That was fun for so many reasons. First, a pretend objective summary:
Atlanta and Houston were basically even in the first half in terms of dangerous chances. The difference really was that Almiron is an elite talent and Asad is very very very damn good, and to the extent Houston has those players, they were on the bench, having played in the midweek and carrying some injuries. Kann played excellently throughout, but it occurs to me how uniquely important his saves in the first half were to keep this game from becoming something completely different. As we saw against DC, all it takes is 1 turnover or weird bounce at the back to flip the game on its head — and Atlanta provided Houston with a few opportunities (again a byproduct of a commitment to building from the back). Instead, Kann stepped up during those moments to keep the game level long enough for the better team to do something special, which is what you’re hoping for when playing at home. In the second half, Atlanta played from the position they wanted to, and played it well. Visually it was impressive (the passing and the pressing), but it was also effective. Houston really didn’t mount anything dangerous until the very late penalty with the game already decided. They can have it. In this post, we’ll touch on shape, chance creation, the keeper question, pressure and tidiness, and set pieces.
This looked like Atlanta in its ideal Plan A shape. Just as Joe Patrick demonstrated in an excellent video at DSS, Atlanta had two shapes. In possession, Larentowicz dropped between the centre backs who moved wider allowing the fullbacks to play further forward. Carmona moved laterally across the field to provide an outlet for whichever centre back was in possession. Asad and Gressel had the freedom to move inside as well and interchange with Almiron and Villalba. When Houston was in possession, Larentowicz and Carmona formed an initial line of 2 in front of the back 4. I saw it as a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1. On a Houston goal kick for instance, they would start side by side, but, one or the other had license to push forward and press Houston into traps, it just depended on what was in front of them as the play developed. Generally speaking, Houston couldn’t crack this structure. Their chances came almost exclusively off of turnovers when Atlanta was playing out of the back (see chance creation section further below, and then a treatise on pressure and possession even further below).
I did notice that at times in the match, Carmona would tag in for Larentowicz as the guy sitting between the central defenders — not sure if this was to conserve energy or what – if anyone has any ideas let me know. Below is the chalkboard for Larentowicz (18), Carmona (14), and Almiron (10). Larentowicz nominally a central midfielder, but often the furthest player back. Carmona in front of him, and Almiron with free range in Houston’s half. There is a striking beauty in its symmetry (left). And for reference, on the right is @11tegen11’s passmap for ATLUTD. I will always love that Asad/Almiron link.
Like I said, Houston largely could not crack Atlanta’s defensive shape through any sort of sustained buildup. They created 4 shots in the first half, 2 on target (1 in the box), 1 off target and 1 blocked. Importantly, all 4 of their first half shots came not from possession but from quick hits off of Atlanta turnovers in the defensive half. See slideshow below for a chalkboard of each (from MLSSoccer.com):
Atlanta’s chances in the first half came from more diverse origins though the two best (the 2 goals) came from the home side’s defensive pressure either indirectly (through Carmona counter-pressing Houston and keeping the ball pinned back in their half as the MOTS podcast astutely noted for the first goal), or directly by way of Asad stealing the ball off DeLaGarza (who was identified in the stats scouting report as a potential giveaway target for Atlanta’s pressure) and creating a swift transition attack for the second goal. Even still, the shots Almiron converted were very low percentage chances. The underlying metrics had the game basically even at half with each team registering no more than a quarter chance all in. But when you have a player of such quality, it’s not completely unexpected to convert such chances. 2 in 1 half is perhaps fortunate.
Overall, the first half chance creation looked like this for the two teams:
The second half featured an altogether different game state. Atlanta created its goals in transition. First through Villalba counter-pressing to tackle/assisting Gressel in the box after Gressel was dispossessed, and second by Villalba being played through on the counter, only to be taken down in the box for a penalty.
Atlanta had the benefit of beginning the 2nd half up 2 goals, clarifying the objective for them quite nicely. They responded well, killing the game off for the most part and causing the Dynamo pain on the counter on more than one occasion. They attempted 67% of the total 2nd half passes (compared to 59% in the first half). This is notable compared to a fairly typical 2nd half soccer game state where a leading team might see less of the ball and face significantly more shots (and be happy to do so to limit the quality of shots). In reality, Atlanta conceded just 3 unblocked shots (1 of them being the very late penalty) against a team that knew they had to advance. There was the one early giveaway from Garza that led to a hard (but low percentage shot) from outside the box which Kann parried. I would say this went pretty well as planned by Martino & Co.
Let’s start with this week’s performance. It was excellent. Kann faced 4 shots on target in the run of play and saved all of them, 2 which kept Atlanta in the game in the first half before Almiron started DJ’ing the party. He also completed 83% of his passing which is very good for a keeper. I recall a few very calmly lofted balls to the advanced fullbacks, which is one of the hardest passes a keeper can make. At the moment, I don’t see anything that Martino is asking him to do that he can’t do.
There is some debate around whether it’s OK to wonder if Kann might hold off Guzan from the starting job, and my take is that it’s a legit brewing controversy. Through 11 matches, he’s beating ASA’s goalkeeper xG model by about 1 goal every 5 games, good for second in the league behind Tim Melia. While it’s certainly possible that this is noise given the small sample size and given it’s Kann’s first year as a starter, I wouldn’t be surprised *at all* if Guzan puts up worse numbers when he arrives, even if he brings other things to the table. It wouldn’t necessarily be a reflection on him. It’s just at the moment this guy from Decatur is looking pretty good – as I readily admit that I am no expert in judging keepers, … nor outfield players. If Kann were to keep up this type of performance against expected goals for the whole season, it would put him in the top 15% of all goal keeper performances over the last 5 years in MLS.
