Josh over at Dirty South Soccer wrote a really nice piece on some of the observable differences between Atlanta United playing at Bobby Dodd and Mercedes Benz. Click here to check that out. I’m not as eloquent or as wise as him, nor as versed in soccer tactics, but I wanted to just drop some data / graphs in here that I’d been tweeting about in recent weeks to add to this comparison.
First up, here’s a table I keep to track some of the Atlanta United tidiness stats.
Takeaway1: Atlanta are tidier on the ball at home, and more tidy on the ball at the Benz compared to Bobby Dodd. This shows up in the own-half passes per giveaways and own-half passing % metrics.
Takeaway2: Atlanta are suppressing opponents’ shots (and shots on target) at home, and most impressively at the Benz. The result is improved expected goals against figures as well as improved goals conceded figures.
Next up, the pressing stats for Bobby Dodd, Mercedes Benz, and away matches:
Takeaway1: Interestingly, while Atlanta United pressed more furiously and to greater effect at Bobby Dodd than on the road, the pressing numbers come down quite a bit at MBS – could be schedule congestion and fitness conservation – could be larger pitch makes it harder to press opponents into mistakes.
Takeaway 2: ATL Goals and Expected goals have trended up furiously at MBS compared to Bobby Dodd, both being higher than the average away matches output. Expected goal data comes from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com as always.
Game by Game Pressing/Tidiness Game Stats (I hadn’t posted these here since the FCD match.
ATL-NE stats aren't super meaningful, but for grins, here's the pressure/tidiness table for that "contest" pic.twitter.com/nx2md55wgc
In the first ever soccer match at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta dominated the score sheet with a 3-0 victory and created their highest single game tally of expected goals (2.8 per ASA) this season. The team held FC Dallas to 0 goals and 1.2 expected goals (this spread is partly luck and partly Guzan). And the resulting 1.7 xGD is the highest winning expected goal difference for the club this season. All this points to dominance by the Five Stripes, and I think that’s probably fair. The box score suggests dominance as well:
However, I would say as a fan, I only felt comfortable in the second half. FC Dallas’ only two shots on target were two very good chances that Guzan had to make big saves for.
And as dominant as Atlanta were in the end, those types of games will occasionally go south depending on the ordering of events and the direction of some bounces. I’ve included a map of all 5 of FC Dallas’ shots on target and blocked shots. They’re all very good chances, and would’ve altered events.
On the Atlanta side of things, 12 of 19 shots being put on frame is a high number (63% vs the league average 36%). The home side were exceedingly efficient at turning shots into #problems for Jesse Gonzalez. But as I recall, they were also much more efficient at turning attacks into shots (contrast this with away at Orlando where many counters and other attacking moves ended up just shy of registered shots). Whoscored has Atlanta at 27 touches inside the box, with an insanely high 8 firing within the 6 yard box. While a few of the 19 were from range, 19 shots on 27 touches inside the box feels pretty high to me – it feels *very* efficient. Because of all of this, I would not describe Atlanta’s 25% SOT conversion in this game as wasteful or as evidence of “sloppiness in the final third.” I would say the team were mostly lights out efficient in turning attacks into threats and threats into huge threats. Jesse Gonzalez stood on his head some, but at the same time, even while putting on massive shots and xG numbers, Atlanta still bested the 2.8 expected goals with 3 actual goals. I would say finishing was not a problem in this one.
That all being said, while it’s not surprising to hear very bullish talk of the team challenging for a top 2 spot in the east, along with talk that the wider and deeper playing surface has offered us a glimpse at a new normal for Atlanta where they will dominate every away side with pace and tenacity, (inhales) I expect we might see the team be slightly less efficient going forward at turning attacks into shots, slightly less efficient at turning shots into shots on target, and slightly more efficient at turning shots on target into goals (as has been the trend so far this year). I don’t feel too strongly about it. I’m just hesitant to think that what we saw against FC Dallas is what we’ll see going forward because of a bigger field and a slicker surface.
Pressing & Tidiness
These pressing numbers seem fairly standard for Atlanta with the exception that Dallas was slightly tidier than a typical Atlanta opponent. This may have been impacted by the severe game states of Atlanta leading for most of the game and increasing its lead as the game went on. Also both teams played more own-half passes than I’ve been seeing in these numbers. Atlanta’s 225 higher than its season average of 195, and FC Dallas’ 163 higher than Atlanta’s opponents’ average of 126. Perhaps this is the bigger pitch showing up, hard to tell. I thought Atlanta’s press was somewhat more ruthless than these numbers show with several balls won back quickly after a turnover, and quickly converted into through balls and other transition moves.
Atlanta’s defensive actions in the first half (left) and second half (right):
This is somewhat surprising given what I thought I observed which was a press that slowed somewhat in the second. I think in the second what you’re seeing is more counter-pressing — pressing to win the ball shortly after losing it to keep Dallas from countering.
