There are so many storylines surrounding this potential series of the ages between two of MLS’ juggernauts. The New York Red Bulls have never lost to Atlanta United in their brief two year existence, and the two wins this year further adds to their advantage. Yet, it’s unlikely this series goes the same way the two regular season fixtures went.
Armas vs Martino: Who will get the tactics right?
Atlanta United took two thumping’s via the Red Bulls and a change in game plan would seem prudent. For the Red Bulls, it is a matter of how hard will they press, when will they absorb pressure? What in-game decisions will Chris Armas have to make?
In their first matchup of the year in May, Atlanta United lined up in a 3-5-2, like they did in late September. Much of the core personnel was the same in both games too. Eric Remedi and Tito Villalba featured, while Ezequiel Barco, Chris McCann and Miles Robinson sat in the second match up. In both games though, Atlanta United played the way they always want to. Simply put, pass out of the back, release Miguel Almiron and get it wide for service to Martinez. At Mercedes-Benz they were successful, but couldn’t find the end-product. At Red Bull Arena, they were dreadful in every facet of the match.
Looking at New York Red Bulls’ 3-1 win
At Mercedes-Benz Stadium much of the early going was played on Atlanta’s terms and the Red Bulls were fortunate to not fall behind 2-0 in the first half. A Josef Martinez goal following an Ezequiel Barco finish in the 26th minute, could have changed the game until VAR reversed the call.
The Red Bulls’ press in Atlanta was not nearly as ambitious as it was at Red Bull Arena four months later. Tyler Adams’ positioning was much deeper at Atlanta and on several occasions the Red Bulls’ double pivot were split. Part of the reason for that, was the tame press allowed Darlington Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz time on the ball to turn and transition into attack. It also allowed them space to flare out wide so Michael Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez could play passes through the midfield into the front three.
Atlanta were successful in catching the Red Bulls committing numbers and quickly found outlets in Almiron, Barco or Martinez as seen above. If the Red Bulls do not press as high as they did in May, or allow Atlanta to bunker, the counter attack will be on for their opponents. Atlanta also utilized the long ball well with 76 to the Red Bulls’ 43 in game one, surprisingly losing to the Red Bulls in short passing and possession.
They lost the game in the end as the Red Bulls settled in and created waves of chances especially from wide areas. Even at home, Atlanta United lost the physical battle, the Red Bulls won tackles 20-11 and duels 65-56.
Sunday will not be a repeat of RBNY’s 2-0 win
Despite winning the first game handedly, Chris Armas made several adjustments to avoid the same mistakes. The Red Bulls’ press at home was ferocious, at times looking like 2-4-4 or a 3-3-3-1. Even without the work-horse of Tyler Adams, the Red Bulls put Remedi and Nagbe under a tremendous amount of pressure. Brian White filled in admirably with Muyl and Royer. The three were able to successfully funnel balls into the middle of the field for Davis and Rzatkowski to eat up.
At Red Bull Arena, Atlanta were far less succesful with the long ball and instead attempted to play the ball short. Passes found their way out wide eventually but Chris McCann and Julian Gressel were futile in creating any meaningful breaks.
For Atlanta to be successful, at least against the Red Bulls, they need to find ways to utilize high percentage long balls. Without the ball, they need to invite pressure and break quick. They also need to get Josef Martinez more involved because Almiron cannot be the only escape valve against the Red Bulls. There are times when Almiron will need to move out wide, and differentiating who is checking to the ball could help free up space for both players.
Armas v Martino
This series will be a joy to watch mostly to see what the two coaches have up their sleeves. Will Tata Martino once again stick to his guns and play their style despite it’s impotence vs. the Red Bulls? Or will Atlanta look to play long and win duels in the midfield? The latter has yielded results for Atlanta after their end of season collapse. Over two legs against New York City FC, Atlanta passed far less than NYCFC and won a majority of the duels in midfield.
On the other side, while an extremely high press bore it’s fruits in their last meeting, will Chris Armas orchestrate a similar plan on Sunday? Atlanta will expect an early surge, yet it’s well worth the risk on the road for the Red Bulls. Grabbing control of the game with an early away goal could foster further success, but knowing when it’s time to draw back the line of the press will be important as well.
In conclusion, get your popcorn ready for this one as it promises to be one of the most entertaining games of the year.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography