Atlanta United just keep scoring early goals. And then not holding onto the resulting leads. Shades of the DC United game. Shades of Montreal. Hell, shades of NYRB on opening night. Apologies for a sloppier post this time around. Had a hard time fitting in the hours to put in a proper effort.
Pressing & Tradeoffs
As is their custom, Atlanta United came out pressing high against the back line of Vancouver. Like all of ATL’s opponents, Vancouver had a choice to make as to whether to try to play the ball through the press along the ground bypassing the away side to create transition opportunites, or to lump it long, mitigating the risk of giveaways in their own half. If NYC boldly chose the former at BDS last weekend, then Vancouver wisely chose the latter in their own house. This shows up in the own-half pressing and tidiness numbers. Atlanta is successful in creating what little disruption they can (3.7 passes own half passes per giveaway for the Whitecaps), but mostly the home side minimizes this threat by skipping this zone and playing long. Coming into this game, the Whitecaps played a higher share of longballs than any other MLS team (20% of total pass attempts), but for this game they upped it even more ultimately playing nearly 1 in 4 passes long. As I rewatch the game, it’s clear that Atlanta is pressing high, with a similar intensity as against NYC, but it just doesn’t produce the same excellent results because of the tactical tradeoff Vancouver makes. It’s unclear if Vancouver learned from NYC’s stubbornness or were always going to place this way based on their style. The results are clear though. Below are the first half defensive action maps for each team, and it’s striking what little disruption in the attacking half Atlanta are able to create, both relative to what we’re used to seeing, and also relative to their opponents in this match:
Similarly, the unsuccessful passes in each team’s own half contrast sharply. Vancouver misses passes in their own half only a few times and generally in less worrisome spots (focus on the yellow highlights i dropped in since the red pass lines can be messy if the Keeper had some bad ones):
Vancouver didn’t punish Atlanta for these turnovers often which was fortunate. Aside from the corner goals, against the run of play, there’s only one other shot inside the box. Atlanta doesn’t produce much either during this first half. (edited to add chance graphics)
Below, we’ll break down the very nice Garza goal, but first I want to pontificate for a moment about experiencing a game when your team is losing. So once Atlanta went down 2-1 or 3-1, as a fan I get increasingly impatient normally with my team’s inability to break down a defense that is happily clogging the midfield and making things difficult. It’s easy to jump to conclusions like “this team isn’t good. Why can’t they break down this set defense?” and I think it’s just worth reiterating that one of the best things you can do in a soccer match is be in the lead. With the game state in your favor, it’s not hard to make it really difficult for your opponent. Sure, Atlanta was unable to break down Vancouver, but most teams would struggle equally. While I don’t have the stats or the expertise to back this up, my general gut feeling about soccer (and especially MLS) is that you either score in transition with your opponent scrambling, or you score off of either random bounces or acts of pure brilliance. You can also score by carefully, cleverly, and patiently breaking your opponent’s defense down, but it’s just not common. And because it’s not common, resist the urge to freak out when your team is chasing an uneven game state and having a hard to breaking a defense down. In my head I have this idea that you should expect your team to score from “proper buildup” maybe one out of every two or three games. The rest of the goals come from those other “rougher” categories. So with that said, Atlanta did score from a nice buildup this week.
This one starts with the ball at Atlanta’s back line, which is oddly reshuffled for a moment with LGP on the ball in the center and Jeff Larentowicz playing left center back in an odd role reversal. For some reason Vancouver has 5 players (Montero, Bolanos, Chani, Techera, and Robinson) all in high pressing positions but without actually pressuring LGP on the ball. So he’s able to look u scan the field and find Garza on the left in space. With 5 players bypassed, the rightback now rushes forward to step to the ball and Garza eliminates this player in one touch to find Asad now occupying the space vacated by the right back. Asad is now running in the vacated space at the right sided centre back and the left sided one occupying Tito. Laba finally retreats back to force Asad to get rid of the ball and he finds Gressel who one time early crosses to a Garza run at the back post for the goal. In a game where Atlanta turned the ball over many times, this was a really cool moment where they played right through their opponent starting deep in their own half and ending with a nice goal.
If Atlanta are able to score a goal like this every game, or even every other game, given the opportunities off of turnovers they’ll surely encounter, then they should be rolling, assuming they find a way to stop giving up early leads. Josh at DirtySouthSoccer broke down the goals against Atlanta, so I will happily pass on that.
On the question of how to break down a team and score in non transition opportunities, I still like the idea of manufacturing transition opportunities by playing diagonals to the corners and then either pouncing on the defenders, or on the subsequent throw-ins.
A word on corner kicks
There’s been some hand-ringing this week about corner kicks, how Atlanta haven’t scored from any this season and how Vancouver corner kicked the crap out of the team this weekend (all three of the home side’s goals came directly or indirectly off corners). I will not defend the team’s corner kick defense. The giving up of goals against the run of play after you’ve drawn first blood and flipped the game state in your favor is a terrible sin, and so far a real problem for United, but I want to push back on the hate towards Atlanta’s attacking set pieces & corners.
Much has been written about corner kicks and their goal scoring proficiency relative to their impressive dramatic effect. While not uncommon occurrences, set pieces, and particularly corners are those rare moments of pause in football before an attacking move, contrasting sharply against a backdrop of near constant fluidity. Because of this, supporters understandably place a disproportionate amount of focus (and perhaps memory) on them despite the fairly low quality of chance on the average corner. I tend to think that as Americans, we are very, very used to these pauses that saturate the other traditional American sports: 30+ seconds between plays in NFL, timeouts in basketball, ages between pitches in baseball. And as a result, we tend to be even more prone to putting too much emphasis on them. The numbers tell us that scoring on corner kicks is rare. There’s this analysis of the top European leagues that suggests 3% of corners result in goals, and there’s this piece specific to MLS that shows 2.5% as the conversion rate, something like 1 in 40. Statsbomb also quotes 2.5% as the average rate with “elite execution capable of generating something higher, between 6-8%. With this in mind, I should point out that Atlanta have taken 52 corner kicks and not scored on any of them. So, if you want to be upset about it, be upset that they haven’t scored 1, or maybe 2 as the percentages suggest. I am willing to be a little more patient especially given what we know about Atlanta and its corner kicks. For one, we know they have a defined philosophy and strategy around corner kicks: often playing them short and restarting possession and/or throwing in clever designed plays to create better chances than 3% ones. This fits with the general theme of Atlanta’s attack this year: fewer shots, better shots. In fact, as I mentioned on twitter last week, Atlanta’s shot volumes from open play paint a different picture from their overall shot totals, suppressed largely I suspect by this tactical choice to play short corners.
As I’ve noted a couple times on this blog, watching the Atlanta corner kicks closely, you can see actual intelligent design in place rather than just a haphazard playing of the ball into the well-guarded danger area. That’s really all I ask for. And for what it’s worth, I saw that some more this week. In the 2nd minute, ATL called a “play-action” (if you’ll indulge me) off of a misdirection short corner setup to put Mears in a position to play a more dangerous ball than otherwise would’ve been possible. Almiron passes between the short corner defenders to find an unmarked Mears in the box. It just didn’t come off. Vancouver smartly stepped up to disrupt Mears’ secondary cross, but it’s clear the team is working on ways to make these set pieces meaningful events rather than low probability noise.
Also, for reference here are the updated PACE tables I posted over at DirtySouthSoccer this week. First, against a pace set by the win at home draw away baseline. And second, each team’s actual points above or below the average historical MLS team’s performance based on the same number of home and away games. Atlanta a top 4 or 5 team in the East based on these metrics.