A Difficult Challenge
Although Atlanta United won MLS Cup in 2018, things looked far less rosy when the postseason began. The Five Stripes were humiliated in a 4-1 loss at Toronto on the final matchday of the season, losing the Supporters Shield in the process to rivals New York Red Bulls. Adding insult to injury, the defeat meant a first round playoff tie against New York City FC, a team that had blasted Atlanta on its two previous trips to Yankee Stadium.
In Atlanta’s inaugural 2017 season, Atlanta were humbled in New York, dropping the match 3-1. Indeed, it was quite possible this was the most that the Five Stripes were dominated all of that season.
Then in 2018, Atlanta pulled out an unbelievably fortunate 1-1 draw at Yankee Stadium. The visitors were outpossesed, outshot, and outplayed by some margin.
Atlanta’s manager Tata Martino must have looked back on the film from those two matches in horror. Why had his often-dominant bunch been handled so easily? As always, there are a lot of reasons, but one of them certainly arose from NYCFC’s greatest home advantage – their pitch. Yankee Stadium’s width and length make it unlike any other venue in MLS, allowing for little time on the ball. MLS claims that the pitch fits the league’s minimum standard of 70 yards (it’s also short in length at 110), and we’ll leave the reliability of that claim for you to decide (that’s the last time I’ll bring up how stupid that pitch is).
Without question, Yankee Stadium creates a grave problem for opposition, especially for a team managed by Martino, who would want his team to control possession and play at a high tempo, a difficult ask on NYCFC’s U14-sized pitch (okay, I’ll stop now), where a lack of space and little time on the ball made it difficult to execute El Tata’s usual plan.
With this in mind, Martino (who had previously been criticized for being “inflexible” tactically) decided to make some changes to his approach. And for maybe the only time in his Atlanta United tenure, the manager abandoned many of his attacking and defensive principles, forcing an uglier, more physical, micromanaged style of play, rather than the free flowing football to which his side had become accustomed.
Looking back, Martino’s change in style was a stroke of genius.
Slow It Down
The pitch dimensions at Yankee Stadium presented difficulties for Martino’s side to move the ball around quickly, as they desired. So Martino went into New York looking to make the game more of a physical battle, allowing NYCFC less time on the ball and also winning free kicks for themselves after inevitably being closed down quickly on the 7v7 pitch (I CAN’T STOP DOING IT) at Yankee Stadium.
The proof is in the pudding, let’s compare the stats from Atlanta’s previous trip to New York in June.
MATCH ONE: Trying to play proper football on a 9v9 football pitch (I might as well commit to this bit now)
And now, the shot plot (Atlanta in blue) below from the match. SIDE NOTE: Good god
Here’s the first leg of the playoffs, when Martino mixed things up.
And the shot plot (Atlanta in blue again)
The stats show us a much more contested match the second time around. And they also show a physical, helter-skelter style of match, as Martino wanted. Atlanta doubled their foul count from 10 in the to 21 in the two matches, breaking up NYCFC attacks whenever they had a chance to break. They also looked for set pieces to slow down play, and got NYCFC to play their game, drawing 18 fouls. Meanwhile, a deeper comparison also showed a sizable increase in the loss of possession for both teams (25 to 35 for Atlanta, 25 to 36 for NYCFC), and a decrease in dribbles completed by both teams from the first match, again indicating the increased physical nature of the first leg.
Knowing that their conservative style might lead to a lack of scoring chances, Martino clearly worked on set pieces and corners in the lead up to the first leg in hopes of throwing a surprise look at NYCFC for which they couldn’t have prepared. We saw that in the first half, where the Five Stripes were uncharacteristically dangerous from set plays, Atlanta executed a sequence of unorthodox corner kicks. By the end of the half, NYCFC’s defense were on their heels, and Atlanta had taken their first ever playoff lead.
Let’s take a look at the sequence of corners in the first half, and how it’s progression unsettled the home side’s defense.
First off, we see Gressel looking to whip the ball into the box, after receiving the ball from Miguel Almiron. The ball ends up with a harmless header from Larentowicz.
In the 20th minute, Atlanta get another corner. This time, they’re unlucky to have an Almiron goal called back for offside.
This is quite simply, a beautiful set play. With NYCFC perhaps expecting another whipped in ball from the dangerous Gressel, the Atlanta players move towards goal to draw defenders away from Garza at the corner of the 18. Then, with the NYCFC defense caught ball watching on Garza, and later Remedi, Almiron sneaks in behind at the back post.
Atlanta came tantalizingly close to the opener on their third corner.
This time, the ball moves all the way back to Garza, surprising the home defense and forcing them to reorganize quickly, with the confusion creating a huge chance for Franco Escobar at the back post who like Almiron on the previous corner, uses the confusion to his advantage and sneaks in at the back stick.
Atlanta finally got their reward on corner No. 4.
Once again, Atlanta unbalances the NYCFC defense, who are expecting another short corner. But instead, Gressel suddenly drives the ball into the box as the home team react late, allowing Josef Martinez to strike his full volley cleanly. Meanwhile, the frantic NYCFC defenders all move towards the ball and leave Remedi completely unmarked, for a tap-in at the back post (sensing a trend here).
