Last seasons MLS cup winners Atlanta went bottom of MLS after a 2-0 defeat to Columbus in a game which, despite its terrible conditions, showed several of Atlanta’s weaknesses which will concern Frank de Boer. In this tactical analysis, I’ll look at these weaknesses and how Columbus were able to exploit them.

Lineups

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Columbus lined up in a 4-4-2, while Atlanta played in a 4-2-3-1, which other teams would usually change into an almost 4-5-1 shape when out of possession. Atlanta, however, didn’t really seem to adapt their shape when out of possession, with three players often remaining up front and not helping defensively, allowing them to be easily overloaded as we can see below. Atlanta’s shape still resembles a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, with Martinez up front out of the picture.

On paper with a matchup of a 4-2-3-1 formation against a 4-4-2, it’s clear to see the players with the most space are likely to be the wingers of Columbus, as they are only matched up with Atlanta’s full-backs. This means if Atlanta don’t adjust out of possession, a 1v1 at least can be created, and so when Columbus’ full-backs pushed on, it was very easy for overloads to be created. If Atlanta adjusted out of possession so their wide players tracked back, this numerical superiority would have been cancelled out.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Transparent Atlanta units

Atlanta’s units out of possession looked disorganised and couldn’t prevent Columbus from building attacks and playing through them. This was not helped by their uncoordinated press, which we can see below. The press starts well, with a midfielder stepping in to press while Martinez is in a good position to push over and press the next man.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

But if this midfielder is going to step out of their unit and press with the attackers, they have to be covered by their fellow midfielders until they can return to the block. In the picture below, it would be easy to blame the midfielder who has pressed, as they could make an intensive run to try and cut Higuain’s passing lane to the run he is making. But as we can see, he is already cutting the lane to the position of Higuain currently. Therefore, I feel the Atlanta midfielder Nagbe should recognise this and naturally match Higuain’s run by shifting over.

This is a much more efficient and sustainable way of dealing with these attacks than forcing the pressing midfielder to have to sprint back to try and cut the passing lane when instead, if Nagbe drifts over, the pressing midfielder can move into Nagbe’s space and both options should be covered.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Because of their inability to deal with these kinds of situations, Atlanta sometimes opted to not press with a midfielder, leading to situations like this where Columbus can simply drop in and collect the ball.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Basic defensive errors cost Atlanta

Atlanta’s basic defensive decision making was just not good enough, and despite having some chances, Atlanta had no chance in the game with such poor defending. For the first goal below, we can see the full-back’s body shape (highlighted) is poor. He should instead be facing the runner, ready to shuffle across and match his run. The central defender’s body shape is much better, but he does not make a run forward into the space and instead just continues to jockey and not close the space between himself and the attacker, meaning the attacker can deliver a cross.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Another example of their poor defending can be seen below, where Zardes takes advantage of the Atlanta centre-backs with some clever movement. Atlanta’s nearest centre-back’s body shape is poor again, as he cannot see Zardes. If he turns slightly, he would be able to see Zardes stop to receive the ball in space and make a block, but because the defender is anticipating a cross close to the goalkeeper across the box, he continues to move towards his goal and creates more space for the goalscorer Zardes.

Columbus Atlanta MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics

Conclusion

Columbus showed a sharpness and pace to their play and blew away a poor Atlanta side. If Atlanta want to rise up the MLS table they will have to fix their defensive issues first. They had chances in the game and could possibly have scored on another day. They weren’t helped when conditions became unplayable after 45 minutes, but ultimately if they continue to defend as they did against Columbus, they will struggle to win many games this season.


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Cameron Meighan

Prospective level 2 football coach and football analyst at Total Football Analysis
Cameron Meighan
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