June 10: Chicago 2 – 0 Atlanta

Dig the Long Ball

Coming into this match, Chicago were playing 15% of their passes long, which put them in the top third of the league in terms of short passing (Crew & Sounders ‘lead’ at 12%). Against Atlanta, the Fire played 25% of their passes long at home, and often successfully over the top of Atlanta’s isolated centre back(s). For reference, the highest long pass average in the league is Vancouver at 20% who coincidentally also upped the long balls above their season average against Atlanta (and won at home). Before that, New York City stubbornly did not increase their long ball usage, and were wiped out at Bobby Dodd Stadium. But before that, NYCFC played longer in Yankee Stadium (home) against Atlanta and succeeded. Between those two matches, Portland played significantly more long balls than their season average and managed a point (with a potentially missed offside call) at home.

See what I’m getting at? Like I said last week, with Atlanta coming to town, teams have a choice to make around how they progress the ball into their opponent’s half, and the correct choice seems clear. Playing short means Atlanta will create good chances off turnovers. Playing long means you minimize that problem plus you may even create something nice yourself.

I don’t want to be too presumptuous with the causality. The guy who watches one team and is bad with data is the king of small sample sizes. The above matches could be a coincidence. Or, higher percentages of long balls might be a symptom of game state, that is to say teams that are leading hit the ball long more and more as the match progresses (although there are some pretty good teams at the top of the short passes table). I’d love to see a broader analysis of which teams drive other teams to deviate away from their general trends. Is it a complement to Atlanta that each team they face is shifting it’s style of play significantly? Or is it evidence of a glaring weakness that’s easily exploited with just a few days of game film preparation? Anyhow, I’d love to see a statistical approach to examining which teams drive change, and which ones their opponents historically may just play straight based on style preferences and goals.

I should say also, as we segue back into the match, that Chicago were more clever and complex than simply playing route one against Atlanta. They mixed in their fair share of nice build-up, pressing, long countering balls, and just general balance in a way that seems to have optimized the result once the game state was on their side. Here’s are @11tegen11‘s pass maps for the match. Chicago’s is interesting.

11tegen11CHI
Chicago with lots of conservative passing and a few repeated long paths towards goal. For Atlanta, this looks like the usual very aggressive positioning, but you’d love to see some links to Tito up top. For what it’s worth, there were countless times where he made great runs to split the centre backs but was rarely rewarded with a throughball.

Own-half Possession & Pressing

Atlanta came out pressing high (surprise, surprise). Chicago picked their spots to press — waited for vulnerable moments, like if an Atlanta defender turned back towards his own goal with the ball. Chicago were successful in turning Atlanta over at times in their own half at the beginning of the game, but dropped off some late as they played with the lead.PressureGame

Atlanta, for their part created right around the exact number of turnovers they’ve forced of their opponents on average this season, both on a pass per giveaway basis (4+), and also in total (32). Here’s the full table (w/ 11tegen11 xG subbed in for the latest match instead of ASA’s numbers):PressureTable

In one such play, Garza slid in and won the ball back and laid off to Tito who shot wide, one of the better chances of the match for United. Chicago’s chances on the other hand came less from pressure in Atlanta’s half, and more from opportunistically exploiting the aggressive Atlanta positioning. With both fullbacks high, and at times a bombing Michael Parkhurst flying up the middle, Chicago played balls over the top several times, mostly catching Atlanta out.

Goal Focus 😦

For the goal that changed the game, in a comedic turn of events LGP and Parkhurst are passing each other like strangers on a cross walk when we join live, LGP having gone on his tour of the attacking half, and Parkhurst beginning his ill-fated voyage with the ball.

CHI GOAL AWhile this was  fun for a second (like the last time Parkhurst did this), it was a poor choice. You can see the general structure of the team completely broken with Parkhurst dribbling into trouble even with 5 or so Atlanta players open for a pass at this point. In the mean time, Pirez, now making his way back to position, has no centre back partner but is tasked with containing Chicago’s 2 most dangerous attackers.CHI GOAL BOnce Parkhurst is dispossessed, it’s kind of over.CHI GOAL D

Chances

I should mention that while Chicago did have the better of the chances in the first half, they were by no means dominant. @11tegen11 shows Chicago with a modest lead at the half, almost all of Chicago’s total (something like 0.8?) coming from the chance they scored. Tito’s 1v1 chance off the odd Gressel sideline clearance/lob makes up the bulk of Atlanta’s total at half (which looks like something slightly higher than 0.5 goals). That number in and of itself should tell you something about how harsh you should be towards Tito for the miss. On average that chance is converted a little less than half of the time (a fantastic chance, as good as you’ll find really, but not one that’s converted 100% of the time – it’s just the nature of the sport). Anyhow, here are the chance maps for the two teams at the half:

To the eye, it’s an intriguing half of football. Atlanta controlled the game and had the volume of chances — many of which don’t show up as shots in the stats because they were narrowly snuffed out. There are plenty of crosses from the right with Gressel/Mears, and more lively action from the left with Garza/Asad. There’s a great ball played in from Kratz off a long set piece before the half that doesn’t connect, and a Pirez header from the spot. What I’m getting at is that while the goal changed the game, Atlanta’s attack didn’t look inept to me, by any means, despite Almiron and Martinez not playing. Chicago had many such almost shot type chances as well, narrowly cleared by defenders.

