This is exciting…
The return of match previews / opposition analyses, whatever you want to call them. Hello wordpress. It has been a while.
Atlanta United (#4) plays Columbus Crew (#5) at 7pm Thursday October 26, 2017 with #Narrative abounding. Quickly just to set the narrative table, before we get into the useful stuff:
- Columbus Crew are probably getting moved to Austin, TX after the 2018 season
- ATL were inches away (multiple times) vs TFC from earning a first round bye
- Atlanta United fans boo’d the most recognizable US National Team players vs TFC
- Both teams played Sunday afternoon/evening after a week of rest.
I am going to preview this matchup / prepare a stats-based opposition analysis.
First, to relive the home match at Bobby Dodd Stadium earlier this season, check out my old post here. If I’m honest, the content was better then. That was a fun match.
Goal Keepers (we’re going to go back to front, sorta):
Atlanta United have one of the best goal keepers in the league. Possibly the best. AmericanSoccerAnalysis has a model for measuring the average number of goals a keeper will concede on average for a given profile of shots on target he faces. If you compare the goals Guzan has conceded to his expected goals based on this method, he leads all keepers but one in MLS with -0.28 per game. Only Tim Melia’s -0.36 per game tops it. Crew SC’s Zack Steffen, on the other hand, is 18th out of 22 starters in the league by this metric, conceding 0.13 more goals per game than the model would suggest. See below for a visual. Red dots are playoff teams.
In terms of distribution, Guzan leads the league in pass completion rate, largely because he plays the highest percentage of short passes in MLS. Steffen is 7th in MLS and not so far off substantively. Columbus likes to play it short out of the back as well. See below:
Style of Play
One metric to use for style of play comparisons is Cross to ThroughBall ratio. If I look on whoscored I can get this for key passes only (couldn’t find throughballs that don’t result in shots – probably because they are rare). Columbus looks similar to Atlanta in this regard:
Another metric we can look at is the portion of a team’s total passes that are long passes. Columbus plays the second fewest long balls in MLS (behind NYC). They are technically proficient and like to play the short passing game.
When Columbus visited Atlanta earlier in the season, they upped the percentage of long balls to 18% (16% in the first half). Even at home in Columbus, they passed long slightly more often – likely to combat Atlanta’s high pressure and bypass the midfield (to minimize turnovers). Here were the pressing/tidiness stats from those matches.
Across the two games, Atlanta turned Columbus over in its own half 6 times per own-half pass on average, which is a slightly less furious pace than Atlanta’s home average of pressing its opposition into errors every 4-5 passes. On top of this, the Five Stripes are disrupting opponents’ own-half buildup at a lighter pace in Mercedes Benz stadium, whether due to fitness conservation or the size of the pitch, or another reason. This all adds up to make me wonder if we are going to see the same sort of high pressure success on Thursday. This worries me as an ATLUTD supporter because I know the team is comfortable simply releasing the hounds of pressure.
Centre Back Distribution
Since we’ve established both teams like to play from the back, let’s see how the centre backs stack up in terms of distribution. Below is a graphic of pass completion % on the Y and Long Ball % on the X, with Crew SC’s starting defenders colored yellow and Atlanta’s red:
Both teams appear to be above average passers based on this simple metric, and surprisingly, Atlanta’s CB’s actually play long balls slightly more often than the average centre back with over 15 appearances this year. If I had to pick a Crew CB to focus on turning over it would be Mensah, just slightly. ASA has a handy tool that’s more sophisticated than what I graphed above to measure passing skill, which they call xPassing.
According to this metric, all 4 starting CBs pass at a more successful rate than one would expected for the types of passes they attempt. Columbus’ duo shows up slightly better here. For anyone worried about Parkhurst not being fit for Thursday, these metrics show Larentowicz as slightly worse than LGP on this metric (but still positive), and Walkes as a worse distributor (-5.3%).
Atlanta created a goal in the first match when Asad stole the ball from the back line and found Villalba in the danger zone for an easy-looking put-away. But based on the above data, I wouldn’t label this as a particular opportunity for Atlanta to exploit. Columbus is pretty good at keeping the ball and playing it on the floor from back to front.
In the first match (BDS) Columbus did not press exceedingly high as Atlanta advanced, waiting until the ball reached the top of the center circle to engage. And this worked generally well for them in the first half, creating a few good transition chances from picking off passes from the ATL centre backs at midfield. If Boswell or Walkes play in place of Parkhurst, expect this to change (with a more aggressive pressing approach), but in general, I think this is a fine strategy for an away side at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Below is a poorly drawn formations graphic showing expected lines of engagement for pressing. These will change as the game state changes, but I expect Columbus to press in that middle third more often to spring transition, while Atlanta hunts the ball no matter where it is (all the way to the Columbus back line). This isn’t to say that Columbus won’t press all the way back to the keeper when Atlanta are in a vulnerable moment (facing their own goal in defense etc).