We saw a return to the more pronounced back-3 shape with Larentowicz eager to join the other centre backs when in possession (LGP and Parkhurst in the left graphic, Jeff in the right).
Asad and Almiron seemed to connect over and over again with great effectiveness on the left. I can’t tell just yet if we should credit the larger pitch or not. It very well could have been the case that they each felt more comfortable on the ball with the defense stretched both laterally and vertically by the speed of Martinez and Villalba (and also Almiron). Jason Poon suggested that Atlanta and Almiron specifically targeted Dallas’ right back Grana. And that might very well have been the case. On the left below is the chalkboard for Garza + Asad, and on the right the map for Almiron, who does seem awfully left-leaning for a central playmaker. Asad drifts inward some but no more than usual. Anyhow, the key passes coming in from that side from these 3 players alone is … it’s high.
On the right side, there has been some criticism recently that the Garza/Asad dynamic of the fullback stretching the defense wide and the attacking midfielder tucking in wasn’t being replicated to the same degree of success. In this game however, I noticed Villalba tucking in often nicely into pockets between the lines to receive the ball. We don’t see the same degree of advancement from Walkes that we might see from Garza game to game, but the variety in attacking width on the right seemed to work well enough.
One last look at the attacking passes for each team. You can really see a contrast in style between the two. The first half below, Atlanta on the left and Dallas on the right:
FC Dallas obsessed with width. Atlanta just killing them from the most dangerous areas. In the second, it’s a little bit more varied as Dallas chased the game.
I’ll have to cut this one off now. Too many games.
In short, this game was a lot of fun. It’s possible the larger pitch is super-charging the team, but I want more evidence before we call that one. Atlanta was extremely efficient at turning attacks into shots, but Gonzalez was also a disruption. Guzan was very good. Atlanta good. Dallas bad.
Back after a brief hiatus. Thanks for your patience. This one (which I watched from my couch on pins and needles) was fascinating. It felt like a smash and grab in the immediate aftermath, but we’ll investigate to what extent that sentiment is accurate. Let’s just dive right in.
OCSC outshot Atlanta 13 to 8 and many will tell you they should have won. Most* expected goals models show something that many would interpret as Atlanta lucky as all hell to leave the state of Florida with any points, let alone all three (here’s one):
And for good measure, FiveThirtyEight also had the shots-based xG at 1.2 – 0.4 in favor of Orlando. At time of posting ASA’s numbers aren’t up yet, but they’re normally similar.
Here are the shots:
So, was Atlanta actually lucky and Orlando unlucky? Not so fast. Atlanta is perhaps fortunate that some of the Orlando shots weren’t put on frame, and Atlanta won’t count on a dream strike from Tito every match, but Orlando can always shoot better, and they can close down a striker cutting inside with the ball on his dominant foot. If we’re going to give cosmic credit to teams for shots they would normally expect to put on frame but didn’t (or for close headers that are scored more often than Guzan let them in this game), we should look into giving some credit to attacking moves that are normally converted into high quality shots, but that may not have been (namely those of Atlanta). One such way to accomplish that is to calculate an expected goals value from non-shot events data, and FiveThirtyEight happily includes such an estimate alongside its shots-based expected goals model (check the last row).
Taking into consideration some of the more dangerous moments Atlanta created but that did not result in shots shows a more even match, and for my money, that’s the true story of the game (though I do not fully understand everything that goes into their model). The total number of touches in the penalty box and surrounding areas seems similar as well (these coming from whoscored.com).
Atlanta may have been lucky to take all 3 points and the teams largely played evenly to a draw, but there’s nothing wrong with taking 3 against a #rival because of a beautiful goal. And no, I do NOT think Orlando have a claim to have outplayed Atlanta on this day. I’ll do my best to make the case for why.
Flow of the Game: Atlanta pressed high. Orlando didn’t.
First off, aside from the first few moments after the whistle and a handful of half-hearted other attempts, Orlando rarely pressed Atlanta’s back line in this game, and they were happy to cede the lion’s share of possession to the away side. Atlanta attempted 63% of all passes attempted in the first half, and 49% in the second, for a combined 57% of passes attempted in the match (aligns with the official possession figure of 55%). See below for a pretty common initial look from Orlando when Atlanta were starting play.