Checking in on Pressure & Tidiness
Over the last few weeks I’d been compiling some data to help me get a better feel for pressing and possession, since these are supposedly the hallmark elements of this team. Attempting to evaluate whether or not Atlanta was actually improving in the short passing buildup from the back, I went back to every ATL game on MLSSoccer.com and counted the unsuccessful passes that terminated in Atlanta’s half (excluding passes that went out of play on the grounds that those aren’t as dangerous and sometimes necessary). I added to these figures the counts from whoscored.com of unsuccessful dribbles, unsuccessful touches, and dispossessions all taking place in Atlanta’s own half. I’m calling the sum of all the above baddies “giveaways.” I then repeated this effort but in reverse to see how Atlanta was tracking in terms of forcing “giveaways” from their opponents.
We’ll see where this goes, if anywhere, but I like this in principle. On the pressing side of things, it is an attempt to measure pressing success not just by the recorded defensive actions of defenders but by measuring a disruption in what the opponent is trying to do. Icing on the cake might be that, at least for Atlanta, giveaways are correlating well with opponent’s expected goals. Further, I think of the idea of a “giveaway” as having a pretty anchored and objective nominal value — meaning regardless of whether you’re a high possession team that passes the ball 500 times per game or a low block countering team that passes 250 times per game, if you’re giving the ball away 30 times a game in your own half, you’re giving your opponents 30 potential transition opportunities with few outfielders between the ball and the goal. I refer to this as “tidiness.” I like the stat because I could see an argument for how it’s universal. There’s not a huge “tradeoff” per say in terms of committing giveaways. All teams must advance the ball out of their half. Whether they choose to do so directly by skipping this part of the field and challenging for the resulting loose ball, or patiently playing short passes through their own zone, the goal should be the same: DO NOT GIVE THE BALL AWAY IN YOUR OWN HALF. Like period, right? This is basic. Am I missing something? Feel free to tear this down if you feel otherwise.
Anyhow, I highlighted this in the match preview, but coming into this week, Houston were committing significantly fewer giveaways than Atlanta (23 to 38), and both teams were causing their opponents around 31 giveaways of pain per game (Houston’s opponents pass it in their own half more, at a clip of 88% compared to the 83% allowed by Atlanta). So how did it pan out then? Atlanta improved on its season averages, giving the ball away fewer times and passing at a higher percentage in their own half. Houston performed worse than their season to date averages, giving it away more and passing at a significantly lower success rate, a testament to Atlanta’s high press given Houston’s general disinterest in playing the ball around in the back to begin with. Here’s a similar table, but comparing each team’s performance at Bobby Dodd to what their opponent normally allows from its opponents (i.e. how well did ATL do compared to all of Houston’s opponents so far): To me, this table (which admittedly is just 1 game compared to 2 team’s season averages) suggests that perhaps how “tidiness” depends first and foremost on your opponent’s desire to press and ability to press you, and to a lesser degree (but still present) on your own skill at playing out of the back or whatever you want to call it. Houston’s giveaways in this match don’t resemble their own typical numbers, but instead mirror the general disruption Atlanta has caused for its opponents all season long. Conceptually, I think this works – the “high press” as the dog that wags the “own-half-possession” tail rather than the other way around. And similarly, Atlanta’s giveaway numbers are stuck in between their generally higher season averages and the generally lower averages for Houston opponents. I expect that Martino drills into his players’ heads week in and week out this commitment to possession and playing out of the back. It is supposedly a defining characteristic of the squad (even if at times I’d prefer a little more direct play). So it’s possible this extra effort is what lands Atlanta’s possession figures above those of Houston’s opponents’ averages. If I have time, I’ll try to pull these figures for more of Atlanta’s opponents, to see if there’s a real trend here (e.g. if one should predict the giveaway stats for a team not based on the team’s season averages but based on the season average giveaways forced by the team’s next opponent).
Also, as it relates to this Houston game in particular, Atlanta seemed to press most opportunistically — right after they gave the ball away in the final third — and this led to two of the goals.
Postscriptum: Possible Designed Set Pieces
Welcome to the part of the post where I imagine that some of these set pieces were designed plays from the training ground.
We’ll start in the 19th minute. Almiron has a direct free kick just outside the box on the right. Asad is very careful to stand directly behind the wall in the keeper’s line of sight while staying onside — he waves his arm in the air to further distract the keeper. And Almiron plays it short on the ground under the wall right to where Asad was screening (not into the danger area where most of both teams’ players are.
This play was thwarted at the last moment by a Houston defender, out for a corner…
The resulting corner in the 21st minute, was a very well orchestrated designed play. Atlanta lines up for a short corner with the usual suspects Almiron and Asad. Houston plays two defenders close to the corner flag to account for them. But also notice Garza — and no one from Houston marking him — perhaps Atlanta saw something on film.
In the 60th minute, there’s another clever designed play (I think). Follow along in the slideshow below.
Edited for clarity since the captions in that slideshow seem to get cut off. Basically while the second free kick taker darts into the box left, the ball is played right, back and to the center of the field (as if to suggest a passive, possession-retaining free kick), the lines move up as Garza darts into the box to find the return ball from Mears. I think this is designed misdirection but it’s hard to tell.
The set piece goal drought continues, but I’m encouraged by the cleverness in the opportunities that Atlanta does see. Not the first game where we’ve seen some creativity in this space. Would *love* to know how and when they fit this into the week’s preparations.