Sunday morning, just four points separated the Red Bulls and Atlanta United at the top of the Supporters Shield standings.
The Red Bulls needed a win in order to stay in the hunt for the Shield, even if that meant lining up without Bradley Wright-Phillips or Tyler Adams. For Atlanta United, a point on the road would all but suffice with three games remaining.
After 90 minutes, Chris Armas out-coached Tata Martino. The post-game handshake, or lack there of, exemplified that. The play on the field was just as unambiguous as the tactics. The whole Red Bulls starting lineup played well to superb. No one on Atlanta United did anything extraordinary.
Checking The Tape: How the Red Bulls suffocated Atlanta
The Red Bulls started out in their classic 4-2-3-1 formation while Atlanta lined up in a 3-5-2. As of late, a topic of much debate is whether or not tactics or style have changed from Jesse Marsch to Chris Armas. While the differences are minor in overall record and statistics, first half starts have seemed relatively slower under Armas. Yet, this start for New York was, to quote Armas’ predecessor, “energy drink soccer” at it’s absolute finest.
Jesse Marsch flirted with a 3-3-3-1 in his time at New York, which for the most part is a more defined formation to a shape the team takes in-game naturally. But in the first 15 minutes vs Atlanta, the Red Bulls came out pressing in what often seemed like a 2-4-4 or a 3-3-4.
Kaku, out of picture, took a defensive position much like a CF while Brian White, Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl created a preliminary line. Kemar Lawrence, Sean Davis, Marc Rzatkowski, and Michael Murillo comprised the second line. Aaron Long and Tim Parker were left to defend Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.
And while that was one of the first plays of the game, it was the same sort of shape the Red Bulls consistently took when Atlanta tried to play out the back or passed the ball back to Guzan. Below Muyl drifted back to create a defensive bloc with Davis and Rzatkowski.
Limiting Atlanta’s Double Pivot
In the first 15 minutes, the Red Bulls forced six clearances and six defensive recoveries all within 25 yards from Atlanta’s goal. Atlanta could do nothing but pass in-between their three center backs, very rarely getting the ball to either Eric Remedi or Darlington Nagbe.
The passing chart shows a virtual road block at about 30-35 yards where Atlanta broke the first line of defense but Remedi or Nagbe couldn’t find a second pass. All six of Nagbe’s passes were forward, but just two were successful meanwhile Remedi went backwards on 5 of his 7 passes. In turn, Atlanta attempted long balls in order to relieve pressure but found nothing meaningful hence the amount of long red arrows on the chart.
Miguel Almiron lacking
Eventually the Red Bulls’ pressure leveled off enough for Atlanta to string passes together. But Atlanta United missed an escape valve they desperately needed. Without Miguel Almiron the team doesn’t tick and Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez don’t get much service. Almiron was absent from Atlanta’s transition play on several occasions, he drifted away from the ball and at times was nowhere to be seen.
Here, Almiron is on the right side of the field, yards away from Hector Villalba who is in position (out of shot). Almiron should be in-between Muyl and Rzatkowski offering an option for the dribbler, Gonzalez Perez, or for Perez’s short pass options, Nagbe and Gressel.
This became a theme as the game moved forward. Miguel Almiron was either not finding passing lanes or positioned himself far away from his back five and defensive midfielders.
At times, Almiron looked disinterested and didn’t even call for the ball when he was in open positions. Pictured above, Almiron had twenty or so yards of free space but made no attempt to look or call for the ball with Remedi looking for a pass.
Subsequently, Josef Martinez, MLS’ all-time single season goal scorer, was once again held in check. Martinez completed just ten passes, had no shots and was substituted off in the 76th minute when the Red Bulls went up 2-0.
What you can see in the picture above is four Red Bulls players around the dribbler. And that pressure made the day torturous for Remedi and Nagbe. Royer and Muyl tucked in and surrounded Atlanta’s double pivot while White, Kaku and Rzatkowski/Davis pressed.
The Red Bulls midfield and attack, player to player, put up monstrous defensive stats. Kaku’s efforts on the defensive end were especially remarkable, Kaku tracked back and made 3 tackles and 8 recoveries. Rzatkowski and Davis were immense as well, Rzatkowski had a team-high 9 recoveries while Davis had a team-high 5 tackles.
With all the focused pressure in the center of the field, Kemar Lawrence and Michael Murillo were often left isolated with Chris McCann and Julian Gressel. McCann did little and the Red Bulls focused much of their attention to stop Gressel from getting down the line. Kemar Lawrence repeatedly impeded Gressel from delivering any meaningful balls into the box. With 14 assists on the season mostly coming from wide areas, Gressel served in just one successful cross and often appeared frustrated.
The Red Bulls are now just one point back of Atlanta United with each team having 3 games to play. The momentum now switches in New York’s favor as the pressure builds over Atlanta United.
Photo by Matt Kremkau