June 17: Atlanta 3 – 1 Columbus

The first thing I noticed when the whistle blew at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday was that Columbus did not press high against Atlanta’s centre backs when they had the ball. They were more restrained, generally blocked passing lanes into midfield and waited to engage the press until the ball crossed the halfway line. This shows up in Atlanta’s “tidiness” stats (also known as the CLB pressing stats).

ATL TidinessWhile you may remember 2 or 3 cringe-worthy passes from the back line, with Columbus hanging back a bit, most of these passes were intercepted in the attacking half with the Crew daring Parkhurst and Pirez to pass their way across the line of engagement, and so they don’t show up in the “own-half” stats. What you can see is Atlanta passing in their own half at a level of comfort rarely seen this season, occasionally turning the ball over  via unsuccessful touches and dispossessions but at a very low rate (every 12+ passes). Atlanta also had around 60% possession in the first half. So in summary, CLB sat back to some extent, happy for Atlanta to pass the ball around in their own half.

Columbus is a very technically  capable team and came into this match playing the highest percentage of short passes of any team in MLS (11%). In the first half against Atlanta they were slightly more direct (16% long) partly due to sitting back some, but were still caught out in their own half at a very high rate, and not coincidentally the same rate of disruption that Atlanta usually causes its opponents (a giveaway for every 4-5 own-half passes).CLB Tidiness This sort of disruption in Atlanta’s attacking half created the first goal with Asad tackling and assisting Villalba in one very nice move followed by a piggy-back ride to the corner flag. It was mirrored at the end of the game with Kratz and Martinez.

If you look back at the charts, you can also see a lot changed in the second half. Columbus came out ready to press Atlanta further forward, and Atlanta in turn played more directly, perhaps out of necessity, or perhaps tactically, as is suggested here. It’s difficult for me to be able to tell which side is driving this, and which side is reacting, but it’s definitely there. I should also point out that perhaps Columbus played more directly in the first half as a reaction to Atlanta’s pressing and not just purely as part of a game plan. One thing that is unmistakable is the difference in Kann’s passing from the first to second half. My guess is that this aspect of the shift in passing is purposeful.

Check out the defensive action charts below to see Atlanta pressing high in both halves and Columbus drawing the line of engagement at the center circle in the first, and venturing further forward slightly in the second. Also check out those left flanks under siege (more on this later).

Here’s a new chart. The entire season to date of own-half passes per giveaway for Atlanta (blue line) and Atlanta’s opponents (red line). Remember higher numbers are good as you’re passing the ball more times before giving it away in your own half:

PPG over time ATL

Atlanta presses persistently and with purpose (see how stable the red line is) as their opponents’ “tidiness” rarely if ever veers too far away from the average 4-5 passes per giveaway range. Atlanta’s tidiness on the other hand fluctuates more significantly from match to match. Since these statistics are time consuming for someone like me to capture, I mostly just have them for Atlanta matches, so I’m not sure if this sort of thing rings true for most teams (i.e. that a team’s tidiness is dictated by it’s opponent’s press and not the other way around), or if this is something that fits Atlanta uniquely. It’s interestingly nonetheless. This chart suggests a team can manage its total giveaways against Atlanta by refusing to pass in its own half (route one style) fairly easily, but it has less control over the rate at which it gives the ball away when passing in its own half. The calculus comes down to how well does your possession suppress the quantity of your opponent’s shots and does this compensate enough for the quality of chance you will ultimately give up on occasion, trying to pass through a press.

Chances and stuff

Take a click through the usual data bits from @11tegen11. I think the expected goals stuff is pretty fair this week with both teams creating huge chances in the first half, and each side converting one such chance. Kann was massive for Atlanta and kept the game winnable going into halftime as Columbus found a couple really pretty through balls in behind Atlanta’s back line that set up very good shooting opportunities. The second half was more a game of attacking moves that ended just short of shots being taken or shots being taken from outside the box (perhaps the ultimate example of this is Kratz splitting the centre backs to find Martinez running at the keeper — I couldn’t have been the only one thinking we were about to see another keeper rounded).

Here are the attacking “chances” broken down by half (chalkboards from MLSSoccer boxscores).

