Atlanta United – Montreal Impact: Meram Brace Too Much For Unlucky Montreal (2-1)
A lacking precision to Montreal’s offensive game counteracted a sturdy defensive performance. For every successful strategy came another ten or fifteen that fell flat, as neither side took the initiative in the match. Therefore, this trial and error game was as entertaining as it was hard viewing.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Atlanta’s first home league match in almost a month looked to steady the tide of Montreal’s momentum, as their numerous games in hand saw the hosts four points below Rémi Garde’s side. A win here would edge them closer to the top spot in their campaign to retain their title.
Still without their top-scoring Venezuelan, Josef Martínez, Dutch manager Frank de Boer made just three changes from the 3-2 loss to Toronto. Florentin Pogba and Franco Escobar stepped into the fullback positions whilst Justin Meram was handed the left midfield role in a setup that chopped and changed between a 4-2-3-1 shape and a 4-3-3 formation.
Remarkably, each of Montreal’s last four victories have finished with a 2-1 score line. Rémi Garde was hoping to produce a similar result but by dropping Orji Okwonkwo, who netted twice in their win over the Portland Timbers last time out. Harry Novillo took his place whilst Mathieu Choinière replaced Maximiliano Urruti in the same 3-4-3 setup.
Atlanta assert early pressure
The home sides promising start was signified by an early chance for Julian Gressel, a move which encapsulated many of de Boer’s attacking tactics for this match.
Atlanta always set out in a 4-2-3-1 shape in possession but frequently altered it through the positioning of their holding midfielders, and what came in response to that. Eric Remedi, who played on the left of the pairing, dropped back and forwards down the left 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 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.
Remedi positioning himself in a left center-back position away from pressure.
Occasionally, he would fill in as a third center-back, which gave more license for the fullbacks to push on and become wing-backs. He would also, as the ball moved from right-to-left, push up into the attacking line. This might be in tandem with one of the wide attackers dropping deep, even if it were Pity Martínez from the other side, just to maintain the right positional balance.
This played a key part in Gressel’s early chance as Remedi’s role, here, was to push up and then move wide ahead of Pogba, which helped to draw open Montreal’s defensive channels. This was one of the countless ways Atlanta tried to get in behind Montreal. In this instance, it opened the channel for Brandon Vázquez’s run, who then located Gressel on the cutback, but he scuffed his effort and wasted a solid opportunity.
The staggering of Atlanta’s compact attacking diamond meant there were always three players close behind the central striker, so they could play off the space between the lines, like Gressel did, there.
Atlanta kept to the same patterns in their attacking play. As they found themselves camped inside the Montreal half, they revolved their play around the left side, using Remedi’s deep positioning or the dropping movements of Meram into an almost ‘semi left back position’ to maintain easy access to the ball, which allowed for complete dominance.
Atlanta were not so successful in breaking Montreal down, though. The away side’s defensive compactness was impressive, and managed to suffocate the spaces exceedingly well against passes into the attackers’ feet in their 5-4-1 formation. They were able to deal with balls over the top with some ease, too, albeit mostly because – despite the timed movements to and from the ball of Atlanta’s various attackers – the passes were coming from the center, so they were more difficult to weight and also much easier to read.
It was then down the right side where Montreal leapt onto some of the weaker strands of Atlanta’s attacking moves. Just past the half-hour mark, the left side of their defensive unit shifted aggressively to close in on an exchanged between Pity and Escobar. The former’s attempted trick to evade the pressure failed and Montreal launched a counterattack. Having combined short out on the left, they managed to expose the huge gap left between the center-back and fullback on the far-side through Saphir Taïder’s early switch to Choinière but he dragged his effort wide.
Unfortunately for Montreal, there was not too much to shout about outside of this. In general possession, up against an intense 4-3-3 press, they had few answers to the man-marking situations they were faced up against. Even in the middle phase, when play was more relaxed, they only had one plan of sorts.
Left wing-back Jukka Raitala would then feed it into Novillo, who had dropped into a deeper position, before trying to combine with Taïder. Although they managed to work the latter in behind the defense on a couple of occasions, none of these were of any note outside of a free kick that resulted from one towards the end of the first half, where it narrowly missed an open Montreal player before cannoning out off another at the second post.
Atlanta’s persistence pays off
For all the ineffective spells of pressure, Atlanta remained unrelenting. And, in the thirty-fifth minute, they got their big break. In a familiar pattern, Meram dropped deep and wide into a position held open, as usual, by Pogba’s wing-like position. As he received and cut it back onto his favored right, Remedi’s run from deep and into depth opened the central space by pulling Ken Krolicki back. The Iraqi attacker then let rip and scored an absolute beauty. A finish he could not have placed anymore perfectly than he did.
The hosts were hungry for more, just minutes later when for once, they tried to get in behind using a diagonal aerial pass from the left side. It worked to much greater effect as Vázquez’s distracting run across the backline opened up the lane into Gressel. Whilst he fumbled the opportunity, Pity picked up the leftovers and rounded the goalkeeper before finding the side-netting up against several Montreal players guarding the goal.
For the few chances Atlanta created, Montreal might have felt a little hard done by. Whilst the precision and composure in attack was largely lacking, they had created the best chance of the match and had done a good job of limiting Atlanta.
Montreal snap back
They got their just desserts five minutes into the second half. The difference at the beginning of this half was the impact Shamit Shome asserted on the game. He, as one of the holding midfielders, had stepped up into the attacking line in the first half but always towards the right, where none of Montreal’s attacks were flowing through. In the second half, his movement across towards the left side worked far better as he was overloaded When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the midfield constantly, doing so in the buildup to the equalizer as well.
After Taïder dropped wide to receive – which greater emphasized the attacking freedom Garde allowed them in the second half – he fed it into an unmarked Shome. He was quick to feed through Raitala’s run down the flank, whose crosses deflected out for a corner. Atlanta cleared the initial set piece but were second to the ball afterwards, which allowed Novillo to fire powerfully from range. It was headed off target were it not for a handy ricochet off of an unsuspecting Zakaria Diallo at the second post.
Shome overloading the space in the middle for Taïder in the buildup to the equalizer.
After, Atlanta regained control and Montreal looked like a lost side again. The same simple strategy from the hosts but no response from the visitors this time. It was constant long balls into space for Novillo. The only time they did forge a counterattack was thanks to Taïder’s lazy defensive positioning. He had been leaving an inside channel wide open due to his lacking intensity – a gap which gave Atlanta an in on a few occasions.
In this instance, a long ball was played at Novillo rather than for him, where he then spread it wide first-time for Taïder. In similar fashion to the chance in the first half, he executed an early switch into Choinière, however, this time, Pogba caught up and limited the attacker to a pot shot from further out.
It was in the eighty-third minute, though, when Atlanta’s vague pressure led to a game-defining goal. Super sub Brek Shea had just entered the pitch and had an immediate impact from a corner given Atlanta’s way. The near-post flick-on found Shea at the back-post, where his miscued effort lingered back across and into the path of Meram, who netted his second of the game and, ultimately, the winner.
Rémi Garde’s men can feel pleased with this kind of away performance and, like at the end of the first half, they will have come away disappointed and hard done by, really. They are still sitting pretty in third in the Eastern Conference but Atlanta move to within a point having played three games fewer.
And, whilst de Boer’s side showed clever invention in the intricacies of their attacking play, there are clearly still some creases that need ironing out before they become a resilient force once again.
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