Atlanta United – D.C. United: Atlanta Dominate From Start To Finish In Eastern Conference Brawl (2-0)

The second and third-placed teams in the MLS Eastern Conference faced off in an extremely one-sided clash that saw D.C. United being put under extreme pressure. A late penalty miss by Josef Martínez seemed to save D.C. initially, yet in the end, they had to capitulate.

Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi

Atlanta United’s biggest win of the season (a 5-0 hammering over Houston Dynamo) ensured they entered this encounter with a breath of fresh air, after two losses and one draw in their three previous games. As mentioned in the article about Atlanta’s loss against the Seattle Sounders, injuries have played a big part in their slump in form, meaning it was only normal that the players selected to play would need time to build chemistry with one another. This was especially the case in defense, where George Bello, Florentin Pogba, Mikey Ambrose and Brek Shea were all unavailable for the match. 

Just like their opponents, D.C. United managed to get a win after a run of three winless outings. With Wayne Rooney forfeiting due to a minor injury, the visitors had to make do without their most important player, as Rooney is leading his side both in goals and assists. Manager Ben Olsen fielded Bill Hamid in goal, behind the defense composed of Leonardo Jara, Donovan Pines, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum, and Joseph Mora; in midfield featured Júnior Moreno and Russel Canouse, whilst the attacking midfielders Lucas Rodríguez and Paul Arriola fed the lone striker Luciano Acosta. 

Frank de Boer’s side read the following lineup: Brad Guzan in goal, Julian Gressel, Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar, Leandro González Pirez and Justin Meram in defense, Darlington Nagbe, Erik Remedi and Emerson Hyndman in midfield behind striking duo Brandon Vasquez and Josef Martínez. In possession, Atlanta operated in a 3-5-2 formation, as the fullbacks would push up, with the midfield trio rotating in midfield to provide an option.

D.C. United grant Atlanta the ball

D.C. United showcased their intentions right from the start. Perhaps encouraged by Atlanta’s recent struggles against teams defending in compact defensive structures, granted the home side possession of the ball, while sitting in a 5-2-3 medium block shape. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. The possession statistics paint a rather clear picture, with D.C. controlling only 29% of the ball. 

As a result, when the visitors had the ball, their approach was fundamentally direct, relying on individual runs out of the defense or looking to access the attacking midfielders from deep and then either develop the play on the wings or into depth. This strategy was not particularly effective due to inadequate passing, as these types of passes are among the hardest in football. It did lead to a couple of threatening situations on the counterattack (which were still not enough to warrant any sort of praise).

Against Atlanta’s 3-5-2 shape on the ball, Ben Olsen’s men could almost match every single opponent, maintaining strong access to the defenders and midfielders whilst preserving numerical advantage in defense. The strategy was therefore based on preventing central progression, especially through the feet of Eric Remedi, the pivot.


Atlanta’s buildup play

When Atlanta attempted to build up, D.C.’s strikers would focus on covering the passing lane towards Remedi. They stepped out on the middle center-back – while blocking passes to the pivot with his cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. – if he dwelled on the ball for a certain amount of time or attempted to carry the ball forward. The two attacking midfielders would immediately press the wing-backs whenever they received a pass from the middlest center-back, as they posed a threat to the ball-oriented defensive system. 

Due to this orientation, whenever the ball reached wider areas and the defensive structure consequently shifted towards them, the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and central midfielder far from the ball, would become available diagonally for Atlanta. These diagonal passes were the main worry for D.C. United, as well as Atlanta’s leading pattern in terms of progression. Especially on the left side, where the right-sided center-back could exploit his right footedness to gain space for the pass by orienting himself towards the center of the field and subsequently switch the play.

The high positions from the wing-backs in Atlanta’s 3-5-1-1 were key in creating advantages from these subtle player characteristics, because they could push the opposition fullbacks backward and create space behind the first pressing line for the closest central midfielder to receive in. The effectiveness of this move was entirely contingent upon the speed at which Frank de Boer’s team could circulate the ball and the positioning the back three during buildup. Given D.C. United’s attention to the ball’s position, in order to achieve this pattern, the possession spell had to start in the center to bait the defense into positioning itself centrally and leave free space wide, where Atlanta could quickly circulate the ball into, far from the opposition’s midfield reach.

The way Atlanta played around D.C.’s front defense.

On the other hand, when DC United shifted to the ball-side, and the pivots man-marked the closest central midfielders, the latter could easily manipulate their markers by moving wide or away from the ball; this would open a passing lane towards the dropping striker Brandon Vasquez, who played a key role in linking midfield and attack.

Once in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Atlanta relied on combinations between the two strikers to find shooting openings, while the wing-backs’ support out wide with runs behind the defensive line. The strikers’ compact positioning stimulated counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. actions too, supported by the two central midfielders behind them and wing-backs ready to press errand passes to wide areas. The ease with which D.C. United were pushed deep by Atlanta’s attacks also played a big part in their ineffectiveness when attempting to counter, as players would find themselves too close to each other to possibly combine and evade the counterpressing.

Second half full of drama

With the first half strategy presenting the home side with good chances and allowing them to control the game, Frank de Boer decided not to change anything at half-time. Oddly enough, Ben Olsen opted for the same decision too, even though his side were outplayed. Throughout the game, Atlanta progressively figured out ways to bypass the first line of pressing from D.C., and as the game went on, the execution of the aforementioned patterns improved, increasing the number of times the home side was able to enter the final third.

Seeing how Atlanta were still struggling at creating clear cut chances, though, Frank de Boer brought in Gonzalo Martínez around the 65th minute to improve the service for striker Josef Martínez. 

The second striker’s utility eventually came far from the box, in providing a passing option between the lines, similarly to what Vasquez had been doing up to his substitution, with slightly more mobility and license to roam, overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team.wide areas in the process. A facilitator, a metronome in the attack that Atlanta needed since their offensive actions had become too rushed and reliant on crosses. 

Atlanta were given a penalty, as the referee seemed to save them in a typical match wherein they could not break through the defense of the opponent. However, with only thirteen minutes to play, Josef Martínez missed, meaning the game was up for grabs for both teams still. His namesake would come to the rescue, however.

Two good examples of Gonzalo Martínez’s contribution are his game-saving goal and assist, which would decide the match. In the goal, which was scored only two minutes before the end of play, he showed great understanding of when to make runs into the box and therefore when to attack space and offer support to the ball-carrier, whereas his assist showcased the importance of a link between midfield and attack.


 Although the defensive strategy employed by Ben Olsen’s team was understandable and initially worked despite some flaws, the inability to adjust to the flow of the game, both in and out of possession, eventually led to DC United’s deserved loss. The fact they played on Thursday night against Cincinnati probably the defensive tactics, but it still was not a good look.

Contrarily, Frank de Boer recognized the moments in which to make a change and had a direct contribution in Atlanta United’s second win in a row, overtaking DC United, with a game in hand that could allow them to catch up with Philadelphia in first place.

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