The MLS Cup is a hotly contested tournament where the best teams in the MLS battle it out to lay claim to the trophy. In Round 1 of the Eastern playoffs, Atlanta United fought against New England. With both teams eyeing prize, it was bound to be an exciting match.
Both teams had fought each other on Decision Day and as such, had almost similar lineups. Frank de Boer made no changes to his side that beat the Revolution 3-1 while Bruce Arena made just two changes, replacing fullback Jalil Anibaba for winger DeJuan Jones and midfielder Luis Caicedo with Scott Caldwell.
Atlanta’s ingenious midfield outwits New England
While both teams battled it out everywhere on the pitch, a majority of the game was fought in the midfield.
It all started with the formation used by New England. When defending without the ball, New England assumed a formation of 4-2-3-1, with a pivot protecting the defenders. Atlanta, from the start, had assumed a 3-5-2 system.
These two formations both have one thing in common: they have a five man midfield. New England slightly changed that block of five by having a tiered system: a pivot covered the defensive aspects of the midfield while the front three converted the attacking aspects for the Revolution.
With such a tiered midfield, Atlanta stood no chance of progressing the ball upwards as the pivot was able to contain the two forwards of Atlanta United. So how did Frank de Boer’s men win their battle in the centre?
The answer lay in a simple tiering of their midfield which created a big space between New England’s tiered midfield.
To understand how and what the tiering system was, it is critical to understand Atlanta’s buildup.
Frank de Boer’s men built up with a three at the back. However, only this tactic in the buildup was not sufficient as New England pressed with their lone striker and three attacking midfielders making it a 4v3 situation at the back.
As such, Atlanta utilized a pivot just as New England. By dropping two midfielders near the three-man back, Atlanta were able to create a 5v4 situation. There is a numerical superiority, one which allowed Atlanta to defeat New England’s press.
Here the Revolution press in a diamond, having the striker press the ball-carrier in hopes of the attacking trio pouncing on a stray ball and counterattacking. However, Atlanta work around this by having a pivot, shown in the black line, upfield after the three man backline. This creates a 5v4 situation that allows Atlanta to break from the press.
However, there needed to be a supplemental tactic because the Revolution could have easily pressed with the pivot close to the attacking trio. This would have resulted in the nullification of Atlanta’s buildup.
To counteract this, Atlanta positioned their forwards high which meant that the centrebacks were continually occupied. Then, they structured their three remaining men in the midfield as such to keep the pivot near the defensive line.
This positioning meant that space would be opened up between the pivot and the attacking trio of the Revolution. From here, simple drops of the attacking players or forwards allowed Atlanta to have someone in that space and now, Atlanta could attack Arena’s men.
Here we see the second aspect of Atlanta’s tactics. The Five Stripes position two to three attackers near the pivot forcing them to stay close to the defensive line. This positioning does not allow the pivot to press with the attacking trio and as a result, a huge space is created in the middle of the pitch.
When both of the tactics combined, Atlanta were able to create space between the midfield and use it to launch their.
Here is the result of utilizing a pivot against New England’s press. Since the forward diamond presses aggressively, the pivot functions as a passing outlet, allowing The Five Stripes to break free. As soon as Atlanta get past the first wave, a huge space has opened up in the middle, between the attacking trio and the defensive pivot.
New England’s pivot hurts their defence
New England are a traditional possession-based system. This means that the centrebacks separate wide and the fullbacks are allowed to bomb forward and interact with wingers.
These possession systems also have mechanisms for protecting their vulnerable two centrebacks. Arena sought out to put a pivot to protect his two centrebacks. However, the tactic did not work sufficiently.
As we have discussed before, Atlanta were able to get past the midfield control of the Revolution and attack them. A pivot, along with the centrebacks, represented a defensive formation that should have allowed New England to at least slowdown Atlanta’s attacks.
So, what went wrong with New England’s defensive tactics?
The keyword in solving this question is halfspace. The halfspace is defined as the zone or space between the wing flanks and the centre of the pitch. The halfspace is a critical part of assisting because how it allows a player to easily put balls into the box – either through crosses or through balls.
The key defensive deficiency for Arena’s men was defending this space.
In their 4-2-3-1 formation, the pivot stayed central as to form a rectangle with the centrebacks in the buildup. While this did aid New England build-up generously, it left the protection of the halfspaces vulnerable.
The key tactic with the pivot was to central and to have the individual members of the pivot help out on either side. However, the pivot, as a whole, often got attracted to either side which let the halfspace free. Once it became apparent that the pivot was not excellent defensively, Atlanta starting putting their players in those spaces to exploit them.
