MLS 2019 Tactical Analysis: Atlanta United vs Chicago Fire
Artwork by @chapuana

With 26 points collected from 15 games, Atlanta United are set to rob the top spot on the MLS table from Philadelphia Union following a vital win against eighth-placed Chicago Fire. This three-point addition to their tally helped them retain third place in the Eastern Conference table.

Atlanta United are on a good run lately with three wins from five games. Chicago Fire, on the flip side, have failed to win in four games in a row.

The 2018 MLS Cup champions were surely the favourites to win the game and they duly delivered.

In this tactical analysis, we’ll figure out why Atlanta United absolutely deserved their victory against Chicago Fire.

Lineups

Atlanta United (4-2-3-1)

Starting XI: Guzan – Escobar, Robinson, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst,- Nagbe, Remedi – G. Martinez, Gressel, Pereira – J. Martinez

Bench: Carleton, Pogba, Williams, Meram, Larentowicz, Shea, Kann

Coach: Frank de Boer

Chicago Fire (4-3-3)

Starting XI: Kronholm – Kappelhof, Schweinsteiger, Calvo, Corrales – Mihailovic, McCarty, Gaitan – Katai, Nikolic, Sapong

Bench: Herbers, Ousted, Marcelo, Edwards, Frankowski, Bronico, Adams

Coach: Veljko Paunovic

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
The starting line-up for both sides. [Credit: Wyscout]

Atlanta United’s setup

Atlanta United fielded a completely unchanged starting lineup in a 4-2-3-1 system following their 3-0 win against Minnesota United last time out.

Josef Martinez started as the lone striker, supported by a trio of creative attacking midfielders behind him. Gonzalo Martinez and Dion Pereira retained their spot on the wings, while Julian Gressel played just behind the front man.

Central midfield pair Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi saw their names on the team sheet once again.

In the defence, Franco Escobar and Michael Parkhurst started again as the right and left-back respectively. Meanwhile, Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez kept their centre-back berth.

As usual, experienced goalkeeper Brad Guzan was the first choice goalkeeper.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Atlanta United’s setup throughout the game. [Credit: Wyscout]

There was not really much change in their setup throughout the whole game apart from a few tweaks and tinkers.

Chicago Fire’s setup

Veljko Paunovic seemed to opt for a slightly different 4-3-3 shape this time. Usually, the Serbian coach prefers playing two centre-midfielders behind an attacking midfielder.

In this game, Dax McCarty played in a deeper position, while Nicolas Gaitan filled his spot in the centre of the field.

Other than that, their setup was pretty much identical to the last one they used against DC United.

There were only two changes of personnel in the starting 11.

Jorge Corrales replaced Raheem Edwards in the left-back berth, while Nemanja Nikolic started ahead of Przemyslaw Frankowski up front.

Often when in attack, their shape looked like a 4-4-2 as Gaitan roamed wider and advanced into the final third and Sapong moved narrower and drove into the box.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Chicago Fire’s setup throughout the game. [Credit: Wyscout]

The visiting team maintained the same 4-3-3 system throughout the game.

Aggressive vs conservative approach

Atlanta United immediately pressed high right from the kick-off. They showed their intentions to win the ball from as high up the pitch as possible.

Frank de Boer instructed his side to block high and try to mark the ball carrier’s passing lane.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Atlanta United applying pressure from the frontline while trying to mark the ball carrier’s the passing lane.

This strategy that was deployed by Atlanta United deprived the opposing player with no other option than to play it long.

Though both teams tended to start out from the back, Atlanta United had it rather easy. Chicago Fire’s low block allowed them to safely move the ball around at the back, although they needed to be patient and wait for space to open up. If their low block was intentional or not, it certainly helped Atlanta United as they dominated possession and slowly worked their way to the final third.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Chicago Fire trying to overload the middle, restricting space and preventing their opposition from progressing the ball through the centre.

Chicago Fire attempted to contain the middle in this game. They wanted to restrict the opposing man from advancing through the centre, ushering them into wider areas. This, of course, was taken advantage of by Atlanta United which will be explained later in this article.

After the break, Chicago Fire upped their intensity. They seemed to defend higher and press more aggressively.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Chicago Fire only started blocking high and applying aggressive man-oriented press in the second half having been trailing by two goals.

Atlanta United’s attacking menace

To avoid Chicago Fire’s crowded middle, Atlanta United played on the flanks (mostly on the right flank) and progress from there. The high positioning of the full-backs meant that wingers would have to occupy half-spaces and sometimes drop rather deep to rotate the ball and invite the others into play. This proved to be quite effective in disrupting their opponent’s defensive line.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Gressel moved into the half space and was marked by McCarty. Martinez dropped deep while dragging Corrales and created some space out wide. Escobar played a pass to the Argentinian winger and made an attacking run to exploit the space. Martinez orientated his body to make his defender think he’s going to pass it to Gressel but instead delivered an exquisite through pass onto the path of Escobar.

