One of the benefits of a possession-oriented strategy in soccer is that it should minimize the number of transition moments in a match when great players can drive down the field against retreating defenders. The great insight of Jose Mourinho was that defensive shape was largely about limiting the development of these transitions. Jurgen Klopp, meanwhile, built a system specifically designed to create as many transition moments as possible because it was easier for his players at Mainz — not a superstar among them — to attack before the defense was set.
Atlanta United FC is one of the best transition teams in MLS history. Unlike New York Red Bulls, they do not need to create an environment of constant transition to generate enough opportunities to blow teams away. Miguel Almiron’s ferocious pace with the ball, Josef Martinez’s Predator impression in the box, and a dedication to leaving three men forward to create numbers in attacking transitions means Atlanta can act with a remarkable precision when the perfect moment arises.
Possession to control shape of the game
Philadelphia Union knew they would have to deal with a few difficult transitions on Saturday, and a primary strategy for containing those moments was to force Atlanta to defend with more players by possessing the ball in the final third. You can see in the passing chart below that the Union were, as usual, primarily right-sided, and that this strategy got them into good positions throughout the match.
The result of this match control was that the Five Stripes’ best players struggled to make an impact early. As long as the Union did not turn the ball over in their own half, they saw little threat from the visitors.
Defensive shoutouts go to Ale Bedoya, who put in a wild shift both pushing into the forward line to force Almiron to drop and then recovering his position to constantly shadow passing lanes to the Paraguayan defensively. Almiron has a knack for dropping very deep when his team is building up play, and he does it while the rest of the Atlanta midfield moves away from the ball. This creates gigantic pockets of space for Atlanta’s playmaker, and it forces a defender to try and lock him down with little support; this is nearly impossible.
The Union tasked Bedoya with sitting in that passing lane so Almiron had to work harder to receive the ball.
Meanwhile, Keegan Rosenberry had to play like an American football cornerback and decide with lighting speed when to step to Ezequiel Barco to intercept passes from Almiron and when to drop so Barco could not fly beyond the defense. Atlanta thrives on creating these decision moments for defenders, and Barco’s off-the-ball intelligence is stupendous for a teenager, so any mistake is punished.
By controlling these moments, the Union made it so Atlanta’s only real attacks came from Philly’s own mistakes. And, unfortunately, the home team were punished for two of them.
Atlanta jumps on key moments
To understand why Atlanta is such a frightening team to face, watch Josef Martinez’s chance at the end of the first half develop. There are two subtle keys to creating a glorious opportunity in a short space of time: First, Atlanta immediately finds Miguel Almiron after turnovers. Almiron is That Guy in pickup soccer, if pickup was Major League Soccer; he’s so dang good. Second, Josef Martinez is hyper-aware of Almiron’s ability, so as soon as the ball is played to his Paraguayan teammate — not when Almiron receives the ball, but when the ball is played to him — Martinez takes off. This is a high-level read, and, to bring in another American football analogy, it’s a running back seeing a hole in the line and BOOM hitting it.
The Five Stripes didn’t score there, but the same principles underlie both goals: Find Almiron immediately after turnovers and react quickly when he’s on the ball.
Below, you can see that a misunderstanding between Auston Trusty and CJ Sapong grants Atlanta a free ball, and that ball finds Almiron instantly. Even though Mark McKenzie’s response forces the playmaker wide of goal, the speed of the attack has already forced Andre Blake to make a decision about coming out of goal, and he is called for the penalty.
The second goal unfolds in a similar manner. A turnover, Almiron on the ball in space, and Martinez reacting quickly, playing a blind ball to space and trusting that his teammate is smart and fast enough to get there.
As Matt Doyle wrote today, the Union once again played well enough to win but didn’t; it’s unquestionably a frustrating cycle to be in. But it also means there were quite a few positives that point to growth and development.
Balling in back — Auston Trusty was tasked with staying tight to Josef Martinez for most of the match, and that’s just a ridiculously tough assignment. He did it well, and did it without earning a card which meant he could continue to ride up Martinez’s back and smother counterattacks. Keegan Rosenberry was also given a difficult assignment and often isolated on Barco, but the timing of his defensive sprints was quite good on the night. How Opta didn’t classify this as an interception is beyond me.
McKenzie passing — Mark McKenzie made a first half flub to gift Martinez the ball, but with Atlanta intent on pressing him and Trusty, McKenzie’s ability to stay calm and find the right pass was impressive. Just before Barco’s first half break — in which McKenzie doesn’t pick up the winger quickly enough — the Union center back makes a wonderfully patient read and pass to Haris Medunjanin that leads to a sumptuous Union breakout. Most young defenders are clearing that one long, not playing the ball inches in front of the defender. But the Union’s system is built on getting the ball to their midfielders early and often, so this is the correct play.
Endline crosses — One standout aspect of Philly’s approach is how it put them in excellent positions to play a final ball. Look at how many of the Union’s balls into the box came from the area just outside of the box on the wings. This is the area managers want their teams to attack against teams that tend to let you possess in the final third, and the Union got there repeatedly on Saturday.
- The issues? No finishing, and not a ton of anticipatory movement in the box when the ball was arriving into that dangerous zone. One play that did feature good movement was Bedoya’s don’t-do-it-to-’em flick move around Leandro Gonzalez Pirez that led to Borek Dockal’s great chance in the center. CJ Sapong, who, as Jim Curtin mentioned after the match, has struggled with his anticipatory movement, makes a hard near post run that creates a gap for Dockal.
Overall, this was another strong performance undone by finishing. Now the Union must play for three points on the road at Chicago — a team only two points above them — on Wednesday.