This game had headlines dominated both before and after before by Josef Martinez. During the game, he broke the record for most goals in an MLS season and equalled the record for consecutive goals scored. The game itself between Atlanta United and Orlando City, however, was a standard affair. We break down the game in this MLS tactical analysis.
I’ve written about Martinez before, but with this being the record-breaking game I thought I quickly mention him. It was, by all accounts a poor game for Martinez. He did nothing special all game, bar score, again. For most of the game, we see a passive striker, not getting involved in the build-up. We’ve come to expect this from Martinez, but his lack of strength was showing in the game as Spector, in particular, was dealing with him roughly.
The second half showed more promise for Atlanta United and Martinez as they looked to utilise their strengths more by crossing and with counter attacks. The second goal, by Martinez, included an almost trademark Atlanta United counter-attack with good movement from Almiron creating the space for Martinez.
Orlando City Defensive Structure
Orlando City knows the key offensive players for Atlanta United are Almiron, Barco, Villalba and Martinez. These players all like to get narrow and play within the width of the penalty area, though Villalba is more inclined than the others to get out wide. Because of this, Orlando City had to defend with a compact shape and stop those key attacking players getting into gaps between the midfield and defence, where they are most dangerous.
Orlando City were very effective with this. They pressed in stages, with no pressure on the Atlanta United centre-backs, but some on the wide players.
In particular, they would pressure Almiron, not letting him dictate the flow of the game.
Orlando City allowed very easy ball progression from Atlanta United into the middle third, but upon entering the final third, Orlando City set up their two defensive lines. These lines were close together and did not allow space for runs in behind either line.
Johnson, in particular, was instrumental in not allowing passing lanes to Almiron or Larentowic who like to dictate the game. Johnson was either on the back of Larentowic or keeping him in his shadow, therefore not allowing passes to go through him.
However, come the second half we see a different story to the game.
Atlanta United Retaliation
After Orlando City’s goal, we see two immediate changes to the Atlanta United attacking set up. This particularly happens in the second half. Firstly, they are getting players high and wide. They can see Orlando City have set up defensively, and with the score being 1-1 will likely look to snatch a goal on the break.
With that in mind, Atlanta United pushes Gressell high up the pitch to stretch the Orlando City defensive structure. We can even see that Atlanta United are keeping a player in the wide space on the ball far side. This helps with the second change as Atlanta United sped up their attacks. Rather than keeping the ball central, and looking to drive at the Orlando City defence, they would switch the play and look to dominate the flanks. By switching sides they looked to expose gaps in the Orlando City defence as they transitioned from one to another.
In the image above we can see Atlanta United getting players on the ball-far side to stay in the wide and half space. This stretches the opposition back line with also allowing for an overload if the play switches quickly.
While effective, it did not lead to a goal. Martinez, despite his goal, was not on top form, and the Orlando City defenders dealt with his aerial threat well. The crosses into the box by Atlanta United also did not help Martinez, with them being routinely overhit. Orlando City didn’t capitalise on an ordinary looking Atlanta United, but it was Orlando City who created the game situations to make Atlanta United look ordinary through their good defensive work.
Before Orlando Ctiy’s goal, we see an uncreative and stifled Atlanta United side. They struggled to play their game despite dominating the game. After the goal, we immediately saw Atlanta United kick into life creating a good chance.
Atlanta United with their play sped up, saw creative players getting between lines, and Martinez able to get behind the defence.
I want to rewind from that though to the build-up, as it is the first chance after the Orlando City goal.
1. This is a big gap finally left by Orlando City between the defence and midfield. Atlanta United have been waiting for this, and it comes from a quick passing move. The hatched marking is where the Atlanta United player wants to drive into, and where Orlando City should be covering.
2. We see a player left high and wide. This stretches the Orlando City defence and offers a cross-field option behind the fullback.
3. Martinez is being marked by defenders. Neither centre-back can push out, as it will leave a gap for Martinez. Martinez being covered by two centre backs is a perfect scenario as it can lead to overloads elsewhere on the pitch.
4. The circled player should have already dropped as shown. If he had done so, this whole opportunity for Atlanta United would likely have been stopped. He cannot recover in time to be useful in defence.
This chance should have been a goal, but for some last-ditch defending. Orlando City switched off and almost paid the price for it. This type of chance simply wouldn’t have come about had Atlanta United kept their slow, methodical build up.
Unfortunately for Atlanta United, Orlando City didn’t let this happen too many other times. If other teams use the deep block against Atlanta United, we could see them begin to struggle in the league. The high and wide method used after the Orlando City goal will help as shown, but a strong centre-back pairing covering Martinez will likely stop even him from scoring.
We saw the deep block tactic employed by teams against Manchester City last season, and it took individual genius to help even them conquer the defensive tactic. With both Atlanta United United and Manchester City being managed by ex-Barcelona managers, it is no surprise to see both teams facing similar tactics.