In the second half, Chicago managed the game state very well. They are a good team I’m afraid to say. In general, they never lost their balance between attack and defense:

Lots of crosses for Atlanta in the second as Chicago appropriately managed the lead and extended the lead off of a corner kick originating from a great piece of build up play where Kann made an outstanding save. It’s hard to break a team down who’s leading, smart,  and dangerous on the counter. Atlanta’s learning that the hard way this year, but not really applying it to situations when they have the lead — they’d rather maintain the aggression and take risks.

The continued question of where the goals will come from if not through transition

I’ll continue this discussion from last week. There’s a growing concern that if in any given game, Atlanta aren’t converting transition chances, or aren’t getting said chances because a team is bunkering, or a team is “managing the game well” with a lead, then Atlanta won’t be able to generate goals through possession and buildup. And in response, my basic theory is that very few teams can count on calm buildup type goals that aren’t transitions or set pieces (another story altogether with ATL) — certainly no team in MLS. I have a thought experiment. Think of the last five or so soccer matches you’ve watched. For me it’s CHI-ATL (transition goals + set pieces), MEX-USA (transition goals), USA-T&T (transition goals), VAN-ATL (set pieces, 1 ATL buildup goal), ATL-NYC (1 transition goal, 2 ATL buildup goals). So in this span, 3 out of the 5 matches had no “normal possession goals” and the two that did featured Atlanta. My hypothesis remains that no team can count on possession/build-up-created goals as it’s “bread and butter.” The other ways to score are much more common. Possession/buildup (if executed correctly) is first and foremost (at least in a league like MLS) a tool to control the game and minimize the amount of time your opponent has the ball. And it comes with risks. It’s just the futile act of watching your team chase a game down 2 goals that makes you feel like they’re lacking in ideas or unable to break teams down. It happens to the best of us, but from what I’ve seen, Atlanta has the skill/talent/tactics to create the odd possession-based goal from scratch, and “occasionally” is a good enough rate for this in my book. Set pieces are maybe a problem? I’m not sure. I defended the short corners last week, and I think there were some shots created off corners this week, but pretty soon I’ll be out of defenses for the zero set piece goals created. Oh, and while we’re at it, it occurs to me that Atlanta hardly ever draws fouls just outside the box, where some of the more dangerous set pieces are taken. For a team with dynamic dribbles and quick speedsters, where are the set piece opportunities? Something to keep an eye on. One would imagine Almiron and Asad would be drawing fouls just outside the box often.

That thing Mears does

That all being said, if we are to take a deep dive into some possession/buildup stuff…I know I’m not the only one bothered when the ball is switched over to Tyrone Mears, only for everything to halt and as the defense shifts back into place before the ball is played back to Parkhurst. My game notes from the last several matches are filled with stuff like “ball is switched to Mears, who plays back to Parkhurst.” I stared at a couple of these instances from this week’s game. My immediate reaction is always that Mears is too slow, or timid, or too right-footed, and he’s ruining these possession for us. But as I watch these sequences over, I’m just not sure what’s going on. It’s clear that Garza/Asad have something nice going on over on the other flank that Mears hasn’t found with Villalba or Gressel, and so my inittal thought was that Mears has trouble finding those square passes into the advanced midfielders that he’s overlapping (say a Gressel, or an Almiron or Kratz). But here are some screenshots from one such sequence on Saturday, and maybe you can help me figure out who’s to blame (I mean it, it’s not clear to me really):Mears15aComments after all the pics.Mears15bMears15cMears15e

It looks to me like maybe at the beginning he’s too hesitant to keep driving forward (there’s still some space in front of him, and everyone is moving forward), but he’s also looking for someone to pop into some space and no one does — they just keep running. Further, he has to be pretty cautious about trying to take on a defender or take more space, given how many red shirts are in nice spots in the center circle area should he turn it over (with Garza also wide and high on the left). Then he stops the ball (the trademark Mears move it feels like), and every single player makes the exact same come back to the ball type move (or they’re stationary), except Kratz who does a clever little but perhaps overly nuanced overlap? So it’s unclear if Mears misses his chance to play someone through, or if no one is able to find actual space. Ideally you want someone running in behind and someone dropping in front of the centre backs, and someone else showing for theball in midfield etc etc.