Interesting that the first half was basically both teams attacking their opponent’s left flank. I don’t have a lot more to say in terms of the chances. This game was interesting from a style of play and tactical perspective, and then for the pure brilliance that a fatigued Almiron showed on his quick strike counter goal. And then as a fan, I was amazed as always by Yamil Asad — his pressing, his movement into space off the ball, his chance creation, and his general effort level. He’s leading the league in assists (proper assists not hockey assists) with 8. DP level stuff. I’ll stop here with the objective-ish analysis because there are so many games coming up, and these posts aren’t exactly evergreen anyhow 🙂

Biased Reaction

Here’s a quick comment as a fan. This was a massive win for Atlanta. First and foremost, at the moment the team is competing with Columbus for a playoff spot. Any eastern conference home game is crucial, but against these guys it’s sweeter, and Columbus is a good team despite their recent run of form. It was clear they were technically proficient, and generally well balanced, significantly talented in Meram, Higuain, and Kamara and the tactics seemed fine. The Crew could’ve been up 2-0 or 3-1 at half, and if that’s the case, we generally know how those games go for Atlanta. So it’s certainly important to reflect on Atlanta’s good fortune — how what could’ve been a demoralizing home loss to cap a 3 game losing streak is instead a statement win against a “rival,”– but the great thing about soccer is as soon as you’re done reflecting on that, you get to think about the individual acts of brilliance from Kann, Almiron, Asad, and Larentowicz, oh and Josef Martinez, and no one can take those 3 points away. This tension between underlying performance and results, which is rare in most sports, can be brutal at times and sublime at others.


And here are the current PACE tables heading into Wednesday night. The first a measure of each team’s performance against the win at home, draw away rule. The second, a measure of each team’s performance against the average MLS team’s home and away splits multiplied times each team’s composition of home and away matches played to date. They both suggest the same thing, that Atlanta is squarely in playoff contention, not chasing like the 7th place that the official table will lie to you about.


Also, you guys should really listen to the Beta Band more. Smh.


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.

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


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.

June 3: Vancouver 3 – 1 Atlanta

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. PressureTable1Atlanta 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)

Goal Focus

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.

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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.corner1

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.




May 28: Atlanta 3 – 1 New York City

Most fun at Bobby Dodd so far. A critical home win against a top team. A clear signal that the recent stubborn commitment to building from the back in the face of pressure instead of maximizing points on the road was the correct call. An incredible display of high pressure from the entire team in the first half on a hot day paid dividends. We’re going to need to talk about finishing again.

High Pressure

Both sides set out to press high and create turnovers close to the opposition’s goal. For the opening 10-15 minutes, NYCFC was slightly more effective at this and caused some anxious moments in front of the supporters section. Almiron’s goal in the 15th minute changed the game permanently. For the next half hour up until halftime, Atlanta squeezed the life out of the away side pressing their back line and forcing a ton of misplayed passes — many of which were somewhat harmlessly played out over the touch line, but others were more dangerous. Regardless, the pressure kept NYC from creating really anything after Almiron’s first. And just as importantly, the press created Atlanta’s third goal when Gressel won the ball back off of Callens and eliminated the keeper for Almiron to one-time Gressel’s cut back into an empty net. Here’s how each team did in terms of pressure and tidiness (stuff we’ve discussed often in recent weeks) broken down by the opening 15 minutes of even game state, the following half hour of Atlanta’s ruthless pressure, and the second half where NYCFC was officially chasing the game:PressureTableThe most notable thing in the above table is the half hour after Atlanta scored, where the ball stays in NYC’s half and the visitors give the ball away over and over again. Atlanta’s pressure here not only created the third goal of the game, but also pinned Viera’s team in their own half — who after consciously playing long with 17% of their passes to bypass Atlanta’s press at Yankee Stadium were surprisingly stubborn and insisted on playing through the pressure in this one — it ruined them. They only played 14% of their passes long (mirroring their season averages which are the 4th lowest in the league) suggesting they did not alter their style in the face of a tenacious Atlanta press.

See the difference in real estate in the successful pass chalkboards below. Atlanta completed almost as many passes in NYC’s half as in their own.

The pigeons, despite completing passes at a consistently high rate, were dispossessed or failed dribbles often in their own half and struggled to move the ball into Atlanta’s half. This portion of the match before half time has to be the crowning achievement of Martino’s time at Atlanta to date – and he had a great angle from which to take it all in up in one of the boxes, having been suspended for the match. Below are the defensive actions for each team during this part of the match:

It’s also worth noting that this period of relentless high pressure seemed (to my eye at least) to take a lot out of United. It was a hot day and the constant sprinting from Asad, Villalba, Gressel, and Carmona (who frequently charged ahead to lead the press from midfield) was impressive. It’s not surprising that Atlanta backed off a little in the 2nd half, not only because of the game state of 3-0, but also because of the energy spent in the first half (I speculate). It is a joy to watch Asad bend his run to shade the pass to the flanks when he presses the right sided centre back.


