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.
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.
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):
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.
While 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.Once Parkhurst is dispossessed, it’s kind of over.
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):Comments after all the pics.
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.