Atlanta Preview: Dueling Presses

A conversation with Tiotal Football of Dirty South Soccer.

Dummy Run: If anybody’s going to knock NYCFC off the top spot in the East, the smart money’s on your team, Atlanta United. An upset win tonight would put you guys in legit contention for the number one seed, and FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index thinks Atlanta’s a slightly better team overall. But as a contributor to Dirty South Soccer and American Soccer Analysis, you follow this team pretty closely, and you’re not optimistic about their chances at Yankee Stadium. What are you worried about? What’s Frank de Boer’s Atlanta United vulnerable to?

Tiotal Football: I have a few worries. The first one is something that I know you have little patience for, but I’ve never watched Atlanta United play a game at Yankee Stadium that looked like any other Atlanta United success. Mostly this is because there’s only been the one “victory”: that first leg of last season’s playoff tie where both teams pressed the crap out of each other for 90-plus minutes in brutally violent fashion and Atlanta grabbed a set piece goal. I’ve just never seen an Atlanta team that actually wants the ball look anywhere close to comfortable on that field.

Second, Josef Martínez is maybe the only Atlanta guy who was born to create havoc on that field, and I suppose he’s gone for a bit now after Saturday’s knock.

Third, I have no idea who is coaching this team. Following some extremely vocal-and-explicit-in-the-press-and-on-the-sidelines objections from the South American players, de Boer’s Louis van Gaal–flavored “cautious, spare-man-at-the-back, move the ball with superiority in numbers into the final third and then let your creators create” 4-3-3 of the early season has given way to an insanely more open and high-pressy 3-5-2 than we saw at any point last year. It resembles neither Tata Martino’s 3-5-2 stuff nor Frank de Boer’s Clockwork Oranje career. It’s very possible the inmates are running the asylum in Marietta, Georgia.

Fourth, I think Eric Remedi is a one-man turnover machine in midfield, and in the Bronx, that’s not a recipe for success for an away team. I would love to see Jeff Larentowicz steal a start for this one, even if he’s prone to intentionally getting ejected in chippy games against New York teams.

Having said all that, I don’t have a great feel for what New York City does, how it approaches games at home this year. I know they put up great PPDA numbers and have amazingly high possession figures for playing on a smaller field. Those two things seem very good. What should I expect? Who are these new very good guys you have this year?

(Also I just looked at Maxi Moralez’s bar chart and almost lost consciousness.)

Dummy Run: Whoever’s running the asylum, it’s working. Since switching to the 3-5-2 in mid-July, Atlanta’s got the highest goal differential per game in the league (1.09), third-highest expected goal differential per game (0.69), and, as you’ve written about, a scary high press. Julian Gressel’s at wingback again, kicking ass and laying in crosses. Josef is scoring again (these may be related). And that game in Atlanta last month was the most dominant any team has looked against NYCFC since Héber arrived this spring.

You asked about the new guys, and it seems safe to say Héber’s been the biggest difference-maker so far. He’s a well-rounded striker whose linking and holdup play were sorely missed when Dome Torrent decided to rotate him in Atlanta, and he’ll probably be missed again for most of tonight—he’s coming back from an injury and expected to play 25 minutes tops. But in Héber’s absence Taty Castellanos and Alexandru Mitriţǎ have continued to grow into their roles in this offense, and with Maxi Moralez healthy again firepower shouldn’t be a problem. The big question—as it always is with Dome—is what shape those players will take.

Speaking of shapes, I want to talk for a minute about the very first sequence from the last time these two teams met, because I think it shows us some interesting things about how their preferred three-back formations match up. Here’s the clip:

So the first thing you’ll notice is that NYCFC is pressing super high from the whistle. Nothing too unusual there—like you mentioned, they’ve got some of the best PPDA and expected pass score against numbers in the league. But because Atlanta is playing with three center backs and two defensive midfielders, NYCFC’s press, which against league-standard 4-2-3-1s is usually more zonal and focused on channeling play toward the sideline to force longballs, naturally becomes more of a man-marking scheme: Taty on Leandro González-Pirez, Maxi and Mitri on the outside center backs, wingbacks marking wingbacks and so on. As Eric Remedi drops into a channel for Brad Guzan, Alex Ring is pulled way upfield to mark him, leaving tons of space behind.

The whole thing is wildly aggressive, and for a minute it looks like it’s going to work. NYCFC forces some risky passes and wins a couple balls in Atlanta’s half that look like they could lead to something. But when Mitri gets caught on the ball, as Mitri is prone to do, we see the weaknesses of the 3-4-3: Ezequiel Barco takes advantage of the empty channels on both sides of NYCFC’s narrow two-man midfield to lead a quick counter, Gressel has plenty of time on the wing to lay in a cross when Rónald Matarrita is slow to close him down, and we’re barely a minute into the game when Josef gets his first big chance. Lather, rinse, repeat: Atlanta’s transition chances from out wide would become a motif for the rest of the game. It was not fun.

There are good reasons to expect a different look from NYCFC tonight. Whenever James Sands is out the three-center-back thing has never quite clicked, and there’s been some grumbling around here that it’s time to get another body back in midfield. Besides, Anton Tinnerholm is unavailable due to concussion protocol, and the thought of sticking both Tony Rocha and Eric Miller in a back line against Atlanta United makes me physically ill. I’d be thrilled to see the team line up in a more assertive 4-3-3 tonight.

What about Atlanta? If Josef can’t start tonight, how will that change de Boer’s approach? What do your true loves Tito Villalba and Emerson Hyndman have to offer, and how might one or both change how this matchup plays out?

Tiotal Football: So, I think you’re going to see a 3-5-2 again, and I think it’s going to be the same neo-high-press we’ve been seeing, and while I think a Tito-Pity front two would be awfully fun, something tells me we’re going to see Brandon Vazquez.

It’s a shame because I do think Josef has grown to be the type of player who thrives in the chaos that I expect we will see from this game. If de Boer takes a page from Tata’s 2018 playoffs gameplan, I think we see a really messy and violent draw with more than a remote chance of a sending off somewhere.

But I think more likely he’ll try to play it straight, perhaps even too open in the midfield, and while there will be some give and get as both teams try to break each other’s press, NYC is going to be the more dangerous team. Sometimes you get lucky and Miles Robinson hero defends for his life and Brad Guzan comes up with three very big saves, but there are other universes where it gets bad really quick away from home, and there may be more of those universes collapsing upon Yankee Stadium tonight.

Dummy Run: Last question. What will you be watching for tonight with an eye on a potential rematch in the conference finals?

Tiotal Football: I’ll be watching to see which team is the most comfortable dealing with pressure. It seems apparent that they’re on a collision course towards a very disruptive high-pressy contest, with neither team allowed to play out of the back on goalkicks and that sort of thing. Perhaps we’ll see tonight whether one team blinks and changes its approach against the other’s press—that could set up a very different kind of playoff matchup. ❧

Image: He Sen, Monkey King on the Peach Tree