That’s awfully clinical from Atlanta in the first half. All 3 shots are goals and therefore all 3 key passes are assists. In fairness, two of these chances are essentially 1v1 with the keeper, and the other is an empty net chance. The expected goals figure at halftime of [squints at 11tegen11’s xG race graphic] 0.8(?) is closer to zero than it is to three. But this is why expected goals is best used as a middle to long term predictor of future goals and not as as good at evaluating an individual shot. As we break down the three goals in the next section, you can see that while historical conversion percentages from these types of shots may be closer to the 30-50% range (i.e. very, very good chances), it was not entirely surprising that they all found the back of the net. And there’s also good reason to believe these 3 chances are qualitatively better than the average historical MLS chance in similar situations (i.e. the model). Both of Almiron’s goals were coded as “big chances” by Opta, which presumably increases their xG value, but Tito’s was not, nor was Asad’s assist to him coded as a throughball, which would’ve also increased the expected value. More on Atlanta’s finishing at the very bottom of this post.

In the second half, New York City added about a half a goal worth of chances but were able to convert a decent chance into a goal after Mears’ giveaway off an Atlanta corner turned into a counter which ended with Mears caught between two NYC runs and unable to clear the ball that was crossed into Harrison at the back post. NYC’s other efforts inside the box were mostly blocked, a testament to the commitment of Larentowicz, Pirez, and Parkhurst.

ATLUTD Goal Focus (some slideshows)

One of the cool things about this match was that Atlanta strangled the game away through its high pressure of NYC’s back line, but only the last of Atlanta’s 3 goals was a direct product of this pressure. This is a great turn of events as it should give we as fans (but more importantly the team) confidence that Atlanta can generate high quality chances through various avenues – not just through turnovers.

To me, the first goal was strangely reminiscent of the Maxi Moralez goal in the Yankee Stadium fixture or the Parkhurst own goal in the DCU game and here’s why. While this goal was refreshingly not a quick turnover-based transition opportunity, it would also be a stretch to suggest it was created through careful buildup play. Kann hits the ball long (like Johnson in the Bronx and Hamid at Dodd), and the ball is won by Mears, falling to Villalba in the center of the field, his first touch caroms around for a moment before falling back to him at which point there is a clear path to a high quality chance. He expertly plays Gressel through and then makes a run for a near post cut back (for which he is open), but Gressel who has somehow drawn the remaining two defenders to him on the right, instead cuts the ball back to a wide open Almiron (and also Asad who is making a good horizontal run for a cross). Given the fortunate opening bounce off a contested header at midfield, Villalba does the right thing, Gressel does the right thing, Almiron and Asad make the right trailing runs, and Almiron calmly finishes, but is this a “well built up play” ? Probably not. Even still, this is the kind of chance that you get when you have great attacking players. In soccer the ball will bounce all over the place, and the events can be 50% pure chaos, but Atlanta has spent it’s money (and/or scouted good talent) in the attacking third, and so these chances are good and fair ones for Atlanta to score.

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The second goal is the pick of the litter. This one has real buildup / playing through the press. It features calm possession in Atlanta’s own half, followed by good movement off the ball by Asad to find space and offer up an outlet (and good vision by Larentowicz to find him). It also includes a killer “through-ish” ball (though not coded as such by Opta) to an exquisite run made by Villalba, and finally a sharp, sharp finish. This is the goal Atlanta hopes to create regularly going forward, especially as Martinez returns to full health. This is the goal you have to know you can come up with if you find yourself in must-win situations against teams there to make life difficult for you. Tito’s finish reminds me of Villa’s against ATL from a few weeks ago, but to my eye it is prettier.

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The third goal is a classic high pressing, “counterpress-is-the-best-playmaker” type goal that Atlanta has proven it can score over and over again this year, and yet they must keep scoring these goals as they are the bread and butter of the great Martino machine. If that second goal from Tito is the one you hope you can pull off when facing a difficult-to-break-down defense, than this is the goal you know you have to score early and often in a default scenario for the rest of the season. This is the formula. Would Gressel have been called for the foul if this were an away game, probably. Does it take away from the fact that it was well earned and also quite sustainable going forward, no. Game on. I love the contrast in the way Gressel hits this pass compared to the first goal (which was a lighter touch so that whoever got on the end of it could easily control and finish). On this pass, he sees that the real work is done by eliminating the keeper and so the vital thing is just to get the ball to Almiron before the window closes. He hits hit hard and all Almiron has to do is redirect really.