We can’t say for sure, but one might also speculate that Almiron and Gressel are guessing that NYCFC won’t be ready for a quickly whipped in ball, as they briefly chat and peer into the 18-yard box at the beginning of the clip. Then, as if letting his team know what’s coming, we see Gressel raise his eyebrows just before taking the corner.
Imagine defending that sequence of set plays as an NYCFC defender — you’ve become accustomed to the short corner, were completely fooled on two of the three variations Atlanta had thrown at you, and then BOOM Gressel abruptly drives the ball into the box on the fourth corner of the match. Simply put, this was just another example of the Five Stripes executing Martino’s plan to a “T.”
But while Martino may have wanted an “uglier” match, he certainly didn’t completely park the bus in the first half. We saw his aggressive 3-5-2 morph into more of a 5-3-2 that often saw six defenders staying back at all times (five defenders and CDM Eric Remedi). But Martino was clever in his use of center midfielders Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe in order to generate sufficient attack in the first half, and relieve the defense of constant pressure.
Their box-to-box duties saw the duo on ball constantly, as the two attempted nearly one quarter of the teams passes in the match (79 out of 325). And while their work on the ball was important, their positioning away from it was even more crucial, especially in attack. Whenever Atlanta got forward, Nagbe and Gressel would often move into wide areas to either support fullbacks Greg Garza and Franco Escobar, or to fill in the empty space should those two be unable to get forward in time from their deeper defensive positions. Nagbe was assigned with covering the right side of the pitch, and Gressel the left.
We see the tactic in action below.
Gressel moves left to pressure the ball with Garza caught in a deeper position, and he forces a bad pass straight to the left back. Then, as Atlanta switches the ball to the other side, Nagbe gets on his horse and moves right to support Escobar, who would otherwise be isolated close to the corner flag.
But Gressel and Nagbe taking on expansive, box-to-box roles, Remedi’s role behind them became absolutely critical to maintaining balance in the midfield. Should the Argentine lose his discipline and drift out of position, this would leave acres of space for NYCFC to attack into, with the other two center mids stationed higher, and at times wider, on the pitch.
Fortunately for Atlanta, Remedi played his role brilliantly, staying at home to protect his defenders, and breaking up attacks in any way possible. Let’s watch a couple of examples, as Remedi holds his nerve, and is able to delay NYCFC counters long enough for other players to recover. (We also see another example of Nagbe covering the right flank in the first clip.)
In the second half, we saw an even more conservative approach from Martino. Tito Villalba entered for Almiron (who was not at 100% due to a hamstring injury) and provided the Josef Martinez the hard-running forward he needed next to him. Meanwhile, we saw more reserved roles for Nagbe and Gressel, who dropped back and more so drew their line of engagement close to midfield, as opposed to the higher pressing and aggressive movement into attacking wide areas we saw over the first 45 minutes.
See for yourself.
As you can see, Gressel and Nagbe show little interest in getting forward to support the front two. As a side note, with Gressel and Nagbe playing deeper, this gives Remedi more freedom to hunt the ball, knowing that he would have a teammate close by to cover the space he might leave open. It gives him the freedom to create the initial turnover before lumping the ball forward to try and launch a counter through the pacy Villalba.
As the half wore on, Atlanta continued to drop deeper and deeper, defending brilliantly with numbers, and frustrating the hosts.
Aside from the more withdrawn midfield and defense, we even see Martinez get into the act defensively for a moment. Also note the cerebral play from Villalba at the tail end of the clip, who drops to cover for Nagbe after the American presses out of his midfield position.
Impressively, it was the Five Stripes who created the majority of chances in the second half, despite their uber-defensive set up, as Villalba and Martinez crafted out several opportunities.
Martino added one final wrinkle late on, Bringing Ezekiel Barco on for Villalba in the 84th minute. Barco dropped deeper, pressing players in the midfield and playing close to the midfield trio we discussed earlier. Watch below how Barco plays almost as a fourth center midfielder, allowing Remedi to step up and pressure as he covers for him. In the end Atlanta win a throw.
As an added bonus, that throw leads to this massive chance for Garza.
Even at their most defensive, Atlanta still look the more dangerous of the two sides in attack. And it’s only a brilliant save from Sean Johnson that prevents a 2-0 scoreline.
Atlanta’s Tactical Masterclass
Sure, it wasn’t pretty, but in the end, Atlanta United had left the Big Apple with their first win at Yankee Stadium. The ill will from the Toronto loss was suddenly forgotten. And the Five Stripes proceeded to dominate NYCFC at home in the second leg, making the tie look easy over 180 minutes.
When we look back on the 2018 postseason, there are a lot of memorable moments. And the win at Yankee Stadium is certainly one of them, as the team showed the ability to “win ugly,” and execute a tactical plan they hadn’t tried previously. The end result was one to savor, perhaps providing a springboard to an eventual MLS Cup.