The Decision Day match-up between Atlanta United and the New England Revolution came with a twist. An Atlanta win would secure the number two seed in the MLS Eastern Conference and set up a rematch against New England in the first round of the playoffs.
In addition to the playoff foreshadowing, this match also marked Michael Parkhurst’s final regular-season game. The Five Stripes fans gave their club’s first captain a standing ovation. After scoring his game-winning goal, Josef Martínez paid tribute to Parkhurst, kneeling before his captain. Atlanta United concluded Parkhurst’s final regular-season game with a 3-1 victory.
This tactical analysis will examine how Atlanta used overloads to create defensive imbalances to play into the halfspaces. Julian Gressel’s surging runs were particularly important for Atlanta United. We’ll also dive into New England’s high press, examining how their pressing tactics were able to create a high number of turnovers, giving them a short field in attack, but also providing Atlanta with space to attack.
Frank de Boer set Atlanta out in a 3-5-1-1 with Ezequiel Barco playing underneath Martínez. Miles Robinson anchored the back-line with Jeff Larentowicz providing coverage in the midfield.
Bruce Arena opted for a 4-2-3-1, with Teal Bunbury as the lone striker. As we’ll see later on in the analysis, the support of Gustavo Bou, Carles Gil and Cristian Penilla was a core component of the way New England approached the game.
After Atlanta went up 3-1, both teams made tactical changes, with New England moving to a 3-4-1-2 and Atlanta responding with a 4-2-3-1. New England had more of the ball after making the changes but only managed one shot on target and one off-target. For the game, they had a 1.20 xG, whereas Atlanta’s tactics generated a 1.79 xG.
Atlanta’s overloads create running lanes
As you can see in the attacking starting positions graphic, Atlanta’s 3-5-1-1 focused heavily on midfield connections on the left side of the field. Barco and Emerson Hyndman played high in the left half-space, offering support for both Martinez and Justin Meram.
The ability to find Barco and Hyndman in advanced areas allowed their two most creative players to play off each other. They looked for progressive passes into the attacking third or for Darlington Nagbe, who operated as an intermediate outlet servicing Gressel. With the New England defence forced to slide left out of respect for Barco and Hyndman’s playmaking abilities, Gressel kept his tactical discipline by starting on the far wing.
This provided Atlanta with two obvious options. First, when the New England defence kept their shape compact and central, Atlanta was able to play Gressel into the wings. Second, when the 3/5 gap (between the left-back and left centre-back) emerged, Atlanta wanted to play through it. The gap cued Gressel to make a diagonal run behind the defence, reading whether to go to goal or play a cross.
In this example, Justin Meram has the ball on the left wing with Hyndman in support. Notice Martínez standing in an offside position. Antonio Delamea Mlinar lags behind his line, opening the running lane for Barco.
Anticipating the through ball to Barco, both centre-backs prepare to defend the threat in behind. Glance back at Martínez. He hasn’t moved and is now an outlet for Hyndman.
Hyndman plays Martinez, who has time to turn and find Gressel surging forward. Martínez plays Gressel into the half-space.
Gressel meets the ball, scans the box for options and plays negative to Nagbe.
Nagbe calmly slots the ball between the defender’s legs and into the side netting at the far post.
Entry into the attacking third came through Martínez on this play. He consistently picked out Gressel’s aggressive runs, as did Hyndman and Barco.
Hyndman led the team with 10 passes into the final third and eight completions. Barco was right behind him with eight and six respectively. This approach led to Barco picking up two second assists and Hyndman grabbing a third assist.
Gressel picked up two assists and a goal off of just a 0.05 xG and 0.79 xA while leading the team with five touches in the box. His commitment to surging runs in behind the New England defence left them scrambling to regain their shape and caused enough of a distraction for the other attackers to make untracked runs into the box.
New England’s high press
Knowing that Atlanta enjoys overwhelming their opponents in the midfield, New England opted for a high press. The point of emphasis here was to deny Atlanta space and numbers when building out. If Atlanta dared to play through the pressure, New England was looking to capitalize on a mistake and get to goal.