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The part where I eat some past words.

I was somewhat critical of the tactical choices Atlanta employed in the first matchup with NYCFC, I made the argument that points were precious and that given the smaller pitch at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta should’ve abandoned some of its principles in the match in order to maximize the chances of getting points on the road and in such a strange venue. I also acknowledged that I could be persuaded in time that it was worth it to the overall development of the team’s style and identify to commit to playing a certain way even it in the face of very difficult challenges. After three good results in a row, in which a commitment to possession and build up play through short passes had a say in each outcome (albeit to varying degrees), I think I can say (mostly persuaded by the crucial 6 points in 2 home games) that the trade-off was worth it. Even taking the two NYC matchups in isolation, if at the end of the season Atlanta is battling with other teams for playoff berths and not NYC, then each team taking the 3 points at home is beneficial to both, and perhaps, Atlanta doesn’t take home 3 points this past weekend without this consistent commitment even in the face of failure in New York. This logic is somewhat weakened by the players continuing to give soundbites about how against New York they “went away from their game” and that was their downfall. I still don’t agree with that, but it is what it is. What seems conclusive though is that Atlanta are now in a place where they can feel confident that if the transition/turnover game isn’t working, they’ve got some other tricks in the bag — dropping Larentowicz between the CBs and building play that way. Against NYCFC, Atlanta did not enjoy the possession advantage they had against Houston and Portland, and the team did in fact play the ball long with a higher frequency than usual (20%). Nonetheless, they were much more confident taking NYCFC’s high press head-on and playing around them, I suspect because of the work they’ve put in on the training ground and in the games focused on playing out of the back.


You might notice I mention this in almost every post. But there’s this thing happening with Atlanta that we need to understand, but I’m struggling to understand it. Atlanta are leading the league in goals scored but third to last in the MLS in shots. They are converting their shots into goals at exceedingly high rates. Further, if you posit as I have in the past that Atlanta are taking low volumes of exceedingly high quality shots, than you might be troubled to know that AmericanSoccerAnalysis has them at 4th lowest in the league in expected goals per game (which should measure the combined quantity AND quality of a team’s shots). Drilling down into the quality of Atlanta’s shots, they’re sitting in the lower half of the table (13th) at 0.107 per shot. If you compare the league leading 26 goals to the expected goals model, and start comparing it to other teams and prior seasons, things look wild:Historical G - xG

Those bars represent every team’s goals scored minus expected goals for the season to date as well as each season from 2011 to 2016. And that bar on the far left (which albeit is only 12 games) is an historic rate of finishing chances for 2017’s Atlanta United. And there are real problems we need to grapple with as a result because generally speaking these types of statistics tend to regress the more shots are taken (as seasons progress). So the question we have is A) Are Atlanta’s finishing numbers unsustainable, suggesting that the remaining portion of the season will be difficult if/when those shot numbers don’t improve, or B) Do Atlanta United’s players possess the rare and mythic trait of elite finishing that the analytics community generally would suggest is more hype than substance, or C) Is Atlanta United doing something that the public expected goals models simply cannot pick up on and thus the quality of their shots is much higher than the models are crediting them with? The third option there is intriguing, but we shouldn’t rush to it. After all, wouldn’t there be other examples in MLS history of teams that created similar chance that break the models? At any rate, this is an intriguing question that at the end of the season, we’ll either look back on and say “yea, saw that coming, shucks” (like West Ham in 2015/2016 EPL?) or that will cause us to reconsider how we think about finishing and expected goals (I think?). Some more shooting charts for Atlanta for anyone who hasn’t already thrown their computers and/or smartphones out a window:

Update: Thanks to the Vancouver Whitecaps gaffe of trying to sell tickets to the upcoming game by showing all of Atlanta’s goals in 1 video clip, it was easy to put together the following table to address some of the comments to this post and to better illuminate Atlanta’s overperformance vs public expected goals models (which many have pointed out can only indirectly measure how many defenders are between the shooter and the goal:

