Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Atlanta United 3-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

It was never going to be an easy task. Atlanta United’s stadium experience marries new-club enthusiasm with front office acumen that the Union flirted with during their second season in MLS. Philly was coming off a spirited win over Chicago Fire that required endless hard work defensively, and the limitations of their roster all but guaranteed Jim Curtin would need to put out most of the team that played on the weekend. Still, if the Union could control access to the center of the pitch as they did against the Fire there was a chance Almiron-less expansion side in Atlanta would become frustrated and sloppy.


Julian Gressel slid into Almiron’s role and Atlanta United toyed with the Union for nearly the entire opening 45 minutes. The most telling stat of the first half may have been the amount of extra time: Zero. Because the Union never got close enough to foul the home side, and never held the ball long enough or got into enough dangerous positions to draw their own fouls. Although Jim Curtin’s play to press all over the pitch worked well in the second half and turned the match into a messy affair, there was not enough quality in the final third to threaten Brad Guzan (though Haris Medunjanin did come close).

Let’s look at how Atlanta tore open a Union defense that so thoroughly sealed out the Fire days earlier.

Two in the first line

In the analysis of the Fire match, potential issues for the Union going forward were identified as: Quick ball rotations that could allow teams to play behind Philly’s wingers, the inability of the Union’s attack-minded fullbacks to generate enough in attack to justify their defensive positioning issues, and Warren Creavalle’s penchant for tracking men tightly as they roll through his zone. Atlanta poked hard at all three pressure points on Wednesday.

Last weekend, the Fire used three men in the first line of buildup play. This made their rotations slow and allowed CJ Sapong to shift across the pitch and prevent the Chicago back three from bringing the ball forward and drawing midfielders out of position. Furthermore, it meant there were fewer bodies in the center for the Union’s three-man midfield to cover.

Atlanta used two men in buildup and quickly corrupted the Union’s defensive shape.

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In the clip above, you can see Atlanta take advantage of the fact that the Union’s defensive shape maintains a deep defensive line. Once the Union step forward as a midfield unit, they leave a gap in front of the defense. Since Atlanta only has two players in the first level of buildup play, they have extra bodies in midfield and can slot someone behind the advancing Union and still have a runner off the first ball.

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Above, you can see Atlanta using two midfielders to attack Sapong’s space. This triggers the right fullbacks’ advance behind Picault and gives the man on the ball two options depending on where Picault moves in coverage. Either pass breaks Philly’s initial defensive shape and forces the Union to make the rotations they have rarely been able to execute consistently this season.

Playing behind the pressure

The second thing the Fire failed to do often enough was attack through the wings. Atlanta had no such problem. From an early point in the match, it was clear they would use aggressive fullback play on the left to bypass the Union’s central unit. Below, you can see that Atlanta looks to play behind Pontius and ask questions of Keegan Rosenberry’s positioning. Unfortunately, these kinds of questions have not produced many good answers this season, and Rosenberry is again caught in space when the first pass is played. Additionally, Atlanta sends two runners into the space behind Pontius, one who hides behind the winger to start and another coming over to control Rosenberry’s spacing. Josef Martinez also drifts over because he’s always moving. This concept — attacking behind Pontius and forcing Rosenberry to make difficult decisions — was a key part of United’s buildup all night.

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Above, you can see Atlanta again taking advantage of Rosenberry’s decision-making. The fullback is slow to respond once the ball moves to the wing and United gets deep into Philly’s defensive shape then switches wide and looks for holes in the Union rotation.

A midweek rotation

That rotation was an issue all night for the Union, and understandably so. After a taxing weekend match against Chicago, Philly was pinned in defensively for nearly 30 minutes to start the match.

Below, a number of problems build up quickly for Philly and culminate in Rosenberry isolated and unable to make a tackle. First, Pontius has been drawn deep and is slow to press the man on the ball, meaning there is a time to look long. Second, Medunjanin is not certain that Pontius’ pressure is going to shadow the man to Haris’ right, so he ends up near nobody and calling for Creavalle to cover the man to his left. Third, Medunjanin’s uncertainty creates (or feeds into) Rosenberry’s uncertainty, and the fullback is halfway between stepping forward or holding a deeper position to monitor the deep wide man. As a result, Atlanta has numerous options and simply selects the best of the bunch.

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The same issue came to the fore during the buildup to Atlanta’s goals. On the first, a simple ball rotation takes Sapong out of the play. Gonzalez Pires can easily step forward and draw a defender out while he looks for a pass. Note that Atlanta takes advantage of Creavalle’s penchant for locking onto runners early to drag him away from Bedoya and then play into that lane. Bedoya is slow to rotate and by the time he does, Gressel is long gone. Meanwhile, Martinez has pulled Elliott central and Gressel has either a clear line into the box or a chance to draw a foul on Creavalle.

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The second goal featured some of the best buildup play a team has executed against Philly this season. In one sweeping move, United hits many of the pressure points discussed in the Fire match analysis. First, they draw Sapong out then play directly behind him into a gigantic amount of space. Next, they drag Creavalle out of the center, which brings Bedoya in tight. Picault never tucks in, so now Atlanta can play behind Bedoya and send a runner (the extra man that, unlike Chicago, they did not keep in the first phase of buildup) into Creavalle’s abandoned space. Then it’s Josef Martinez vs Jack Elliott, and even if Elliott stops him, Atlanta will take that matchup every single time. Elliott doesn’t, because Martinez is extremely good and quick, and the match is out of reach.

