MLS Tactical Analysis: LA Galaxy vs Atlanta United FC 0:2

This game is too good to not analyze even though it is almost a week late.

LA Galaxy

  1. Bingham / 25. Feltscher, 5. Steres, 16. Skjelvik 3. Cole / 7. Alessandrini, 2. Kitchen, 6. Husidic, 17. Lletget / 9. Ibrahimovic, 11. Kamara

Atlanta United

  1. Guzan / 5. Pirez, 3, Parkhurst, 16. McCann / 24. Gressel, 6. Nagbe, 18. Larentowicz, 4. Garza / 10. Almiron / 8. Barco, 7. Martinez

LA Galaxy’s star power could not match up with Atlanta United’s teamwork.

Atlanta’s tactical advantage

Atlanta’s 3-5-1-1 / 3-4-2-1 created a tactical advantage over LA’s 4-4-2:

Atlanta’s two “3”s in the center created two 3 vs. 2 conditions against LA’s strikers and midfielders on two different lines. LA could not close down Atlanta’s center backs and central midfielders in the build-up. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, and Chris McCann always had the freedom to find the passing lane toward their midfielder teammates. When LA’s midfielders, usually Baggio Husidic, moved out of the midfield to confront Jeff Larentowicz or Darlington Nagbe, Ezequiel Barco or Miguel Almiron would move into the gap left by them to receive a pass and penetrate LA’s initial lines of defense.

LA’s defense also aided Atlanta’s efficient ball progression. Their space between the lines was too big when they sat back. Nagbe, Almiron, and Barco always targeted this area between the midfield and the defense. LA’s defenders struggled to come out of the defense to pressure the ball’s receivers. They couldn’t cover the midfielders and allowed Atlanta’s players to receive the ball, turn, and attack.

Because Atlanta’s players could always control the possession and advance the ball with their tactical advantage during the build-up, they could move into the proper attacking positions. Like any 3-5-2 and its variants, Atlanta used the wingbacks to access the flank. Greg Garza and Julian Gressel hogged the sidelines to provide the width for the attack. But Atlanta didn’t create the most dangerous chances by attacking the flanks. They used the width to stretch LA’s defense to open the area in the center:

LA couldn’t stop Atlanta’s ball progression, so they sat deep in their half. Atlanta’s wingbacks could often find the midfielders in the space between the lines, and they could distribute the ball efficiently between the flanks. As they created the overload on the left to initiate the attack, the asymmetric set-up lured LA’s defenders to one side and opened the area on the right. Once received the ball, Gressel could run down to the byline and cross, but Atlanta created the most dangerous chances when he passed the ball back to the central midfielder, usually Nagbe; LA’s defenders had to scramble across the field to chase the ball. They couldn’t maintain a proper defensive shape. Atlanta could find the open channels to open the zone 14 and the penalty box and create several chances.

LA’s struggle

LA also struggled in the offensive phase; Atlanta used their forwards to close down LA’s passing lane toward the center but delayed the pressure to the flanks. Only when the ball reached there, especially on Ashely Cole’s side, Atlanta began to close down the ball handler. LA struggled to break the pressure:

Husidic often moved forward. He didn’t maintain a viable passing lane for Cole to pass to the center. Cole could only find a vertical passing lane toward the winger. The pass pattern was predictable. Atlanta’s wingback or side center back could always close down the ball handler or receiver. They often regained the possession around the half-line and immediately entered the offensive phase. They created their most dangerous chances from these counter-attacks.

After scoring the first goal, Atlanta’s high-pressing pressure waned off and sat deeper than before. LA could control more possession, but they still had a problem with the attack:

LA had no transition or penetration strategy. Their offensive phase involved a build-up unit and an attack unit without a connection between them. The defenders and Perry Kitchen controlled the possession during the build-up. The wingers, strikers and sometimes Husidic often surged forward to try to catch a pass. No one connected the build-up and the attack. They could only find the attackers with the long pass. Atlanta sat deeper and had a lot of players in the defensive half. Even if the ball reached LA’s players, the visitor could close them down quickly. LA’s offense struggled to break through Atlanta’s defense.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was critical for LA’s offense in the first half:

He was the only player capable of helping the host to transition into the offensive phase; for the four LA’s possessions leading to the shots in the first half, Ibrahimovic was the initial passer or pass receiver from the build-up unit in three of them (data from@AnalysisEvolved ). He was LA’s most creative player and the only player who could control the ball and find his teammates in the attacking positions. Romain Alessandrini and Sebastian Lletget were Zlatan’s primary passing target. The French winger was also indispensable for LA’s attack; he participated in every LA’s possession that led to a shot (data from@AnalysisEvolved ). But with limiting support from the central midfielders, the visitor could only create a few chances.

LA changed tactics in the second half

Sigi Schmid changed things in the second half to combat Atlanta’s penetrative build-up. LA’s compressed the space between all three lines so that they could strengthen the midfield; Ola Kamara always came back while the defenders were now ready to move out to confront Atlanta’s midfielders They neutralized Atlanta’s tactical advantage in the center:

Atlanta could still maintain the majority of the possession. But they couldn’t access the center as efficiently as they did in the first half. LA’s extra help prevented Atlanta from switching between the flanks using the midfielders. LA’s players always closed down Nagbe, Barco, and Almiron. Gressel and Garza needed to pass to the center backs to recycle the ball. They needed more time to switch between the flanks. LA could now shift to the ball-close side quickly enough to cover the area. Atlanta created fewer chances through the regular build-up.

LA controlled more possession but still couldn’t create a lot of chance. Ibrahimovic’s performance waned off in the second half. He stopped dropping to the midfield to help the build-up. Schmid had to introduce Servando Carrasco 60th minutes to help the attack. Carrasco had a better passing range than the Kitchen and Husidic and helped to deliver the ball to the wingers and fullbacks.

But as LA pushed higher and higher to chase the equalizer, they left more and more space at the back. Atlanta created several chances through the long ball. They should have finished the game earlier.

LA have quality, but they are still optimizing their tactics. Schmid might have planned to use the tireless work ethic of the wingers and Kamara to play off Ibrahimovic. He might have also wanted to use Husidic to move into the area when Ibrahimovic dropped to the midfield. The strategy didn’t work as he had hoped; LA lacked creativity. The 4-4-2 was too predictable. A 4-3-3 could be a better choice. Play Giovani dos Santos and Alessandrini as the inverted wingers and support Jonathan dos Santos with Husidic and Kitchen in the midfield may find a balance between physicality and creativity.

Atlanta looks amazing. If they can improve their finishing, they will be fighting New York City all the way in the Eastern Conference.

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