  • 27 goals minus 1 own goal = 26 shot by Atlanta
  • 19 goals with zero outfield defenders between the shooter and the goal.
  • 6 goals on empty nets (keeper was eliminated either through dribbling or cutback)
  • 3 goals with only 1 outfield defender between shooter and goal
  • 3 goals with more than 1 defender betweens hooter and goal (Almiron @MIN, Tito vs CHI, Carmona @NYC)
  • 2 goals from outside the box (Almiron @MIN, Gressel @POR)
  • I count 10 that should probably be categorized as through balls (all 1v1)



Adjusted MLS East Table Stuff

Last week on another site, I recommended we start looking at the MLS table a bit differently. First and foremost, we should balance the table to reflect an even number of games played, and secondly we should do something to account for the dramatic difference in home and away performance in MLS. For those following along, here’s how the table looks after last night’s matches.13pop

I’ll be improving how this table works after some good feedback I got in some of the comments to the original post. But at the very least, I think this is a good reference point to go along with the official MLS table and the MLS PPG tables.

NYCFC II: Stats Scouting Report & Match Preview

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:NYC-pressure 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:TEDD.png 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.

East Pop


May 20: Atlanta 4 – 1 Houston

That was fun for so many reasons. First, a pretend objective summary:

Atlanta and Houston were basically even in the first half in terms of dangerous chances. The difference really was that Almiron is an elite talent and Asad is very very very damn good, and to the extent Houston has those players, they were on the bench, having played in the midweek and carrying some injuries. Kann played excellently throughout, but it occurs to me how uniquely important his saves in the first half were to keep this game from becoming something completely different. As we saw against DC, all it takes is 1 turnover or weird bounce at the back to flip the game on its head — and Atlanta provided Houston with a few opportunities (again a byproduct of a commitment to building from the back). Instead, Kann stepped up during those moments to keep the game level long enough for the better team to do something special, which is what you’re hoping for when playing at home. In the second half, Atlanta played from the position they wanted to, and played it well. Visually it was impressive (the passing and the pressing), but it was also effective. Houston really didn’t mount anything dangerous until the very late penalty with the game already decided. They can have it. In this post, we’ll touch on shape, chance creation, the keeper question, pressure and tidiness, and set pieces.


This looked like Atlanta in its ideal Plan A shape. Just as Joe Patrick demonstrated in an excellent video at DSS, Atlanta had two shapes. In possession, Larentowicz dropped between the centre backs who moved wider allowing the fullbacks to play further forward. Carmona moved laterally across the field to provide an outlet for whichever centre back was in possession. Asad and Gressel had the freedom to move inside as well and interchange with Almiron and Villalba. When Houston was in possession, Larentowicz and Carmona formed an initial line of 2 in front of the back 4. I saw it as a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1. On a Houston goal kick for instance, they would start side by side, but, one or the other had license to push forward and press Houston into traps, it just depended on what was in front of them as the play developed. Generally speaking, Houston couldn’t crack this structure. Their chances came almost exclusively off of turnovers when Atlanta was playing out of the back (see chance creation section further below, and then a treatise on pressure and possession even further below).

I did notice that at times in the match, Carmona would tag in for Larentowicz as the guy sitting between the central defenders — not sure if this was to conserve energy or what – if anyone has any ideas let me know. Below is the chalkboard for Larentowicz (18), Carmona (14), and Almiron (10). Larentowicz nominally a central midfielder, but often the furthest player back. Carmona in front of him, and Almiron with free range in Houston’s half. There is a striking beauty in its symmetry (left). And for reference, on the right is @11tegen11’s passmap for ATLUTD. I will always love that Asad/Almiron link.



Like I said, Houston largely could not crack Atlanta’s defensive shape through any sort of sustained buildup. They created 4 shots in the first half, 2 on target (1 in the box), 1 off target and 1 blocked. Importantly, all 4 of their first half shots came not from possession but from quick hits off of Atlanta turnovers in the defensive half. See slideshow below for a chalkboard of each (from MLSSoccer.com):

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Atlanta’s chances in the first half came from more diverse origins though the two best (the 2 goals) came from the home side’s defensive pressure either indirectly (through Carmona counter-pressing Houston and keeping the ball pinned back in their half as the MOTS podcast astutely noted for the first goal), or directly by way of Asad stealing the ball off DeLaGarza (who was identified in the stats scouting report as a potential giveaway target for Atlanta’s pressure) and creating a swift transition attack for the second goal. Even still, the shots Almiron converted were very low percentage chances. The underlying metrics had the game basically even at half with each team registering no more than a quarter chance all in. But when you have a player of such quality, it’s not completely unexpected to convert such chances. 2 in 1 half is perhaps fortunate.

