HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 13: A general view of the MLS, Fussball Herren, USA march ball on the field during the first half of the Major League Soccer game between the New York Red Bulls and Minnesota United on March 13, 2022 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire SOCCER: MAR 13 MLS - Minnesota United at New York Red Bulls Icon220332609

Atlanta vs. Montreal: Positional play against a deep defensive block.

In this match-up, a team with the most conceded penalties in this season (5 – Montreal) met with the team who had given the most penalties (6 – Atlanta). Thus there was a big chance to see at least one penalty at this match. In the first half Montreal could score a goal and keep the clean sheet, so nothing indicated that there will be a lot of goals or a win for the Atlanta. This analysis will focus on what was wrong in the first half from Atlanta’s perspective.

The formation assign the base game plan

Atlanta’s first line was circulating the ball without any difficulty, because of the fact that Montreal did not press. Vargas was mostly maintaining a close distance to Larentowicz, in order to prevent passes to him and also to enable ball circulation through the centre. When the ball passed to the wide side-backs, Vargas shifted to the ball-side with curved runs, thus he could keep Larentowicz in his cover shadow. However, it worked properly on rare occasions. Mostly Vargas was not really active to prevent these passes. In some cases when Larentowicz could get free due to a blindside movement, he moved out of the cover shadow while Vargas was not able to see, because of his press attempt towards the side-backs.

Montreal’s last line was underloaded against Atlanta’s first line, thus Atlanta could build-up quite easily. Montreal gave the space to the opponent and sat deep with their 4-5-1 formation. Their plan was quite obvious, they played in a defensive manner and tried to score via counter-attacks.

Positional play against a deep block

Although Tata Martino’s man easily reached the opponent’s half, they struggled to make dangerous attacks or scoring chances.

So, here is an often seen situation. McCann (side-back) had the ball and the absence of the press – due to the Montreal underloaded frontline – would allow and encourage him to progress or dribble further. Also, noticeable is the Atlanta players in a higher position who were marked tightly. But dribbling is a common and effective way to invite the pressure and free the team-mate(s). However, the side-back’s first choice was to pass to the wingbacks. It was a frequently seen patter, which was based on the guests’ narrow shape, that allows Atlanta to always find a free man at the wings. Garza or Gressel got the ball and they targeted the penalty box with crosses. This led to some chances but they failed to score in the first half.

Another common pattern was the side-backs targeting Martinez with long balls. They tried to shoot the ball behind the opponent’s first line. It was not really effective, due to the numerical superiority that Montreal had. Only a few occasions Atlanta had when it became a dangerous situation.

Nagbe and Barco dragged their markers out of their position, thus it opens a passing lane towards Martinez. However, it did not reach him, because Camacho and Raitala marked Martinez and they could prevent these attempts. And third of the side-backs was to pass the dropping team-mates, like Nagbe or Barco, but they had a difficulty to play that ball, because of the opponent’s tight marking scheme. The tight marking system allows for Montreal to put high pressure on the receiver.

There were two situations that I would like to highlight due to the potential that they had. Firstly, in some rare occasions when the side-backs reached the opponent’s half, they immediately invite the pressure as you can see below. Taider had to leave his previously marked opponent to press the ball carrier. At this moment the possession side has an opportunity to choose, however, they made the wrong decision. They chose to drop towards the ball and also drag their markers with them. This created a limited space with limited and bad options. If they choose to move with their markers towards the goal, it would create an unoccupied space where Martinez or Barco could drop and make them the much more dangerous situation.

And lastly, in some cases when Nagbe dropped deep to get the ball and separate from his marker, Taider had to follow him and press and only his cover shadow blocked the space behind him. The other Montreal players remained in position, where a pass behind could be highly dangerous. Especially if Martinez chooses to drop into that space. But again a bad decision from Martinez, because instead of dropping into the vacated space he waits for the long ball.

Montreal’s counter-attacks

In the first half, they’d not attack so much, for two reasons. After the lead, they did not need to force the attacks. And also it was due to Atlanta’s counter-pressing scheme. It was a ball oriented high-intensity scheme, which limits the opponent’s attempts. The defensive midfielder and the side-backs covered the whole pitch. One covers the middle area and the other two are responsible for the two half-spaces, which is the most important area for counter-attacks, due to the majority of them starting from the half space.

Second half and final thoughts

The second half began in a similar manner to the first with the hosts attempting to find ways to breakthrough Montreal’s defensive shape. It was much easier than the first half, because of the fact that Montreal sit a bit higher and had several more attempts to score again. Therefore, Atlanta had much more space in the final third. However, they failed to score through open play. Atlanta only scored one goal from the counter-attack. The rest of them happened in a fixed situation like free kicks and from the penalty spot. They had to improve against compact and defensive-minded teams, although they could have won this match. They also have to improve to play effectively the combinations.