Atlanta United FC
- Guzan / 5. Pirez, 3, Parkhurst, 16. McCann / 24. Gressel, 6. Nagbe, 18. Larentowicz, 4. Garza / 10. Almiron / 8. Barco, 7. Martinez
- Bush. / 18. Duvall, 4. Camacho, 22. Raitala, 3. Lovitz / 13. Krolicki, 6. Piette, 8. Taider / 9. Silva, 10. Piatti, 16. Vargas
Montreal Impact executed a flawless defense in the first half. Gerardo Martino adjusted, and Atlanta United FC dismantled the visitor in the second half.
Montreal’s flawless defense in the first half
Montreal parked the bus in this game. The four goals turnaround loss to LAFC last week did not sit well with Remi Garde; their defense has been disastrous this season, conceding 21 goals in eight games, the highest in the MLS. They also visited the best offensive team in the MLS, so Montreal focused on the defense and only went forward with the counter-attack.
Montreal started in a 4-3-3 but defended in a 4-5-1. They tailored their defense to prevent Atlanta from attacking through the space between the midfield and the defense in the center. Montreal first interfered Atlanta’s transition of the build-up into the attacking phase; they didn’t pressure the host’s center backs. But when Atlanta attempted to penetrate, Montreal’s player would then confront the ball handler:
One of Montreal’s defenders would come out from the midfield to close down the ball handler and minimize his forward passing lane. His closest teammates would cover his position while the other teammates would shift the ball-close side. The players compressed toward the ball and increased the pressure. The ball handler would not be able to advance the ball; he needed to pass the ball back to the defender or the wingback on the flank. Such pass would trigger Montreal’s second confrontation to the ball receiver. The defense would stay compact and increased its pressure on the ball handler. This way, a wave of closing downs would be triggered, and Montreal would push Atlanta’s possession back.
If Atlanta could bypass the closing down from their second line of the defense, Montreal would sit deep and maintain two defensive lines against Atlanta.
The two lines stuck to each other to minimize the space between them and prevent Atlanta from assessing this area. They allowed Atlanta to pass around them on the flanks, but not through them in the center. Atlanta couldn’t find Darlington Nagbe, Ezequiel Barco, and Miguel Almiron behind Montreal’s midfield. That area was inaccessible; Montreal’s defenders would drop so that they could always have at least two lines of defense in front of Atlanta’s attackers. The host could only find Nagbe, Barco, and Almiron in the center from the flanks. Every time they received the ball in the middle, Montreal’s defenders would confront them immediately and prevented them from turning inside. Even if they could turn, they needed to solve two walls of Montreal’s defense. Atlanta’s attacking midfielders couldn’t find any forward passing lane in the center. They had to pass back to the wing-back or the center back. Atlanta could merely recycle the ball between the flanks through the defenders and probe for any gap in Montreal’s defense.
While Montreal’s flawless defense limited Atlanta’s league-best offense in the first half, the visitor could only attack the host by sending a long ball to Ignacio Piatti. They caught a break with a lapse of concentration from Atlanta and scored the first goal.
Atlanta’s offensive adjustment
Once Montreal had taken the lead, they retreated even deeper than before. They stopped closing down Atlanta’s players in the transition and focused on defending the host in front of the box. Atlanta’s attacking patterns on the two flanks were different; Julian Gressel created a lot of crosses from the right. Greg Garza didn’t provide as many crosses on the left, but Chris McCann created more dangerous chances with his intelligence and passing:
He has an excellent passing range for a center back. Because Montreal stopped coming out to confront the host, McCann had the freedom to gauge the vertical passing lane. His penetrative passes found Almiron and Barco in the box on two occasions. His run toward the center also lured Montreal’s defenders and opened space for his teammates to attack the opposite side.
Martino adjusted around 30 minutes in the first half; he swapped Ngabe and Almiron positions. The two midfielders started on their strong footed sides. When they received the ball from the wingback or the side center back, they tended to move toward the sideline. Montreal defenders would also chase after them and prevented them from turning inside. Almiron or Ngabe wouldn’t be able to attack the center when they had the ball. They had to move away from it.
Martino changed the initial position of the Ngabe and altered the ball movement:
Now when Ngabe received the ball from the left, he could immediately dribble toward the center. The defenders needed to come out to confront him. Atlanta could now generate some gaps in Montreal’s defense. The host could now attack the center.
Atlanta’s attack in the center also increased the counter-pressing opportunity; before the switch, Montreal had forced Atlanta to pass around the box. Atlanta couldn’t operate in the middle, but they also rarely lose the ball there. Montreal’s fullbacks regained most of the possession on the flanks, and they would simply send a long ball forward. After the switch, Montreal had a lot of interceptions in the middle. Their attacking players now could control the ball and attempted to initiate the counter-attack by dribbling. Atlanta had the opportunity to regain the possession and re-enter the offensive phase by the counter-pressing.
Martino reorganized Atlanta’s attacking structure in the second half. He replaced Jeff Larentowicz with Hector Villalba. Ngabe now became the play-maker:
Atlanta didn’t attempt to pass through Montreal’s two lines of the defense in the middle in the second half. They kept circulating between the flanks. Atlanta had at least three attacking players in the middle. But they were not the passing targets; instead, they created an overload to pin Montreal’s defense back and prevented it from covering the flanks (similar to NYFC’s strategy against Real Salt Lake a few weeks ago). Atlanta’s side center back positioned behind the wing back and stayed on the same line as Ngabe and another midfielder, usually Barco or Almiron. Once received a pass from the wingback, the side center back focused on passing to the midfielder on the same line, and the midfielder would pass to the opposite flank. They switch the ball a lot faster than they did in the first half. Montreal’s defense now needed to cover the same area much quicker. Their players had to rush to the ball-close side, and they couldn’t maintain a compact shape. Atlanta first generated many crossing opportunities. As the time went on, the host could open the area in the middle. They pinned the visitor inside the box and destroyed their two lines structure. The two lines became just one, and Atlanta found the equalizer through a penalty. The handball was incidental to the change of the dynamic of the game.
As Atlanta attacked better and better, they also left more space in the defense. Montreal had several opportunities to secure a two-goal cushion. Failure to do so led to their epic collapse. Kevin Kratz’s magical freekick started Montreal’s destruction.
Montreal’s defensive struggle means that they have a long of work to do if they want to compete with the big boys. On the other hand, Atlanta have shown their strength in the last two games. Their offense is potent, but they are also patient when they need to. They are one of the best teams in the league.