Basically, as we’ve seen several times this year, Atlanta played like the home side, and Orlando looked to absorb and counter, which — look, that’s totally a valid game plan, especially against the Five Stripes as I’ve mentioned before — but when you’re playing at home with this sort of reactive approach, it seems more likely that a weird moment can slide you from a drawing position into a losing one rather than from a winning position into a drawing one (the more likely ‘oops’ that a proactive team like Atlanta should look out for over the second half of the season). To boot, here are the patented Tiotal Football Pressure & Tidiness Stats for the game:
What we see here is 1) Orlando generally choosing not to (or failing to) disrupt Atlanta’s buildup play, allowing the away side to start possession calmly and 2) Atlanta not allowing Orlando the same privilege. Remember ATL are averaging 190+ own-half passes and 33 giveaways per game, for something like 7 own-half passes per giveaway. And their opponents are averaging 130, 30, and 4.3 against ATL. In a recent post over at DirtySouthSoccer I had posited that while these averages create a somewhat advantageous equilibrium for the Five Stripes, perhaps there was a slightly higher level they could move to in terms of “tidiness”:
“The question is, is it the equilibrium Tata Martino (and Darren Eales) aim for (?), or is there a possible equilibrium where Atlanta is shaving off a handful of giveaways per game and still maintaining their pressing effectiveness and ball control? Could we see the team average 25 or fewer giveaways per game down the stretch while still turning their opponents over 30+ and forcing the long balls?” (DirtySouthSoccer)
Well, that worked out quite nicely! Here Atlanta are a mere few days after I wrote that piece, putting up a much tidier overall performance while still creating havoc in their opponent’s half (partly due to Orlando not trying much to disrupt). The second half is a bit mediocre from both teams – partly the humidity I expect. Atlanta’s press slowed slightly in the second, though still higher than Orlando’s. But why didn’t the successful Atlanta high press turn into shots, chances, expected goals, goals you might ask? I’m tempted to blame chance in the same way analytics folk often blame chance for conversion rates that might seem too low or too high.
To my eye, there were several successful pressing moments that just barely did not come off in terms of creating shots, but on another day they might’ve. To paint a picture, here are just a few I noticed:
In the 13th minute, Atlanta press generally pretty well chasing the ball around Orlando’s half, and they create an unsuccessful touch or two, but it’s just barely recovered by Orlando — I might call it luck. In many games the ball bounces the other way and Atlanta are off to the races.
In the 14th minute, Asad pins Orlando back deep only for the player to narrowly escape him to find a centre back who boots it long, but it is intercepted by LGP well inside Orlando’s half. A 1-2-3 in quick succession nearly finds LGP through on goal for a 1v1 chance. Gressel’s throughball is narrowly caught out. Orlando were almost punished for their loose possession — we were closer than many realize to the game changing drastically this early. But no Atlanta shot was registered.
In the 40th minute, Atlanta forces a long ball from Bendik, and then immediately presses the wide player causing a terrible back pass and a massive chance for Almiron through on goal, but again no shot is registered because of a desperate retreating slide tackle from OCSC.
These were just a few I grabbed screens of, but generally speaking Atlanta created a ton of danger for Orlando City in this game from the press that simply wasn’t resolved into a shot in the box score, and therefore had no associated expected goal value, and on and on. Be cautious if you suggest Atlanta were overly fortunate. There was some luck. There normally is. But there was also Atlanta executing their game plan.
Given the lack of a high press from Orlando (or the occasional attempt at it), this match was also a nice view into the kinds of buildup patterns Atlanta aim for against what was often two banks of four. I think this is interesting because we are often wondering whether Atlanta can create from buildup play (instead of just from turnovers). And I’ve been obsessed with whether or not Atlanta are improving the tidiness required to play this way. Here are a few key moments that I found illustrative, and buried in here are some very good near chances – more of those kinds of things that don’t show up in the shots/xG totals:
In the 2nd minute, Atlanta passes through a fairly high Orlando City position to create a very nice attacking look. This may have been one of the moments that persuaded Orlando not to press high as much.
In the 15th minute, Atlanta plays the ball forward through their own half largely uncontested, and play really begins with the classic “Asad-tuck-in-Garza-overlap-Almiron-shows-for-the-ball-triangle” (TM). This is Atlanta’s Plan A it seems to me. The buildup culminates with 3 Atlanta attackers narrow moving into the box with Almiron the ball behind them, and Garza and Walkes in plenty of space wide. Then they successfully work the ball into the danger area, but fail to find a shot. Great buildup play on the road in a hostile environment.
In the 23rd minute, there’s this nice little flick (link to MLS clip) coming from back to front as LGP finds Almiron in space centrally and he plays Asad through nicely.
In the 36th minute, we see Plan A again: calm and conservative buildup from the back. Asad tucked in, Garz/Asad/Almiron/Tito combination down the left. Narrowly called offside though I don’t see it. Another one of those very good plays/ very dangerous chancs that doesn’t show up anywhere in the numbers.
In the 63rd minute, you see another very high quality concept from Atlanta in buildup (similar to the last one). Under basically no pressure from Orlando’s forwards, the Atlanta de facto back 3 is able to rotate the ball around with ease and then Parkhurst can pick out Almiron dropping between the lines. Again, if I’m offered this position, I play it. It didn’t come off but a very nice buildup.