I haven’t watched much Crew lately which is why this post is mainly stats-type analysis. But I’ll trust Matt Doyle that the Crew have stabilized into a 4-2-3-1 with Kamara leading the line and Higuain, Meram and Santos forming the band of 3. Trapp and Abu in the middle with Afful/ Mensah/ Williams/ Raitala in a back 4.
While Martino has played with various formations in the runup to this game (4-4-2s against New England and Red Bulls, and 3-4-3 vs Toronto), I expect him to return to a traditional back 4 (with 2 CB’s marking kamara) and the deepest midfielder dropping back between the CBs while ATL have the ball. A 3 man back line isn’t optimal against a lone striker.
You can probably guess who leads chance creation numbers as measured by expected goals + expected assists per 90. Kamara, Higuain, and Meram are contributing 0.66, 0.49, and 0.47 xG+xA per 90, respectively, with Kamara’s output primarily accounted for with an expected goal every 2 games, and Higuain’s and Meram’s outputs split more evenly between expected goals and expected assists. There’s no doubting that this is a dangerous front 3. And honestly, the answer to how to defend against these guys does not lie in the simple kind of analytics I’m capable of. But there are other things of course.
Interestingly, if we look at xBuildup (a metric published by ASA, helpful for assigning credit to players for their role in the buildup or creation of a chances that does not include the player taking the final shot or shot assist), an interesting name pops up: Mohammed Abu, registering 0.4 XG per 90 -> suggesting he has a hand in some form of the possession sequences leading up to (but not including shots or shot assists) about 0.4 expected goals created per game. Not bad since the Columbus are creating 1.4 xG per game on average. It would appear as though Tata Martino should be focusing some tactics to disrupt Abu in possession. This might mean placing an athletic/motor player centrall in the #10 spot to harrass and deny Abu time and the ball. Break the link most commonly chaining possessions into scoring chances and you will have accomplished something important.
Attacking and Defensive Trends
If we look at expected goals for and against trends for Atlanta home matches and Columbus away matches, it’s a little uncomfortable for my liking. Both teams hit an electric attacking run of form in September and have cooled off some, and both club’s defensive averages have inched up in October.
Atlanta’s latest 3 game home form on the attack side is 1.6 xG, which Columbus has matched away from home. And Atlanta’s home form on the defensive side is most recently a 3 game average of 1.3 xG conceded, with Columbus holding their opponents to 1.2 xG on the road. There are always #reasons. The Minnesota game is weighs heavy on the Atlanta averages given the red card to Reynish and the injuries to Almiron and Garza and callups of Martinez and Guzan. And also, as I’ve discussed previously on the blog, big chances that Atlanta creates on the break are often not captured well by the expected goals model. The overall defensive trend before these last couple of games was very, very solid for the Five Stripes.
Kevin Minkus yesterday pointed out that Atlanta United are giving up high quality shots off of set pieces and Columbus may in fact create good shots off of set pieces, even if it has been relatively few to date:
This is scary. Lots to think about. I have this general fear of going down a goal early and then chasing the game against an awful game state (DCU type stuff), and so I’m hesitant to suggest really pushing numbers forward early to strangle the visitors — the thing is, this is exactly what the other part of my brain is screaming. Columbus will be travelling on short rest, with non soccer baggage lingering, and so it’s tempting to suggest a full on raiding party in the opening 10 minutes – kill them off early.
The thing is, the underlying numbers (to me at least) suggest a slowing of the high press at MBS. Maybe I’m not capturing what’s really going on, but I can think of reasons why the press works to less effect at MBS than BDS. And I also recognize that Atlanta have the home crowd advantage for this entire match, whether it be 90 minutes or 120 minute or all the way to PKs (shudders). I’d hate to spoil that by playing 75 minutes down a goal against a bunkering Crew who nicked a counter goal early. So I think my overall recommendation would be to exercise caution early on (I know you’re probably shaking your head), save some legs for what might be 120 minutes. The other recommendation is to task someone in the central attacking channel to press Mohammed Abu relentlessly, even at the expense of showing for the ball in transition. I’m not sure if this should be Almiron or Asad or even Gressel(!) who could be in for a starting role if Parkhurst isn’t ready (and Jeff slides back). And I hate to over think it, but something tells me we won’t succeed with Tito’s pace out wide in this one like we have in recent matches. We didn’t create much from wide in the first Columbus match (admittedly the field was narrower), and our goals came over the top in the second. I think I am calling for an inverted Tito on the left, a centrally located Asad, and Almiron inverted on the right. With players rotating to conserve energy and sanity as the central most player bothers Abu all night.
God speed. Hopefully, I get to do this again before next year.