As the defensive transition statistics show, New England was highly successful in winning the ball through their high press. They recorded a fantastic 27 opponent half recoveries, 12 of those high up the pitch. Even when they weren’t winning tackles or intercepting passes high up the pitch, their combination of pressure and elimination of passing lanes forced Atlanta into poor decisions. New England was comfortable allowing Atlanta to play more directly. With numbers and size behind the ball, New England’s compact defensive shape effectively eliminated clean outlets.
Their 25 recoveries in the middle third gives an idea of their pressing quality. Atlanta simply didn’t have many options when building out of the back, which is a credit to New England’s tactical discipline.
This example is par for the course. In fact, I could have selected any Atlanta build-up and the New England defence would give the same look. Let’s jump into this one.
Any time one of the Atlanta centre-backs had the ball, preferably Robinson since he was central, New England’s two wide attacking midfielders eliminated lateral options to the supporting centre-backs and Atlanta’s wide midfielders. You can also see that New England’s line of attacking midfielders are on a diagonal. This is due to the quality of distributions offered by Leandro González Pírez and Atlanta’s tactics aiming to activate Gressel’s 1v1 attacking.
That left the central channel, generally occupied by Larentowicz and Nagbe. Bou and one of the defensive midfielders virtually man marked the central midfielders.
If we include Brad Guzan in the buildup, that left Atlanta 6v5 when trying to play out from the back. Rather than remaining patient and working to find the gaps in the opposing defence, Atlanta typically opted to play forward.
Mission accomplished for New England. With their numbers behind the ball and compact shape, the odds of recovery were always in their favour.
One thing to note is the distance between the lines. That’s roughly a 20-metre gap between the midfield lines, meaning any ball Robinson and the Atlanta defence played forward was generally in the 30 to 40 metre range.
That’s ideal for New England. They’re limiting the space behind them, baiting their opponent to play into a line of five defensive players. Further, now that New England has players forward in an even numbers scenario, they can relaunch the attack.
The only thing that prevented them from taking advantage of Atlanta’s open attacking shape was the poor quality of possession in the attacking third. Stats confirm a high level of success entering the final third, but lack of quality and composure once they arrived in advanced positions. Arena’s decision to press Atlanta translated in opposition half recoveries, but New England simply couldn’t capitalize on them.
De Boer’s halftime adjustment
Though New England’s high press was effective throughout the game, de Boer’s side was content to defend a little deeper (typically with a midfield line of confrontation) and allow New England to get more numbers forward in the attack. With New England in their attacking shape, Atlanta had more space to exploit.
Atlanta only had six recoveries in the opposition half during the final 45 minutes, as opposed to 11 in the first half. Though the club identity is one of the aggressors, always looking to initiate and play positively, inviting New England to get forward was exactly what they needed.
Attacking more directly during those transitional moments caught New England off guard early in the second half.
Once Atlanta recovers the ball, they immediately look for their high targets. Robinson finds Barco high in the right half-space.
Barco receives the pass, hesitates for a couple of seconds to draw in the New England midfield. That brief hesitation frees up space for Gressel to receive with plenty of time to look for his high options.
Once the ball arrives at Gressel’s feet, the New England defence slides back to their left. New England’s centre-backs lose track of Martínez as Delamea Mlinar slides before passing the forward off to Andrew Farrell.
Gressel sends a fantastic ball over the top to Martínez and the race is on. Since Martínez is running at full speed when the ball is played, he easily outpaces Delamea Mlinar and provides the winning goal.
With Atlanta’s 3-1 win, the same two teams will meet in the same venue, the magisterial Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, on October 19th. MLS has changed the playoff format. Rather than home and away legs, this single match will determine which team advances to the second round of the playoffs.
New England will be happy with the defensive recoveries they generated in the attacking half of the field, but they’ll have to clean up the attack before the rematch. Lack of cohesion was certainly an issue, as was the quality of the opponent, but New England can walk away thinking they don’t need wide-ranging tactical changes.
Atlanta happily secured the three points and played well in general, but they will need to better prepare for New England’s high press. There’s always a chance that Arena used this game as a decoy, possibly sitting further back in the playoffs. However, given Atlanta’s incredible quality up top and the effectiveness of New England’s high press, I’d imagine de Boer will have his squad ready to engage the press, looking to create space higher up the pitch than feeling forced into poor decisions as they were today. If they break the press with regularity, expect a lopsided scoreline in Atlanta’s favour.
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