Overall, the first half chance creation looked like this for the two teams:

The second half featured an altogether different game state. Atlanta created its goals in transition. First through Villalba counter-pressing to tackle/assisting Gressel in the box after Gressel was dispossessed, and second by Villalba being played through on the counter, only to be taken down in the box for a penalty.

Atlanta had the benefit of beginning the 2nd half up 2 goals, clarifying the objective for them quite nicely. They responded well, killing the game off for the most part and causing the Dynamo pain on the counter on more than one occasion. They attempted 67% of the total 2nd half passes (compared to 59% in the first half). This is notable compared to a fairly typical 2nd half soccer game state where a leading team might see less of the ball and face significantly more shots (and be happy to do so to limit the quality of shots). In reality, Atlanta conceded just 3 unblocked shots (1 of them being the very late penalty) against a team that knew they had to advance. There was the one early giveaway from Garza that led to a hard (but low percentage shot) from outside the box which Kann parried. I would say this went pretty well as planned by Martino & Co.

Alec Kann

Let’s start with this week’s performance. It was excellent. Kann faced 4 shots on target in the run of play and saved all of them, 2 which kept Atlanta in the game in the first half before Almiron started DJ’ing the party. He also completed 83% of his passing which is very good for a keeper. I recall a few very calmly lofted balls to the advanced fullbacks, which is one of the hardest passes a keeper can make. At the moment, I don’t see anything that Martino is asking him to do that he can’t do.

There is some debate around whether it’s OK to wonder if Kann might hold off Guzan from the starting job, and my take is that it’s a legit brewing controversy. Through 11 matches, he’s beating ASA’s goalkeeper xG model by about 1 goal every 5 games, good for second in the league behind Tim Melia. While it’s certainly possible that this is noise given the small sample size and given it’s Kann’s first year as a starter, I wouldn’t be surprised *at all* if Guzan puts up worse numbers when he arrives, even if he brings other things to the table. It wouldn’t necessarily be a reflection on him. It’s just at the moment this guy from Decatur is looking pretty good – as I readily admit that I am no expert in judging keepers, … nor outfield players. If Kann were to keep up this type of performance against expected goals for the whole season, it would put him in the top 15% of all goal keeper performances over the last 5 years in MLS.

Checking in on Pressure & Tidiness

Over the last few weeks I’d been compiling some data to help me get a better feel for pressing and possession, since these are supposedly the hallmark elements of this team. Attempting to evaluate whether or not Atlanta was actually improving in the short passing buildup from the back, I went back to every ATL game on MLSSoccer.com and counted the unsuccessful passes that terminated in Atlanta’s half (excluding passes that went out of play on the grounds that those aren’t as dangerous and sometimes necessary). I added to these figures the counts from whoscored.com of unsuccessful dribbles, unsuccessful touches, and dispossessions all taking place in Atlanta’s own half. I’m calling the sum of all the above baddies “giveaways.” I then repeated this effort but in reverse to see how Atlanta was tracking in terms of forcing “giveaways” from their opponents.

We’ll see where this goes, if anywhere, but I like this in principle. On the pressing side of things, it is an attempt to measure pressing success not just by the recorded defensive actions of defenders but by measuring a disruption in what the opponent is trying to do. Icing on the cake might be that, at least for Atlanta, giveaways are correlating well with opponent’s expected goals. Further, I think of the idea of a “giveaway” as having a pretty anchored and objective nominal value — meaning regardless of whether you’re a high possession team that passes the ball 500 times per game or a low block countering team that passes 250 times per game, if you’re giving the ball away 30 times a game in your own half, you’re giving your opponents 30 potential transition opportunities with few outfielders between the ball and the goal. I refer to this as “tidiness.” I like the stat because I could see an argument for how it’s universal. There’s not a huge “tradeoff” per say in terms of committing giveaways. All teams must advance the ball out of their half. Whether they choose to do so directly by skipping this part of the field and challenging for the resulting loose ball, or patiently playing short passes through their own zone, the goal should be the same: DO NOT GIVE THE BALL AWAY IN YOUR OWN HALF. Like period, right? This is basic. Am I missing something? Feel free to tear this down if you feel otherwise.

