Atlanta’s victory in the Yankee Stadium was a big step, however, the battle continued in the second leg of the semi-finals between Atlanta United and New York City FC. Where the first half was a bit chaotic. A penalty and two goals from free-kicks. For the last goal, we had to wait until the end. On the 83 minutes, Josef Martinez decided the whole clash and finalised the result. Now, let see what happened behind this eventful battle.
Nothing big changes neither sides compare the first match. Robinson played instead of Larentowicz, while in the New York side Matarrita substituted with Medina. Nevertheless, there were interesting structures in both sides’ formations which are different what you see in the image above.
Tata Martino’s men played in a 3-3-2-2 system (or 3-1-2-2-2) instead of the 3-5-2 that appeared in the starting line-up. With this, Martinez and Almiron did not pressure the goalkeeper or the centre-backs, instead, they protected the middle area.
Gressel and Nagbe pushed further up to marking closely the opponent’s deepest midfielders, whilst Remedi stayed deep to cover the space between the front and backline. Therefore, they could force early the opponent wide. Thus, NYCFC immediately limited the side during the build-up, where Atlanta would use aggressive touchline pressing. Also, adding the lack of passing options, Atlanta could force the opponent turnovers or long balls which were mostly ended up with lost balls.
While NYCFC more likely formed a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 shape instead of the regular 4-2-3-1. Or you can say a really asymmetric 4-2-3-1 due to some players’ positioning and behaviour. The left-back rarely joined the attacks, mostly stayed deep and acted as a side-back. He moved infield to mark the opponent’s strikers, therefore, NYCFC gained a free player in their backline, namely Callens. On the other side, Tinnerholm more frequently pushed forward due to the task of adding a presence at the right wing. Therefore, Medina would move infield, positioning in the half-space.
NYCFC’s struggles in the build-up
Forming a narrow shape in order to prevent the guests from accessing the centre was an effective plan. Therefore, NYCFC must rely on the wing progression, mainly in the left wing. Atlanta let the opponent pass to the wing, then the ball-near striker and midfielder shifted and start the pressing movement. Most of the time, Martinez shifted to the ball side but did not use his aggressive manner, just a little backward pressing or covered the space. Thus, the role falls to Nagbe since Escobar did not join the pressing phase in order to position around the halfway line and marking Tajouri. So, Nagbe had to use a diagonal press, therefore he would protect the centre whilst pressing Sweat. However, Herrera moved out of Nagbe’s cover shadow thus he could receive passes from Sweat.
There were a couple of cases when Sweat and Herrera outnumbered or outplay Nagbe and progress up. Although due to the backward pressing or the lack of quality in passing options made this minor success of Herrera redundant. Usually, they had to turnover or using long balls.
In a few cases, NYCFC tried to utilised the dropping movement of Villa or Moralez, the huge pressure that they met eliminate most of these attempts though.
In the last period of the first half, the intensity of the home side dropped, therefore, NYCFC was able to progress and access the midfield more consistently. Although, finding breakthroughs in Atlanta”s 5-3-2 defensive shape was still a difficult task.
Atlanta’s attacking plans
In the first 10-15 minutes, Atlanta also had some struggles in building from deep due to the opponent’s press. In a few instances, they tried to target the space in both wings. Firstly, the space that Tinnerholm left hind him. When he marking Garza, Atlanta found the space with long balls, targeting Almiron’s diagonal runs.
Then the other wing. Due to Sweat’s narrow position, Atlanta tried to pass the ball to the right wing. However, they mostly emphasised on quick vertical progression using long balls after NYCFC lost the ball. This created some dangerous counter-attacks. Also, this led to the second goal.
Before the first goal, Atlanta found the space in NYCFC’s unsettled defence. Utilised the gap between Sweat and Tajouri. This led to a highly dangerous situation and the fault which caused the penalty.
An interesting detail that all the goals in the first half caused by a mistake or fault. The penalty caused by Tajouri’s fault, the second goal happened due to the Herrera’s wrong pass then fault. And lastly, Escobar hasty and rushed wrong tackle.
The match continued in the same manner as in the last part of the first half. Atlanta focused on firm defence and quick counter-attacks. Whilst NYCFC tried to break the home side’s defensive shape.
Atlanta used a ball and man-oriented defence which allowed them to put pressure everywhere the ball goes. Although it was a tough circumstance to operate in, NYCFC had some promising chances, but overall, they could not score. While Josef Martinez waited for the opportunity to lead the counter-attacks. However, his goal did not score from counter-attack. This happened from a bad positioning. When NYCFC cleared their final third a moved out of their deep defence, Castellanos stuck at a slightly deeper position which allowed to Atlanta and Martinez to score.
As I think through the events of this match, it is clear that this clash decided on which team did more mistakes due to the fact that all the goals occurred because of someone’s mistake. Therefore, Atlanta won it because of the fewer mistakes that they committed.
On the other hand, they put a good and really strong display or performance in the semifinal. So, Tata Martino’s men deserved to join the final, Atlanta United is a strong candidate to win this competition.