The three players that were extremely vital in Atlanta United’s build-up play were the full-back, the winger, and the attacking midfielder. These three players’ movements were often too hard to deal with for the Chicago Fire defence.

Take a look at the picture above for example.

Gonzalo Martinez lost his marker while dropping deep to receive Escobar’s pass. The latter then ran into the free space that should have been defended by Corrales. Sapong did try to track back but was not quick enough to prevent the through pass. Meanwhile, Gressel successfully decoyed McCarty into marking him and not anticipating the run of Escobar. Atlanta United successfully broke free through the flanks numerous times this way.

Some might say that Gressel didn’t have a good game here. The German midfielder only made a total of 24 passes and only 61% of them were accurate. He was not very much involved in the game, but his positioning and off the ball movements were clearly crucial in his team’s play.

Dangerous counterattacks

Atlanta United have proven once again (twice in this match alone) that they certainly aren’t a team to be taken lightly when it comes to counterattacks.

With Martinez waiting up front as the counter target, Atlanta never wasted any time after recovering possession in defence. Especially after a corner kick or other situations where the opposing team were extremely vulnerable with a depleted defence.

Atlanta United’s first goal was just an example of how a good counterattack should be.

Aleksandar Katai took a shot straight into the hands of Guzan who immediately threw it out onto the path of Escobar. The Argentinian right-back made his way to the other side of the box quickly then gave the ball to Gonzalo Martinez. The agile winger then exchanged a quick one-two with Escobar, jinked past a few defenders and then slipped a neat through ball which found Josef Martinez inside the box. Unmarked, Martinez slotted home for his team.

Their second goal was a result of another counterattack.

Chicago were again in attack, trying to get inside the box with a lofted pass. The ball was cleared and luckily fell at the feet of Dion Pereira. The young winger then delivered a through ball towards Martinez, who was tightly marked and challenged by Francisco Calvo. The 26-year-old striker proceeded to bounce off his defender, which left him clean through on goal. No other player was able to catch up with his blistering speed and Martinez coolly finished to complete his brace.

Chicago Fire’s failure to link up

Perhaps the main reason why Chicago Fire were so dull in this game was their failure to link up the play and lack of cutting edge up front, especially when transitioning from defence to attack. As a result, most of their attempts to play on the counter were in vain.

They mostly played on the flanks, trying to exploit the spaces in wider areas. Both their wingers often attempted to cut inside or drive inside the box with the ball and tried to deliver a through pass or a low cross.

Tactical Analysis Atlanta United Chicago Fire MLS Analysis
Katai cutting inside from the wing and passing the ball through the defence. Sapong was free and made a run behind the defence to latch onto it, but in the end, he couldn’t deliver the final product.

Paunovic’s side seemed to play with a somewhat flexible frontline. Katai, Nikolic, and Sapong occasionally interchanged positions, perhaps in a bid to confuse the defenders. However, the end product was often quite far from what they expected.

The three-man attack clearly lacked organization, and Nikolic’s terrible performance didn’t help either.

Fire’s main source of danger was from lofted balls which connected with a header inside the box. It could be from a set-piece play or a cross from the wide men. Other than that, their open play was anything but good and was often easily anticipated by their opposition.

Effectiveness in front of goal

Chicago knew even before the start of the game that if there’s only one player that could seriously damage them, it would be Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan striker possesses a great amount of pace and could be a real terror to Fire’s somewhat slow defenders.

Despite only having quite a small frame, 1.72m (5’8″) tall Martinez is still quite a strong player. His rather bulky build and low centre of gravity gives him that unwavering balance and outstanding agility. He is really hard to muscle off the ball and he’s always a real threat with it.

Alongside Gonzalo Martinez, the pacey Venezuelan forward was the thorn in their opposition’s side. The latter completed a double in this game, repeating the same feat in his last match. The two goals took his tally up to 10 goals from 15 games in the MLS.

On the other hand, it was not a pleasurable day for the forwards of Chicago Fire. Their inability to threaten Atlanta’s defence on a regular basis and lack of effectiveness up front were dismaying.

In total, Atlanta United and Chicago Fire both recorded a total of ten shots. But a clear difference can be seen as the home side managed to get nine (90%) on target, whereas the visiting team only got four (40%) accurate shots.

Atlanta United also managed to score two goals from a 1.38 xG value, while Chicago Fire managed to convert none despite having an xG value of 0.88.

Conclusion

Atlanta presented a highly impressive attacking play, but Chicago Fire failed to ward them off. The hosts hit hard where it really hurts.

Striker Josef Martinez and right winger Gonzalo Martinez were by far the best players in the game. They contributed massively to their team with their attacking endeavours, which ultimately resulted in a two-goal cushion.

Now, with a one-game advantage over league leaders Philadelphia Union and only two points behind, The Five Stripes are confident that they can climb back on top of the table. That is, of course, if they can secure another three points in their next match.