Anyhow, I highlighted this in the match preview, but coming into this week, Houston were committing significantly fewer giveaways than Atlanta (23 to 38), and both teams were causing their opponents around 31 giveaways of pain per game (Houston’s opponents pass it in their own half more, at a clip of 88% compared to the 83% allowed by Atlanta). So how did it pan out then?Pressure1.PNG Atlanta improved on its season averages, giving the ball away fewer times and passing at a higher percentage in their own half. Houston performed worse than their season to date averages, giving it away more and passing at a significantly lower success rate, a testament to Atlanta’s high press given Houston’s general disinterest in playing the ball around in the back to begin with. Here’s a similar table, but comparing each team’s performance at Bobby Dodd to what their opponent normally allows from its opponents (i.e. how well did ATL do compared to all of Houston’s opponents so far):Pressure2.PNG To me, this table (which admittedly is just 1 game compared to 2 team’s season averages) suggests that perhaps how “tidiness” depends first and foremost on your opponent’s desire to press and ability to press you, and to a lesser degree (but still present) on your own skill at playing out of the back or whatever you want to call it. Houston’s giveaways in this match don’t resemble their own typical numbers, but instead mirror the general disruption Atlanta has caused for its opponents all season long. Conceptually, I think this works – the “high press” as the dog that wags the “own-half-possession” tail rather than the other way around. And similarly, Atlanta’s giveaway numbers are stuck in between their generally higher season averages and the generally lower averages for Houston opponents. I expect that Martino drills into his players’ heads week in and week out this commitment to possession and playing out of the back. It is supposedly a defining characteristic of the squad (even if at times I’d prefer a little more direct play). So it’s possible this extra effort is what lands Atlanta’s possession figures above those of Houston’s opponents’ averages. If I have time, I’ll try to pull these figures for more of Atlanta’s opponents, to see if there’s a real trend here (e.g. if one should predict the giveaway stats for a team not based on the team’s season averages but based on the season average giveaways forced by the team’s next opponent).

Also, as it relates to this Houston game in particular, Atlanta seemed to press most opportunistically — right after they gave the ball away in the final third — and this led to two of the goals.


Postscriptum: Possible Designed Set Pieces

Welcome to the part of the post where I imagine that some of these set pieces were designed plays from the training ground.

We’ll start in the 19th minute. Almiron has a direct free kick just outside the box on the right. Asad is very careful to stand directly behind the wall in the keeper’s line of sight while staying onside — he waves his arm in the air to further distract the keeper. And Almiron plays it short on the ground under the wall right to where Asad was screening (not into the danger area where most of both teams’ players are.

This play was thwarted at the last moment by a Houston defender, out for a corner…

The resulting corner in the 21st minute, was a very well orchestrated designed play. Atlanta lines up for a short corner with the usual suspects Almiron and Asad. Houston plays two defenders close to the corner flag to account for them. But also notice Garza — and no one from Houston marking him — perhaps Atlanta saw something on film.

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In the 60th minute, there’s another clever designed play (I think). Follow along in the slideshow below.

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Edited for clarity since the captions in that slideshow seem to get cut off. Basically while the second free kick taker darts into the box left, the ball is played right, back and to the center of the field (as if to suggest a passive, possession-retaining free kick), the lines move up as Garza darts into the box to find the return ball from Mears. I think this is designed misdirection but it’s hard to tell.

The set piece goal drought continues, but I’m encouraged by the cleverness in the opportunities that Atlanta does see. Not the first game where we’ve seen some creativity in this space. Would *love* to know how and when they fit this into the week’s preparations.

Houston Dynamo Stats Scouting Report

Atlanta want to play out of the back (especially at home) to control the game, AND they want to press high up the field to win the ball back close to (or within one throughball of) their opponent’s goal to create high quality scoring opportunities.

Houston want to bunker on defense, invite Atlanta into over-committing in attack, and break quickly with fast counters. With the ball, they’re happy to play long balls (18% of passes are long) and they average 46.7% possession, which is on the low side.

Both teams should get their wish, in terms of overall architecture of the game.

Buildup and Pressure

I’ve been tracking some stats around possession and giveaways in a team’s own half, partly to better evaluate Atlanta’s progress in learning to play out of the back, and partly to assess the importance and vitality of their high pressing tactics and their ability to disrupt the opponent’s buildup on the other end of the field. While I’ve been focusing on Atlanta, I was curious about Houston, and so I ended up compiling their stuff as well this week. For the discussion below, I define “giveaways” as the sum of the following actions, all taking place in a team’s own half: unsuccessful passes, unsuccessful dribbles, dispossessions from tackles, unsuccessful touches.

