Atlanta United kicked off their very first MLS season last night. We should not bury the lede.
This was a game that started so well, United overcoming the initial New York press (on arbitrary, selective principal I refuse to call them by their RasenBallsport name) to dominate the match for a long period, before structural problems and tiredness caused their own downfall.
The night ended with the team down to 10 men and, post-game, their man of the match forlornly, puzzledly, reluctantly hammering a metal spike into a mock-railroad in a somewhat bizarre invented-tradition-cum-health-and-safety-hazard.
But before we analyse the Black, Red, and Gold, what were they up against?
New York, New York, so good they lined up 4-2-2-2
[Note: The MLS app has NY lining up slightly differently to how it looked on the broadcast stamp, and to be honest I was focussing mainly on Atlanta, so Muyl, Royer, and Kljestan may have been in each others’ positions]
New York lined up in what is becoming a staple of their global monolith brand, the 4-2-2-2, which is kind of just a fancy 4-4-2 with very narrow wingers who sometimes tuck in behind the forwards in a press.
When the ball was with the Atlanta centre-backs, the right-sided CM/wide number 10 (Muyl in the line-up diagram) would often move up onto a similar line to the 2 forwards, to help prevent access to Atlanta’s left-back Garza, who would often push up in possession.
However, outside of an intense first 10 minutes when Atlanta could barely get their foot on the ball, New York failed to stay compact enough – or at least to cover themselves behind the first line of the press in an adequate way. Vertical or diagonal corridors were often open through the midfield, and Atlanta’s use of wide players stretched the wide 10s wider than they’d want to be; with Felipe and Davis increasingly operating as DMs, this could leave a big hole in the middle of the pitch.
On the line-up graphics, this looked like some kind of 4-2-3-1, with Gressel given the opportunity to push up, but in reality it was more akin to a 4-1-4-1. Poor Martinez had a real struggle of a game, early on mainly receiving balls in the air against defenders a good few inches taller than him, and later on looking more like an intentional distraction to give Atlanta’s attacking midfielders space to work in.
The right side was pretty conventional, but the left side was heavily fluid. Garza would move up very high, consistently offering Atlanta a high and wide outlet, either creating an attacking threat or simply as an outlet to escape New York’s press. Often, the two coincided.
Asad would occasionally stay wide, but often drift centrally, generally attracting with him New York’s right-back, which is, to a degree, why Garza had so much space. Almiron would drift around too into pockets, although, with Asad moving inside too, this central space could become crowded with the presence of Gressel as well.
‘The Gressel Question’ might catch on – in my head at least – as a shorthand for a role a player is occupying which only seems to succeed in making the man disappear from the game. When Atlanta’s natural interchange and understanding of each other wasn’t at its height (something which is risky to rely upon, and Arsene Wenger I’m looking at you), he would be crowding spaces looking to be occupied by Almiron and sometimes Martinez. When the ball was deeper, with the centre-backs or Carmona, Gressel was often too high to offer meaningful passing options.
In fairness to him, he did have some good moments of play interchanging with Villalba, but generally his role turned Atlanta into a 4-1-4-1 where Carmona was a conventional deep defensive midfielder and the rest of the midfield line were essentially all attacking midfielders.
Why this mattered
As a result, Atlanta were often easy to break through, there being no real way of stopping New York from streaming through the midfield area of the pitch. For the first twenty minutes, this was a diminishing problem as New York’s own problems (and Atlanta’s own movement to create meaningful space on the wings) allowed United into the game.
Up until the hour mark or just afterwards it was even less of a problem as the above continued. However, as either Atlanta began to tire or New York caught a second wind/tightened things up in midfield, these problems began to manifest themselves more frequently.
Faced with onrushing counter-attacks, Atlanta’s backline plus Carmona would retreat to the edge of their eighteen-yard box to absorb the pressure, but often became a confused mess in trying to block shots, New York’s reinforcements arriving earlier than United’s defensive cavalry.
The goals, helpfully, had a heavy hand from the tactical aspects which have already been discussed. Atlanta’s opener in the 25th minute came from a cross by Mears on the right in the second or third phase following a set piece – Garza in the box occupying New York’s right-back; Asad arriving, timed perfectly, from a deeper position to finish unmarked at the back post.
New York’s equaliser, just over 50 minutes later, came from a corner, but Atlanta’s 4-1-4-1 had been a problem in the lead-up to it. The back 5 outfield players were an ugly mess, Gressel only arriving as a shot came from the edge of the area after an initial spell of pinball, followed by another as Atlanta’s keeper spilled the relatively tame effort, Bradley Wright-Phillips’ effort rebounding against him, the keeper, and finally centre-back Pirez, the ball narrowly going the lucky side of the post.
The luck ran out, Royer got a run on Gressel at the corner, and powered a header home.
Minutes after Pirez went off injured, New York scored their second. For once, New York’s full-backs overlapped, Lawrence moving forward and playing a good low cross into the box, one of either Wright-Phillips or substitute Anton Walkes getting the touch into the net (the goal has apparently been put down as an OG).
The cramp, the ‘stamp’, and the conclusion
Just like the game of the other kind of football featuring Atlanta, played a month to the day before this MLS match, it didn’t feel like Atlanta deserved to lose. They’d been vulnerable at times, but largely dominated. A draw would have been disappointing but, ultimately, fair. A loss sent tempers in the stands and on the pitch flaring.
With a couple of minutes, if that, of normal time still to go, a New York player went down with cramp (/’cramp’). A couple of Atlanta players trotted over to see what was going on and to hurry things up. One of them was Carmona, who gave the suffering (/’suffering’) player’s side a little nip with the front of his boot. The player, and NY goalkeeper Robles reacted, the ref drew his red, and boos erupted from the Bobby Dodd stadium.
(By the way, a word for the Bobby Dodd stadium. It was packed with a 55,000 sized crowd, and it’s stands look steep and come right up to the edges of the pitch. It puts West Ham’s Olympic/London stadium into context. Bobby Dodd felt like an absolute cauldron, a cacophony of blaring static storm-noise, creating a thick smog of Coliseum-esque atmosphere tangible even through TV pictures).
The way that Atlanta played gave a lot for their fans to be hopeful about. The starting centre-backs looked generally solid, and good on the ball; Carmona, red card aside, played well and worked extremely hard; Mears and Villalba were solid and had some good exchanges on the right; Garza, while sometimes lacking defensively (and giving off a quite frankly lovable Rafael Da Silva vibe), offered a very real attacking threat; and that latter clause can also be said of Almiron.
Martinez showed some promise up front, but the system didn’t seem to suit him, and it will be interesting to see what Tata Martino does regarding The Gressel Question.
New York pressed well for the first ten minutes, but lost it a bit as the game went on. Some of their problems with width were issues with the 4-2-2-2 system in general, but other problems were more New York specific. However, their attack tore Atlanta apart at times, countering quickly and arriving dangerously.
Both teams have things to work on and things to build on, and while it didn’t quite feel like it in the immediate aftermath, it was a very solid start to MLS life for Atlanta United.
FT: Atlanta United 1 (Asad 25′) – New York (Royer 76′; Walkes OG 82′)