In the 78th minute, we see Orlando nominally pressing high but with little effectiveness. Atlanta plays the extreme short buildup concept, and Garza makes a safe choice to play direct under a little bit of pressure (denies a giveaway opportunity for Orlando). The ball is headed back to the midway line by Orlando and Atlanta wins the second ball, and look at that final position: 4v2 in the attacking third. Again, another very dangerous situation. Just missing the final ball/move from the away side.
On balance, if you told me I was playing away in a hostile environment and gave me the choice between these types of moments and a couple admittedly good header opportunities off of set pieces, I think I’m taking these — before we even get to Tito’s Level 99 Thunderbolt. Jesus what a goal. I don’t have much to add to that. I think Rob at DirtySouth has some good points about Tito potentially lining up on the left for shots such as this one, and for other reasons.
And that’s basically what I wanted to get across. Shots-based expected goals did not tell the whole story of this one. And oddly, this seems to happen often with this team. It may have felt like a heist in the middle of the night with Guzan’s very nice saves, and Tito’s fireball, and Will Johnson’s miss, but on balance, Atlanta accomplished what they wanted to in the press and in buildup, and occasionally you’ll have games where it’s hard to convert that into end product. It’s the nature of the sport.
Oh, two quick comments on team shape.
First, I thought it was cool to see Jeff Larentowicz in a more pronounced back 3 for most of the game, which is the correct “by-the-book” move against a 2 forward setup from Orlando.
Second, late in the game a fascinating thing happened. Jason Longshore was the first person I saw who mentioned it (on Monday’s SoccerDownHere show). Martino had Atlanta line up in a sort of false 9 4-3-3 type look, with Almiron leading the line, flanked by two more traditional forward type players, Villalba on the left and Vazquez on the right. There were a couple nice moments in this – one was THE GOAL. The other involved Almiron picking the ball up in the half space, dealing it to Walkes wide right and collecting it again for a shot just outside the box. I think this is something to keep an eye on. The only other time I remember seeing something like this was against Toronto where Almiron played centrally flanked by Villalba on the right and Asad on the left. I might like to see this look with Villalba on the left, Martinez on the right, Almiron central, and Asad sitting behind him as the furthest forward in a central midfield triangle.
PACE STANDINGS AS OF 7/26
I’ve described these in further detail over at DirtySouth, but basically because MLS’ schedule is less balanced than a traditional European league, we shouldn’t look at the table “straight” the way we might look at the Premier League table. Once you make some adjustments for games played, and home/away splits, you get a better picture of how teams are actually doing. Atlanta are doing well. See below:
Pace 1: Win away, Draw Away Measuring Stick
PACE 2: Historical MLS Home/Away Average Points Per Game Measuring Stick
I put together something over at DirtySouthSoccer summarizing and reviewing all of the pressure/tidiness type stats you might see on this blog all the time. I sort of like how ti turned out. Please check it out here:
Thought I would drop in a few pressure/possession tables for the most recent few games, which I have not covered on the blog at all during a period of absence.
First, the Five Stripes hosted Colorado, winning 1-0 on 1.9-0.8 of shot-based expected goals (ASA).
Next, the return leg in Columbus, a 2-0 victory compared to 1.2-1.3 xG (ASA).
And lastly, a weird one against a 10-man San Jose, in which Atlanta won 4-2 on 2.6-1.3 expected goals based on the quality and number of shots.
Overall these were some decently unique games in terms of pressure, tidiness, and chance quality. Colorado didn’t even attempt to press Atlanta, and it shows in the above average tidiness figures for the home side. Colorado couldn’t hold onto the ball in their own half, putting up an abysmal pass per giveaway number while generally limiting the damage from lost possessions in their own half. Against Columbus, Atlanta actually sat back slightly (partly cuz game state) and hit long over the top with some success. We’ll look back on this one as a very rare gem, I’d imagine, for a number of reasons even if they couldn’t limit the giveaways against a pressing Crew FC. And then against San Jose, the first half press numbers are interesting as San Jose gave as much as they got. But the second half went as one would expect with the Earthquakes down a man. Atlanta barely spent time in its own half, and simply did not turn the ball over back there. Atlanta’s pressure on San Jose in the second was impressive.
Atlanta’s averaging 7 own-half passes per giveaway compared to their opponents’ 4.3. That 4.3 number feels about right for a high pressing side. We’ll see if that 7 budges going forward.
Atlanta continue to “run hot” against the expected goals models. I put up a poll asking whether we thought Atlanta’s results would continue over the second half of the season at their current GD per game pace (+0.5) or decline somewhat towards their expected goal difference per game of (-0.3). It was unanimous for the former, which I found interesting. But everyone seems right at the moment…
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).
While 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). 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:
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 🙂
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.
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.