MLS 2019/20: Philadelphia Union vs Atlanta United – Tactical Analysis
As the MLS season passed its halfway mark, defending champion Atlanta United travelled to Philadelphia aiming to keep their top spot. It has been a very successful month for the Georgia-based club after securing two major trophies in their history. While the Campeones Cup was decided in a 3-2 thrilling win, they showed their consistency and commitment to lift the US Open Cup at their home ground.
For Philadelphia Union, they were enjoying their best-ever season under Jim Curtin. Three points from this weekend would set the club’s record on points after the side finished 6th on 50 points last season. With their high press and passing possession, their goal-scoring was second-best in the league before this match with 51 goals. And they continued to demonstrate their attractive style of play with a 3-1 dominant win over Atlanta.
This tactical analysis will provide an analysis of the match between Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union. Meanwhile, using statistics, we will point out how Philadelphia’s tactics dominated Atlanta’s tactics on that Saturday night.
Besides from Alejandro Bedoya’s absence due to a yellow-card suspension, Curtin chose a very strong lineup to play against Atlanta. As mentioned in his pre-match interview, Jamiro Monteiro filled in the spot that Bedoya left behind. Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson occupied the left-winger spot while he aimed to continue his performance against DC United. Furthermore, Ilsinho dropped to the bench which allowed Fafà Picault and club-record signing Marco Fabián to start.
A twist from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 has proved to be quite efficient for Frank de Boer. With Brek Shea still recovering from a knee injury, he picked the English youngster Dion Pereira to fill in the spot. Iraqi international Justin Meram was rested but he appeared on the bench alongside Mo Adams and Héctor Villalba. Franco Escobar returned on time after his upper leg injury and was also registered as a substitute.
Philadelphia’s style of play
This season, Curtin’s side was known for their high-intensity pressing game and they approached this game with the same mentality. When they weren’t on possession, the side pressed with a clear 4-2-3-1 formation with Kacper Przybyłko leading the line. They aimed to disrupt Atlanta’s build-up and won the ball inside their half.
But during the first few minutes, they adopted a conservative tempo which saw them retreat into the middle third. This allowed the away side to continue circulating the ball up the pitch. Whenever one of their defenders had a heavy touch, that would become a trigger for Philadelphia to close down and recover possession.
The Polish striker usually marked the ball carrier and shifted in between the centre-backs. Meanwhile, three attacking midfielders pushed up to mark every possible passing option. Even Monteiro and Haris Medunjanin could join the press by following Atlanta’s two central midfielders.
As the game flowed, they increased their tempo up and put pressure on more occasions. With an aggressive attitude and the man-oriented press, the home side were able to limit the number of passing options that the ball carrier had.
At the same time, the defensive line also raised higher and positioned themselves near the halfway line. Few of the defenders even located inside Atlanta’s half to provide support for their midfielders. It brought them a major problem when they failed to execute the attack.
After Atlanta won the ball back, their players would run up the field with pace. Either on- or off-the-ball, it only took them a matter of seconds to match the home side’s numbers. When Philadelphia moved their defensive line into Atlanta’s half, there was a chance that their offside trap could fail to be executed. It left the space behind their back vulnerable and allowed the likes of Josef Martínez or Gonzalo “Pity Martínez” to run in and receive the ball.
When their press was bypassed, the players quickly regrouped into a 4-2-3-1 inside their half. They still kept the same principles when executing the press as four attackers, continuing to win the ball and the defensive line intercepting any through balls that came towards them.
Furthermore, the shape usually stayed compact in the central area of the pitch with few players occupied in the half-spaces. The aim was to maintain their numerical superiority which helped them in creating overloads inside their half. At times, Atlanta players found it hard to make passes in between the lines and they had to restart the build-up process to find another attacking solution.
They were also extremely dangerous in creating chances towards the other end of the pitch- using rapid turnovers, Philadelphia were able to hit the opposition on counter-attacks. Atlanta usually left three players inside their half when they attacked as both wing-backs pushed higher up the pitch.
The home side, on the other hand, created quick and short combinations between the players to progress the ball up the pitch. When it reached the halfway line, they were able to create a 3v3 situation in which Przybyłko moved flexibly. The former Kaiserlautern striker played in the role of a target man, which should attract the attention of defenders. Instead, he occasionally positioned himself in free space to pick up the pass and run towards the box.
They also had the likes of Picault and Monteiro who were quick on the ball. Those two could dribble with the ball at their feet and allow the teammates surrounding them to find pockets of space where they were able to receive the ball. In the low-quality shot below (sorry for that), Picault ran in between the two Atlanta centre-backs and dragged them along. Meanwhile, Miles Robinson’s sight was put on the ball carrier, in this case, Fabián. He let Przybyłko run behind his back and entered the space to pick up the ball.
Besides creating positional attacks, they also capitalised on Atlanta’s errors to approach the 16-yard box. One of those problems that the away side constantly showed in the match was leaving gaps. When Philadelphia built their attacks, they usually found a lot of spaces being created to capitalise.
