therefore qualifies as “clearly attempting to play a ball which is close to him when this action impacts on an opponent.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened to Atlanta this year. Recall my very first match recap where we discussed the BWP/Walkes own goal that was offside (also close but off):
Slightly unfortunate given all of the officiating-related bad bounces that have gone against Atlanta so far this year. To my knowledge none of our goals should have been disallowed (via offside or any other reason), and when you tack on these two to the rescinded LGP redcard, which turned around the Montreal game in more than one way, I would say the impacts are material after a mere 10 games played. Atlanta has also not earned a single penalty to date (one of 5 teams who share this attribute). OK, moving on.
When asked about Kann’s performance after the match Tata Martino curiously pivoted to chance creation:
“I want to focus a little bit more on the amount of chances Portland had, which weren’t many. Aside from whether it’s anger or passion toward the end of the game, we were able to do a very good of making sure they didn’t get opportunities… The most danger for them was on set pieces.”
He’s right I think. Here are the first half and second half chance (first shots, then dangerous passes) for Portland:
There’s nothing particularly dangerous here other than the goal that should have been disallowed. There’s a header in the box in the second half that goes off target, but otherwise just some blocked shots or shots from outside the box. And chances are coming from crosses and other set pieces. 11tegen11 had PTFC’s expected goals at 0.9 but it looks like a little over half of that is the offside set-piece goal.
On the other side of things, Atlanta also struggled to turn possession into good shots.
The first half has just the one very low probability shot from LGP, and while the second was slightly better, the shots still weren’t great. I’d say most of Atlanta’s best “chances” never made their way into that final shooting action (resulting in an xG of 0.32). Both times Almiron dribbled into the box he passed to a teammate with no true shot registering, and I also think of a moment where Mears was clean in at an angle and should’ve probably put his foot through it. Also, not registering: Asad played a very good ball over the top to Villalba in the center of the box in the 65th minute, and it was thwarted by the keeper right as a shot was being formed. Almiron had a pass/shot in the box stopped by Ridgewell’s hand in the 76th (but i suppose it was ball to hand and therefore not a penalty?). Overall, this is something we just need to get used to with this Atlanta team: they pass up shots in favor of trying to create a very open shot, either through dribbling or cutting passes back. This worked while Martinez was in the side, him often creating 1vNone situations, but when it doesn’t work it doesn’t really show up in any of the statistical output (which is fine). Away at Portland, I am satisfied enough.
Much has been said of Atlanta’s starting lineup changes. Villalba replacing Kenwyne Jones centrally was good (see Joe Patrick’s tweet on the space this created), and Gressel played well on the right. I was mostly struck by how aggressive our fullbacks were in this game, considering we were on the road and in the Pacific Northwest. Both Mears on the right and the right footed Bloom on the left (who perhaps we expected to be more defensive) played high throughout the match. Look at them there, basically level with the “front 4”. I don’t think it’s an accident that this happened this week as both Gressel (so far this season playing centrally) and Asad like to drift into midfield. Also, because we held possession for so much of the game, it looks like a central midfield 2 in 11tegen11’s pass map, but I think mainly we should think of this as Larentowicz sitting deeper with Carmona (center right) and Almiron (center left) ahead of him. Almiron’s dribbles into the heart of defense drag him further upfield on the plot. Also, note the very very strong passing connection between Almiron and Asad, who was missed last week. Opponents should probably try to forcibly break this link going forward.
This is the sort of performance you hope to see from your team away in tough environments in MLS. Unfortunately, the East put a beating on the West this week, and so it’s hard to really feel great about it. Draws on the road are great so long as you win at home, and even better when the East struggles against the West as it has historically done. Overall, I am satisfied though, especially if Atlanta’s lower output of “own-half giveaways” has staying power due to real tactical and training improvements and gelling within the squad. If next week against Houston (who may press a bit more), the side goes back to turning it over often in midfield and in the back, I’ll look back on this 1 point somewhat more jadedly. Also, given the significantly impacting questionable refereeing decisions that are stacking up against Atlanta, it’s probably about time for some “home cookin'” at Bobby Dodd, since this is supposedly a thing that exists in MLS. Perhaps the supporters section can make a few penalty decisions easier for the referee this weekend.