Tactical analysis Atlanta United San Jose Earthquakes 1-0 MLS

Atlanta United – San Jose Earthquakes: Matías Almeyda’s Peculiar Game Plan Is Eventually Exploited (3-1)

San Jose Earthquakes went to Atlanta United with one of the worst away records in the Western Conference; just three wins in fifteen. Their manager Matías Almeyda deployed an interesting defensive plan, which held Atlanta for long periods of the game. It wasn’t until the final moments of the game that San Jose were finally broken down.

Tactical match report and analysis by Joel Parker

With playoff season on the horizon, Matchday 31 featured two clubs in very different levels of form. Current MLS Cup champions Atlanta United have regathered form towards the end of the season, winning eight of their last ten matches in all competitions. Though Frank de Boer has been questioned in his defensive approach – by both fans and players – Atlanta United have recorded the best numbers in the Eastern Conference, in both the number of goals conceded and in expected goals. The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take.

Frank de Boer favored the 4-2-3-1 formation earlier on in the year, but in recent times he has experimented with a variety of three-at-the-back systems. He made no changes to the team that comfortably beat FC Cincinnati in the week – opting for the 3-4-3 formation.

San Jose Earthquakes’ mid-season form saw them firmly maintain a spot in the playoff positions, however, recent results have seen them almost slip out of the top seven, which grants a playoff ticket They sit sixth in the Western Conference, with Portland Timbers just a point behind them in eighth. 

Matías Almeyda’s team have lost all five of their away matches from the start of August, leaving their MLS Cup hopes in jeopardy. With an away trip to Portland Timbers left in the calendar, points at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium would be a huge boost. Almeyda stuck to his 4-2-3-1 system, his only change coming at left-back, Nick Lima replacing Marcos López.

Earthquake’s intriguing defensive set-up

Though Atlanta United broke the deadlock inside four minutes, Matías Almeyda organized an interesting defensive setup to limit Atlanta’s ball progression. This did not get off to a great start; Atlanta pressed high up the pitch when San Jose attempted to expand and build from the back. In the fourth minute, midfielder Darlington Nagbe intercepted a rushed pass, Justin Meram’s shot heavily deflected and gave Atlanta an early lead.  

Almeyda set San Jose up in a 4-3-1-2 shape, man-marking as many passing options as possible. Chris Wondolowski pushed onto Leanodro González Pirez, whilst Magnus Eriksson occupied Eric Remedi, who would drop deepest from the midfield. This resulted in Atlanta rarely breaking into fast, vertical passing moves in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.

San Jose’s 4-3-1-2 defensive shape. 

If Miles Robinson was stalling on the ball, Jackson Yueill would break out of the midfield line and immediately apply pressure on the center-back. Though this way of defending occupied plenty of potential options and stopped Atlanta from building a high number of passing sequences, this did have one major flaw; once the forward line would be broken, Atlanta would have plenty of room to sprint into. 

All three center-backs had spells where they would carry the ball forward and exploit the open space. However, once entering the attacking third, San Jose managed to stick to their man-marking scheme and managed to block of any chances of a direct attempt on goal. An unusual defensive style, but one which was certainly working in the Earthquakes’ favor. 

San Jose equalize but red card changes everything

Once winning possession back, San Jose continued to expand as much as possible to stretch out Atlanta United. Frank de Boer’s defensive set-up was not based on rapidly pressing forward but overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team.wherever the ball was positioned. However, this resulted in space opening across other areas and Almeyda’s team had their fair share of possession.

Without really making much progression in Atlanta’s half, Daniel Vega launched a ball towards Cristian Espinoza when an Atlanta attack had broken down. González Pirez lost the aerial battle, giving Espinoza had the space to sprint into the penalty area. As he attempted to pull the ball back into the six-yard box, the ball deflected of Brad Guzan and fell into the back of the net.

San Jose had their equalizer. Being reduced to ten men totally changed their game plan, however. Espinoza was sent off, just moments after they had scored. After initially stepping forward into Atlanta’s half, San Jose dropped deeper, but the vast amount of space remained. 

San Jose’s defensive shape after going down a man. 

Now with an extra man, Atlanta’s backline had much more time to pick out a forward pass, especially down the flanks. Frank de Boer’s team started to gain much more possession and were breaking into better positions than earlier on in the game. Once in the final third, Atlanta’s frontline linked with short, fast, vertical passing to open space.

Most of the hosts ball progression would come down the flanks and opportunities started to occur from it. A fantastic run from Justin Meram gave him great access into the penalty area before pulling back into the area. Florian Jungwirth failed to clear it and, somehow, Emerson Hyndman was not able to hit the target from a few yards out. 

Atlanta take control but cannot create 

With an extra man, Atlanta United dominated the ball and kept San Jose pinned in their own half. San Jose’s pressing forward was far less effective with a man down, Atlanta would make progress by long channel passes from the center-backs. 

With both Meram and Julian Gressel pushing high from the wingback positions, this gave them the opportunity to interchange when creating attacking sequences. With Hyndman positioned in 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. Tommy Thompson (what a name that is!) was pinned and overloaded in this area. Movement off the ball was key to breaking down San Jose’s low-block, Pity Martínez would come in from the right, roaming across the final third. San Jose could not break out of their own half, but managed to restrict Atlanta from taking direct shots at goal.

Almeyda now put his team in a 4-3-2 shape, with Magnus Eriksson able to position in the midfield line, whilst also continuing to man-mark Remedi. Though Atlanta maintained all the possession, San Jose’s defensive shape had stopped Atlanta from creating chances.

San Jose can’t survive late flurry 

From the eighteen shots on goal Atlanta had taken, eleven of these came in  the final fifteen minutes, with eight of these on target. As time went on, more and more space opened in the final third and Atlanta couldn’t stop exploiting it. Even with Josef Martínez coming off due to injury, Atlanta’s attack had radically improved and finally starting to test Daniel Vega.

Emerson Hyndman broke through from the right flank, but his powerful shot was pushed over the bar. Hyndman would have another attempt shortly after, a brilliant, line-breaking pass from Franco Escobar was flicked on by substitute Brandon Vazquez, into the Bournemouth loanee’s path; hit shot saved again. The resulting corner was met by Miles Robinson in the penalty area, another save from Vega.

When it just looked as if San Jose had secured a valuable point, Atlanta finally broke through. Darlington Nagbe’s brilliant turn and run into space opened San Jose’s backline. Hyndman was left unmarked and in space on the right, found brilliantly by Nagbe. His strike hit the roof of the net as Atlanta had almost certainly claimed all three points.

Two soon became three, San Jose surrendering their shape when moving forward for a desperate grab of a point. Héctor Villalba carried the ball forward on the left, playing through Hyndman before pulling the ball back into Pity Martínez. With time and space, the Argentine finishes a great attacking move, to claim a 3-1 victory. 


A big win for Atlanta United, the result means they will get a home match for the playoffs. The red card gave them a huge advantage when moving forward, and in the final part of the match, Atlanta created more than enough chances to take the victory. Having lost just twice at home, as well as maintaining the best home record in the Eastern Conference, the first home game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be a huge plus point. 

Despite Atlanta having almost all the shot count, San Jose deserved to take something from this game. A smart game plan from Almeyda, which had one major flaw which would ultimately cost them. Leaving too much space for Atlanta was bound to be exploited. San Jose Earthquakes have three huge games to secure their spot in the playoffs, Philadelphia Union, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers left to play – can they make it? 

Plots will be added to this article as soon as possible. 

Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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