Atlanta intended to press the ball carrier and prevent him from making passes towards a receiver. Instead, they stopped in the middle of their plan. While they did commit players to the area around the ball carrier, their pressure wasn’t enough for him to lose possession. In the shot below, notice how free Fabián was before he made a lofted pass into Picault’s run.
There were three Atlanta players surrounding him: Darlington Nagbe, Jeff Larentowicz and Josef Martínez. Still, because another three Philadelphia players came close to offer options for the ball, it confused them from what they intended to do. They had to choose between heading towards the Mexican midfielder and win the ball back, or keep marking the passing option. Furthermore, with most of the players pinned down centrally, none of them drifted wide to fill in that area.
Eventually, that problem came back to haunt Atlanta as Przybyłko got his name on the scoresheet. From Kai Wagner’s long ball into the right-hand side, he sent it towards substitute Sergio Santos. There, the Brazilian winger made a low cross into the box for Przybyłko who converted his shot into the top left corner.
Two noticeable things led up to Philadelphia’s second goal of the night. Firstly, Wagner was left alone when the young German defender dribbled the ball up the pitch. He didn’t face any pressure from Atlanta players as he reached the halfway line. Escobar ultimately noticed him and closed him down, yet still, Wagner had all the space and time to precise his pass.
Secondly, Robinson kept a big distance between him and the Polish striker when the American defender tracked back into the box. If he managed to close him down and stop his run then there would be a possibility where he intercepted the pass. Unfortunately, Santos’ low cross found Przybyłko and Robinson didn’t have enough time to block the shot.
Atlanta’s style of play
It was not the away side’s night as they were dominated by Philadelphia. Although statistically speaking, Atlanta were the superior team in terms of chances and ball possession, the opposition’s high-intensity style left them suffocated.
When they were not in possession, their 3-5-1-1 formation retreated into a 5-3-2. They aimed to defend the zone 14 and prevented short combinations between Philadelphia’s players. Three central midfielders were given the license to shift flexibly along with the ball as they had to screen the defence and create overloads along with them.
Meanwhile, the defensive line stretched a bit wide and filled in the area in front of their 16-yard box. In case a player dropped out to mark the ball carrier, his teammates would move centrally and create a back-four. It’s easy to understand why de Boer went for this tactic, as his defensive juggernaut proved to be quite efficient. Before the match, only LAFC allowed fewer conceded goals than Atlanta’s thirty.
But a well-worked defensive structure doesn’t always have to be good, as Philadelphia showed us how to bypass it. As mentioned, they usually left gaps in behind their backs which invited the attackers to move in. Not only did they show that on both wings, but there were also situations where they allowed lofted balls to bypass the line.
The image below shows how Medunjanin found Picault using a lofted through ball in behind Atlanta’s defensive line. With most of their attentions put on the ball carrier and even few of the attackers, Picault found himself in a very clear space. Only Julian Gressel noticed the American winger and started to move towards him. Later on, Leandro Gonzaléz Piréz picked out Medunjanin’s idea and dropped deep to close down. Luckily for Atlanta, Picault was in an offside state and Philadelphia’s move broke down.
With that being said, it’s also worth noticing that Atlanta capitalised on the same error in their set-piece situations. While the home side swarmed the box and focused their sights on several players, there was one player usually dropped out of that area. More specifically, Josef Martínez positioned himself in a free space where he could pick out the ball from Pity Martínez.
Below is the corner where there were two of Atlanta players, one of them Josef, were able to jump for the ball. Earlier on, the Venezuelan striker also had a chance from Pity’s free-kick in which he moved in between two centre-backs and eventually headed the ball wide.
Again, similar to how Philadelphia haunted the away side for leaving gaps, Atlanta did the same with them. When they created an overload and attempted to win the ball back, Josef would position himself outside of that area. This allowed the former Torino striker to receive the pass from his teammate and started to run towards Blake’s box.
Furthermore, he could be joined by the two wing-backs Pereira and Gressel as they were able to drift into the half-spaces. By creating a somewhat 3v3 or even a 3v2 situation, the Atlanta attackers could easily approach the box.
Still, their only goal of the game didn’t come from a situation that was similar to the two above. From a combination between the players which involved one-touch passes and progressive runs, Pity started the sequence by making a pass towards Josef. The Venezuelan international then laid it off to Nagbe, who followed up with a through ball that ended up in Josef’s run. He then rounded the keeper and scored what proved to be their consolation from this game.
It wasn’t something that was out of the blue for most fans as both Philadelphia and Atlanta have provided us with a very entertaining match. The home side, with their trademark high-intensity style of play, have dominated Atlanta thoroughly most of the time. While they left it late to find the winning goal, it was a performance that Jim Curtin and his side could be proud of.
For Atlanta, their winning streak was finally cut short after they couldn’t resist the threat of Philadelphia’s attack. It also showed signs of fatigue among the players after a very long season. Their hope of lifting another trophy at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season isn’t over yet. But to keep that dream alive, Frank de Boer needs to make a few adjustments to his side and limits the problems that were shown in this match.
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