My solution would be for when Almiron returns, for him to make a more concerted effort to not drop back into midfield to start play, and instead to remain high tucked between the lines, and then importantly, to commit to coming across field when the ball is switched to Mears. I would be OK with Mears playing a ball slightly forward and into Almiron’s feet with a higher risk for a turnover, if perhaps there was more cover deeper to handle a counter — maybe Garza drops back with purpose when the ball is switched? It’s all quite difficult to understand — that’s the game I suppose.

Let me know your thoughts.

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7 thoughts on “June 10: Chicago 2 – 0 Atlanta”

  1. 1) Gressel’s onside in 2 out of the 3 pictures at the end. Look at the CB above Tito.
    2) Mears had several options in the first picture. He effectively took none of them, choosing instead to stop the ball. Those options: a) take the space given, which you presented as an option b) play a through ball to Gressel either as a curling outside in pass on the ground or as a short chip over the CF97 RB c) play a ball centrally that forces Gressel or Tito to check back* d) he should have played the short ball to Kratz much sooner, giving Kratz the chance to take up the space that Mears had refused to take.
    3) Mears has had numerous balls played to him that allowed him time and space to make an effective cross from near the corner. He has repeatedly stopped and pulled the ball back. Garza, OTOH, either makes the cross or pushes up the endline toward the box, creating passing lanes to at least one of Asad or Almiron in a more dangerous position.
    4) More often than not, Mears seems incredibly lazy when tracking back in transition. See e.g., your third screenshot above. He is completely flatfooted and not really moving at all as CF97 are on the break. This might actually be the most damning of all. I’m perfectly fine with him being conservative in the attack if he then provides good cover for Parky and LGP. But if he’s going to kill attacks, contribute to turnovers in dangerous spots, AND not hustle back…

    *I agree that ideally one of them is making this an obvious choice for Mears, but the flow of the midfield defense for CF97 likely prevents them cutting and THEN Mears making the pass–see the midfielder who is loosely marking Kratz and imagine where he will be if Gressel starts to check to the ball. Mears should make the pass and expect his teammate to adjust to the pass accordingly.

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    1. I can’t say you’re wrong. And I wish i had like 5 or 6 little clips of this phenomenon that we could play over and over again repeatedly. It’s hard, and I understand why he might be overly cautious. Generally when a fullback loses the ball, bad things happen.

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  2. I have not re-watched the match, but in real time it definitely felt like off the ball movement was just not sharp or dangerous enough for everybody. It’s felt that way for the last 2 matches. They need to work on that on the training pitch for sure. I was surprised to see only 2 shots officially counted on target. It felt like more shots went towards goal at least. I liked that Atlanta was actually taking some more shots early. Maybe there was a little regression as far as finishing goes this week? I don’t feel that Atlanta played poorly at all. They just weren’t as good as Chicago this week. Chicago is good.

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  3. Interesting analysis on Mears. One thing I notice is that defenses don’t press him, as he is no threat to go 1v1 and drive the match forward. This results in them playing well off of him and clogging up the passing lanes, and often the ball back to the CB is his only option. You can’t do that with Garza, who can easily drive the side into the final third.

    I think it’s time to give Bloom a look.

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      1. There’s no particular reason TO press him. I mean, we’re talking about teams that generally aren’t prone to pressing ANY attacking player until they’re actually in a threatening position or are at least somewhere they can play the ball into a threatening position. Mears isn’t actually putting himself or the ball into threatening positions. So why add any risk of him beating you if he’s obviously not going to do it with you sagging off into a position that allows you to react to other players better?

        Mears seems to exemplify the possession without purpose problem that we’ve had in the games we’ve lost. And I said above, he has compounded it by not getting back in transition even when HE gives up the dangerous turnover. Most good players at least recognize their own mistake and kick up their hustle to minimize the damage.* I haven’t been seeing that from Mears.

        *On a total side note, I am reminded of George Teague’s play, referred to as “The Strip”, in the 1993 Sugar Bowl After seemingly being beaten on a long pass to Lamar Thomas, Teague managed to catch up and strip the ball, saving a TD. When asked what was going through his mind during the play, he said when the play started, he was tired and was going to take the play a little easy. He took a bad angle on the throw and realized his mistake and wasn’t going to let himself get grief from the coaches and his teammates. So, he caught Thomas from behind, even though Thomas had let the world know all week before the game that he was much faster than anybody on Bama’s team and that they were all soft to boot.

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