New York City Football Club, a familiar foe, rolls into Atlanta this weekend to face red and black at Bobby Dodd. In the first fixture at Yankee Stadium, NYC were dominant. Tata Martino said as much. After a first half (which NYC largely controlled) ended level, the home side pounced on Atlanta early in the 2nd and never looked back. In the first match recap, I touched on some of the tactical choices NYC made facing an Atlanta team committed to the press and to possession. Most notably, they played more directly out of the back than usual to bypass Atlanta’s press. For a team that has averaged 200 own-half passes per match over the last 4 matches (sorry I didn’t have time to pull the whole season this week), against Atlanta they played only 123, and they instead skipped this part of the game more, and played a modestly higher share of long direct balls to attack Atlanta (and put the game away with one such pass from Sean Johnson). It’s hard to discount the impact of the diminutive pitch at Yankee stadium on this tactic, but I don’t think we can ignore it when preparing for the return fixture.
Here’s NYC’s “pressing & tidiness” stats (to continue our exploration from the Houston post earlier this week) over the last 4 matches: New York City gives the ball away once for every 5 or 6 passes it attempts in its own half. Against Atlanta, NYC gave the ball away the fewest times in this stretch, and also at the slowest rate (6.2 passes per giveaway). Interesting to see RSL show up as forcing the most giveaways on NYC, when they did the same against Atlanta. Anyhow, if NYC gives the ball away 45-50 times against Atlanta they’re gonna be dead, so I think we’ll see a similar profile as the first game, where NYC is playing directly and slightly more conservative in their own half (going with 25 giveaways). On the other side of the coin, I think we can expect Atlanta to give the ball away between 35 and 40 times (which is both Atlanta’s average profile, and also what NYC did to the two previous teams that passed it more in their own half (Atlanta and Orlando). I say this because while Atlanta seems to have improved its “tidiness” in recent weeks (measured as the sum of unsuccessful passes, dribbles, touches, and losses of possession in a team’s own half), something tells me NYC will again present a challenge in this regard. Quotes from the manager and players on the team suggest that Atlanta is more committed than ever to playing out of the back and perhaps even blame their struggles against NYC on a tendency to play more directly when it wasn’t working. I’m not sure I agree, but it will be fun to watch. The biggest battle of the game will go down in Atlanta’s own half. Either they will beat the high press through patient short passes and fantastic off-ball movement and then generate great numbers-advantaged attacks because of it, or NYCFC will turn them over and be within a touch or two of a dangerous shot on Kann … over and over again.
After this next match, it might be a good time to take stock with regards to the philosophical question I posed in the aftermath of the NYCFC loss. The question was basically, is it better to continue to work at realizing the manager’s ideal soccer philosophy and playing style (commitment to possession and steady buildup play) or to optimize points via specific tactics in the short term. Since then, we’ve seen two matches where Atlanta improved its possession and buildup from the back and kept pace with the win at home, draw away MLS mantra. But I think the performance on Sunday will go the furthest in putting a dent in this argument either way.
I’m going to skip some of the other normal preview stuff because I did a lot of it in the last NYC preview and in the first NYC recap, but mainly because I’ve got something fun to play with this week that let’s us look at chance creation for the season to date for Atlanta United thanks to someone smart posting it on twitter. Keep reading.
There’s a smart person on twitter all of you should follow who leads a football analytics consultancy among other things named Ted Knutson. I bugged him, and he was nice enough to shoot out one of his company’s famous team shot maps for Atlanta United for the 11 matches played to date. It is below: These things are really cool for so many reasons, and all MLS teams should be using StatsBombServices. Check out their site and blog for a snapshot of all the cool things they can do (data viz, scouting and recruitment, set piece tactics etc) for a soccer club — I do not know if Atlanta uses them or not, but Mr. Eales, Mr. Bocanegra, and Ms. Rushton, if you are reading this and you have not already spoken with Ted & co. at StatsBombServices, I am certain it would be worth an inquiry. But essentially, the image on the left above is all of the shots Atlanta has taken this season, the color an indication of the quality of chance based on StatsBomb’s historical expected goals model, the shape of the shot an indicator of its nature (off of a through ball, or a free kick etc), and the frame of each shape an indicator of the result of the shot (goal, on target, off target etc). The image on the right is all the shots Atlanta has conceded this season.
You could get lost in these for days, but here’s what jumped out to me:
- Atlanta are creating a ton of shots off of through balls (8% of their shots). We talked about this earlier in the season, but during the early days with Martinez this was the bread and butter. I even thought Opta was failing to assign the through ball tag to plenty of the shots, but if you look at Atlanta’s opponents, it’s only 1.4% of the total output.
- Atlanta are converting these through balls at an extraordinary rate. The expected goals for ATL’s throughball chances equates to a conversion rate of 36% but Atlanta are converting 80%. I suppose the models suggest this is in part a bit of luck and we shouldn’t expect Josef Martinez to keep sniping all of those chances upon his return. But for some reason, I feel like if you’re going to over-perform somewhere, do it on your best chances (throughballs). It might be the very specific kind of overperformance that…(deep breath)…good finishers are capable of. I’ll hang up and listen.
- Atlanta are conceding 34% of the shots against them (and 24% of the expected goals against them) on set-pieces. The 4% conversion on these opportunities against an expected 6% based on historical data of similar chances might suggest either Atlanta have been slightly lucky or Kann is creating real value for the team over and above an average keeper. Also, of note: no goals conceded from open-play crosses this year! (knocks on surfaces)
- StatsBombServices has us relatively even on expected goals differential (slightly ahead at +0.07xGD per game), which is better than the -0.29xGD that AmericanSoccerAnalysis has computed. But you can tell pretty quickly that this total of +0.77 for the season is quite different from our actual GD of +11. Are the models missing something that Atlanta does particularly well (or is Opta failing to code some throughballs), or is the team experiencing a run of luck that would be well deserved given some of the referee decisions that have gone against the club so far (c’mon, I’m a fan after all).
NYCFC Match Prediction: Mayhem. I sense….cards. 2-1 to NYCFC after scoring first. Atlanta continue to deserve some bad calls go there way at home. Hopefully the crowd can make that happen some. Would love to see a 10 minute runout for Martinez.
Also, here’s the “Points Off the Pace” table that I posted (and explained) over at DirtySouthSoccer this week. Basically a games-played home & away balanced view of the MLS East table. Atlanta squarely in the playoff race per these adjustments.