When we adjust for the record-breaking Chicago game where Atlanta was up a man for most of the game, they’re averaging 183 own half passes per game, completing 84% of them, and giving the ball away there 38 times per game (which, while I don’t have this data for all teams, seems extraordinarily high). Conversely, Houston is spending less time passing in their own half (125 per game), completing 88% of them (which if I had to guess might be pretty standard), and the dynamo are giving the ball away just 23 times per game.

On the other side of the coin (measuring high pressure), Atlanta’s opponents this season are averaging only 116 own-half passes per game (which I would guess is low), completing 83% (also low), and giving the ball away in their own half 31 times per game. Conversely, Houston’s opponents (who are enjoying more possession) are averaging 168 own-half passes per game, completing 88% of them, but also giving the ball away 31 times per game.


Where I’m headed with this is that unless we witness significant tactical departures on Saturday, Houston will bunker and look to break, and Atlanta will build out of the back, push numbers high, and press when Houston is in possession. Both sides will have opportunities to turn the other side over. And while this all suggests Atlanta will have the lion’s share of the ball, I can’t help but think we could have a track meet at times when Houston gets to running, and Atlanta pressing the counter to thwart these moments.

I find all of soccer to be difficult to predict (MLS especially), but this complementary set of styles (possession vs counter) may exacerbate the extreme outcomes. I would guess that Houston is completely comfortable in this equilibrium. Further, I might be undervaluing Houston’s transition threat by focusing on the “high press turnovers” (opponent’s half) when Houston is also dangerous countering from deep. Interestingly, through 11 games, there’s a high correlation between Atlanta’s chance creation numbers and their opponents’ giveaways (ATL putting up bigger xGs in games where their opponent is sloppier in the defensive half), but for Houston this relationship doesn’t really show up.

If I had to suggest a specific tactic for Atlanta it would be to focus some pressing on the hometown veteran Rico Clark. My stuff suggests he is more prone to the “giveaway” than his teammates, right around 3 per game. Also, right back DeLaGarza is sitting on a quite low 80% pass accuracy in his own half. So, perhaps shading the ball his direction could be fruitful, to the extent that Houston isn’t already bypassing their own half with long balls.


And Houston certainly are dangerous. Despite not having a lot of the ball, they are creating chances. AmericanSoccerAnalysis has Houston 2nd in MLS in expected goals for (underlying attacking output) and expected goal differential (+0.53/gm). Here are some shooting stats (shots for and against on the left Y, and ordered by shot diff on the right y):Shots.PNG

Houston are generating some of the highest shooting totals in MLS. And interestingly, set pieces are a big reason for this. They’re taking 1 or so more per game than the average MLS team and 3 more than Atlanta PLUS they’re converting them at an exceedingly high rate (though one would not expect this to persist).Set Pieces.PNG

In terms of shots output from open play, both teams are sort of in the middle of the MLS pack (Atlanta at 9.3/game and Houston at 8.6) with Atlanta converting these into goals at a lead-leading 18% rate, and Houston a below average 8%.

Ben Baer at MLSSoccer.com wrote a piece laying out a gameplan for slowing down the Dynamo. It involves playing a low block and forcing Houston to have the ball — I just can’t see Tata allowing for this. So, if we assume that the game will look sort of like the DC game in terms of possession and geography, when the inevitable turnovers happen in midfield it will be vital for Atlanta to thwart counters before they start.

On the possession side of things, if aggressively playing short out of the back isn’t working early (you’ve seen them, where they’ve got the centre backs on either side of the 18 yard box), I would call an audible just to minimize the chance of having to chase a 1 goal deficit for most of the game. I would think that the longer the game remains level, the more solid Atlanta’s home field advantage will be. Rule #1 will need to be avoid getting in upside down game states against a great bunkering/countering team.

Last week, Atlanta looked much improved with winning second balls in midfield, which was important since Portland played so directly when pressed. I suspect this will be important again, and might be the most noticeable thing for the viewer. On Sunday Saturday, if you notice Atlanta picking up those loose balls in midfield, you’ll probably be having a good time. If not, it may be agonizing.

Houston’s attacking weapons are hard to ignore at this point with 4 chance creators over 0.6 xG+A per game in Torres, Elis, Manotas, and Quioto (data from ASA through last weekend’s results).

I’m thinking this one’s 2-1 Atlanta with a penalty 🙂 but like I said, it could go in any direction, really.

Saturday 7pm Fox Sports Southeast