Atlanta United has become particularly proficient in not just reducing the influence of an opponent’s best attacking player, but in taking them entirely out of the game.
In six of the past seven games, some of the league’s better attacking players haven’t been able to find a way over, around or through the red-and-black (or peach) wall that Atlanta United has developed in either the 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formations.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela: Five shots, just one on goal. L.A. Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Zero shots. Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti: One shot, not on goal. Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic: One, shot, not on goal. Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell: One shot, on goal. Orlando City’s Dom Dwyer: Three shots, just one on goal. None of those players scored. Atlanta United went 5-1-0 in those games. NYCFC’s David Villa is the exception, with one goal from four shots, two on goal, and one assist in 55 minutes in a 2-2 draw at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I think you look at games that we’ve had, with Zlatan, even with Dwyer in the last game, it’s about limiting their service, limiting their ability to score, making them do things they’re not comfortable doing,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “Everyone sticks to the game plan and follows it and that’s what’s worked.”
By the ends of the games against the Galaxy and Orlando City, Ibrahimovic and Dwyer were being forced to midfield or out wide just to receive the ball. That’s where Atlanta United’s Kevin Kratz said any team prefers the other team’s best attacker to be.
During the game, when either Ibrahimovic or Dwyer did receive the ball, it was often with their back to the goal and almost always with a defender in close proximity. That awareness comes from the work done studying film and during training.
Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe said that the team has done a very good job keeping its shape within either formation, which is why opponent’s attacking players rarely have time to receive the ball or space to move once it is received. Kratz said captain Michael Parkhurst’s communication with the other defenders and midfielders has been key to maintaining the team’s shape.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said part of the team’s attacking plan against Orlando City was to make sure that Dwyer and his teammates such as Sacha Kljestan and Justin Meram were marked even when the Five Stripes had the ball.
“We are in a good moment, the defense,” Atlanta United’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said. “We are working to keep that moment.”
Next comes Bradley Wright-Phillips and New York Red Bulls on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Wright-Phillips is among the most prolific scorers in MLS history. The 33-year-old Englishmen is having another fantastic season with six goals and five assists in nine appearances. With a combination of speed and nose for goal, he has 92 goals in 148 appearances dating to the 2013 season when he was signed after playing for Brentford, Charlton Athletic, Southampton and Manchester City in England.
“He’s the ultimate finisher,” Larentowicz said. “He’s a guy that lives on service, lives on playing on the back shoulder and getting in behind and finishing crosses.”
Producing the same results against Wright-Phillips as the team has had against other opponents will require the same work. Gonzalez Pirez said communication will be key among the defenders to make sure that someone is always aware of where Wright-Phillips is because he’s very good at winning the second ball and attacking.
“You limit the amount of time he can be served the ball in those dangerous places and limit his chances to score,” Larentowicz said.
How Atlanta United’s defense has done against an opponent’s top scorer and/or best offensive player this season,and the game’s result:
Houston, Alberth Elis, 6 shots, 3 on goal, 0 goals, 1 assist. Loss
D.C. United, Darren Mattocks, 4 shots, 1 on goal, 1 goal, 0 assists. Win
Vancouver, Kei Kamara, DNP. Win
Minnesota United, Abu Danladi, 0 shots, 0 assists. Win
LAFC, Carlos Vela, 5 shots, 1 on goal, 0 goals, 0 assists. Win
NYCFC, David Villa, 4 shots, 2 on goal, 1 goal, 1 assist in 55 minutes. Draw
L.A. Galaxy, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 0 shots, 0 assists. Win
Montreal, Ignacio Piatti, 1 shot, 0 on goal, 0 assists. Win
Chicago, Nemanja Nikolic, 1 shot, 0 on goal, 0 assists. Win
Sporting KC, Johnny Russell, 1 shot, 1 on goal, 0 goals, 0 assists. Loss
Orlando City, Dom Dwyer, 3 shots, 1 on goal, 0 goals, 0 assists. Win