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Other notes

Blake was a positive again, of course. And Philly’s second half response, which was energetic, frenetic, and entirely appropriate for a team with nothing to lose. Additionally, using Medunjanin to add a third man to buildups on the right wing was effective the few times that the Union had the ball. However, those moves also served to highlight Creavalle’s limitations going forward. The holding midfielder is slow to take space going forward, whether to receive the ball or simply open holes for others, and that severely limits the Union’s possession game.

Two additional causes for worry in the future come courtesy of Tata Martino and Josef Martinez. First, Martino tightly marked Bedoya until the match became incredibly open, essentially making a (winning) tactical bet that without Bedoya’s ability to link play the Union would struggle to get out of their own half.

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Second, Martinez demonstrated Jack Elliott’s Big Weakness remains: Much like Richie Marquez, Elliott is easily lured behind the rest of his defensive line and this creates enormous spaces to attack in transition. There is simply no reason Martinez should be onside in this play below.

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  1. Does Elliott drop deeper simply because he’s playing with Gooch and he knows that it will be up to him to chase any attackers down when they get behind the defense? Both fullbacks have a propensity to get further forward up the pitch so if there is a fire along the backline, Elliott is the only one with a realistic chance of putting it out.

    Granted, Elliott is way too deep on the clip, but I would have to expect that thought process is playing out in the rookie’s head during those situations.

    • @Zizou – I think that’s a fair explanation for why the Union generally play a relatively deep back line, but if Elliott is staying deeper than Gooch to account for opposition speed, that’s problematic because at that point he’s operating as a sweeper. The sweeper is an uncommon tactic these days because an organized back four holding a stable offsides line seems to be a far more effective approach to controlling an attack (since it also lets you control the amount of space an offense can use) than a sweeper system. That’s just my take, though.

      • And sorry, I should’ve read your comment more carefully. I think it could be a good accounting of Elliott’s thought process, yeah. But it also describes how Yaro and Marquez have played this year and last year as well, and the U have been consistent in creating space behind their own fullbacks with central defenders that drop quickly.

      • Agreed on a sweeper system being outdated.

        I know that Curtin prefers to have the back four push forward to compress the space between midfield and that clip illustrates this perfectly. Both centerbacks need to be at or very close to the midfield line to keep Martinez honest. However, even if they do that and the Union don’t pressure the ball or cut out passing lanes, they could get done in by a through ball from deep (like the goal that BWP scored vs the Union late last year at Red Bull Arena).

        You watch the Union matches more closely than I do. It seems just to be so uncoordinated at times in how the team approaches situations like these.

      • @Zizou – I think this is one of the bigger things the Union will/should evaluate in the offseason. As you indicated, they can play with a less experienced line if they are doing a good job limiting options further up the pitch. Jurgen Klopp has pointed to the same issue with Liverpool recently, arguing that if the midfield and front line are in the right positions, the club can eliminate or control many of the negative situations defenders get into around their own box.

        So I guess where this discussion is going is: There are a number of options for controlling the space between the back four and the goalie, and the Union haven’t used a particularly high line, yet they still seem to allow these deep balls that isolate their defenders. So either there needs to be more pressure on the ball or a far more “in-tune” back line. Either one works, and both is the best, I guess!

    • Great stuff as always. Thanks, Adam.

  2. The only thing good about these games are the excellent write-ups you provide after the mauling has ended. Well done.

    Watching the intent in Atlanta’s movements on and off the ball just made me wince all game.

  3. Even the most casual laymen could have seen the holes in last night’s effort. What a poor, poor showing from such a poor, poor side. How could Curtin not change the spine at halftime? Clearly WC and Ale were being picked apart. It was clear 15 minutes into the match! ATL’s movement is damn good, so inspired and aggressive. How many Union players could earn a spot on that ATL side? Who could even get in the game-day 18? Philly is not even MLS 1.0 at this point, they’ve regressed to MLS 0.5.
    We opened up 2017 D-D-L-L-L-L-D-D. Our season was over in June.

  4. Haha! In MSN’s soccer section, the headline reads “Gressel helps Atlanta make playoffs with 3-0 over NE” No respect even on that site!

  5. It is so sad to see players trying to press, not knowing exactly what they are doing. the clip of Sapong tying to press was funny/sad for its ineptitude. No good explanation here as to why a slow unathletic team cant set up two lines of four. Rosenberry was told to close down, but he is absolutely correct to hesitate because there is no reason to do so except that the coaches must want it this way for some weird reason. His confidence is shot. He should just play his zone, forget this high up closing down and slowly get his confidence back. He will be a decent fullback on another team with a better system. Obviously, these players do not fit into this system yet they all seem to pretend to play it. Meanwhile, the holding midfielder is holding something other than his position.

  6. If Earnie doesn’t fire Curtin and whoever is running drills in practice, and darn soon, he’s going to lose his own job.

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