This picture highlights the Revolution’s defensive deficiencies. Here, due to the movement of the attackers, the pivot is attracted to the right. This opens up the halfspace on the right in which an attacker has already occupied himself in. Situations like these arose often, leaving New England trailing as The Five Stripes utilized attackers to exploit the halfspace
Atlanta’s resolute defence stifles Revolution attack
In addition to having made excellent headways into the Revolution’s defence, Atlanta United also held a resolute defensive line, one which restricted the attacking movements of The Fort.
To start off, The Five Stripes set up a disciplined 5-3-2 formation. Frank de Boer had his specific reasons as to why a five-man backline needed to be set.
The first one was Arena’s two-forward system that he has used to much success. The second reason was the presence of dribblers Cristian Penilla and Carles Gil.
New England’s two forward system is well-documented and has tactical evidence for it. In essence, by having two forwards, the Revolution can pin down the defensive line at strategic points such as the space between the fullback and the centreback. This pinning gives the team the ability to overload certain areas of the pitch and create high-scoring chances.
Another reason why the two-forward system works for New England is due to forward Gustavo Bou. He plays a key role in this system as he functions as the target man who drops deep and help the team progress the ball in the central areas. As such, he is an important player as his movements constantly disrupt the backline and help New England attack.
Atlanta knew of the threat of this two-forward system and lined in a 5-3-2. Having an extra defender in the middle allows defenders to follow Bou deep and not disrupt the defensive line by a large amount. This allowed Atlanta to fluidly switch to a 4-4-2 and as such, the normal plan for New England to develop through the central areas.
Moreover, the five-man backline also reduces the pinning effect from New England’s forwards. The presence of the extra defender ensures that the Five Stripes will have another person to block a passing lane or mark another attacker, therefore reducing the chances of an overload.
Here we see the effectiveness of a five-man backline. A special interaction between Gill and the fullback leads to the defensive line losing most of its members. However, since this is a five man backline, there are always enough men in the box. Here the two defenders closely mark the forwards, denying both the service that they need.
This tactic worked effectively as Teal Bunbury was restricted to only fourteen passes with only six of those going in the final third. The second forward, Bou, was not as expertly controlled as he was allowed 37 passes with 21 of those going in the final third.
However, a better indicator of the activity of these forwards is their touches. Out of the combined 81 touches, the pair only got 3 shots on target and a total of six touches in the box, highlighting their poor performance.
Secondly, Atlanta United were set up in a five-man backline to control the skilled players who are Penilla and Gill. Both wingers are excellent at dribbling as both average 1.4 and 2.1 dribbles per game. Out of the two, it was imperative to control Gill who has assisted his teammates twelve times and who has scored a goal ten times.
A five man backline provides great numerical superiority in support of the Five Stripes. As such, defenders and fullbacks could take on the liberty to get close up with either of the two and create a numerically advantageous situation from where dispossessions can happen. In fact, both Gill and Penilla were dispossessed a total of 16 times with the majority of them coming near the wing flank.
However, wingers do not only operate like this. They like to move around the defence with snappy passes to the midfielders which allow them to create space. Atlanta got around this as their backline was not rigid.
The Five Stripes realized that keeping a 5-3-2 formation constantly would only result in continued pressure from the Fort. As such, their backline was fluid, changing from a 5-3-2 to a 4-4-2.
A formation change like such allows Atlanta to constantly apply pressure on ball carriers while defending. The four man midfield can now cover the spaces and as such, restrict the activity of the wingers and limit them to simple wing play.
This picture shows the fluidity of Atlanta’s defence. Here, they have switched to a 4-4-2. Notice how almost every attacker is either being man-marked or is in short proximity. As such, Gill, with the ball, has nowhere to pass and more likely than not, will get dispossessed either by is man-marker or his opponent’s man-marker.
As one can see, New England’s attack could not build as perfectly as Arena would have wanted.
This tactic was effective as seen by the stats regarding Gill and Penilla. Both Gill and Penilla only managed 4 successful dribbles in the game, with only two occurring near the goal. Gill, in particular, was restricted to only one successful dribble.
This same trend of restriction follows into their passes. Both Gill and Penilla’s penetrative passes only occurred either on the wings or in the middle of the pitch. None of them were able to get closer to the goal and give a final third pass which showcases their limited contribution.
Gill, in particular, was very isolated. As said before, the defence of Atlanta forced the wingers into simple wing play and this is seen in Gill’s through balls. While he made the most out of his team, three of them came at the very sidelines of the pitch.
Frank de Boer and his men will be very happy. They beat a very threatening team convincingly and had it not been for poor finishing, Atlanta United would have gotten more goals. As of right now, they look like a strong team for the MLS cup.
As this analysis has shown, Bruce Arena did not have the best tactical games. His attacking structure was stifled and his defence was split apart. While he and his New England Revolution are bittersweet about their MLS campaign, the tactician knows that his squad, when firing, can put any team to the test.
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