Dispossession With Purpose
By not having the ball, NYCFC had control over Atlanta United
“Possession without purpose” is a phrase over-frequented in the soccer ether but Atlanta United’s performance in a 2-0 loss to New York City Football Club actually exemplifies the concept accurately. For a team that really likes having the ball, Atlanta are quite poor at converting their league-best 57.4% possession into meaningful progressions into the final third, much less quality chances. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda expressed a desire to build through the middle against NYCFC nevertheless, emphasizing playing out of tight midfield pressure in preparation for the game. Doing so simplified the calculus for Ronny Deila, allowing him to focus on stifling a team already 3rd-worst in MLS in progressive passes per 90 and dead last in progressive passes per pass. Out-possessing Atlanta without the connective tissue that is the injured Keaton Parks and Anton Tinnerholm would have been a tall task and Deila did well to instead roll out the red carpet for the visitors to fall over themselves.
Pineda stayed true to his word as the game kicked off by bolstering the midfield with a switch to a 4-2-3-1 after Atlanta started 18 consecutive matches with a three-man backline, a stretch that encompasses his entire tenure as the head coach. Executing Pineda’s vision was heavily dependent on the returning Santiago Sosa, Atlanta’s designated player and most progressive midfielder. Sosa’s reintroduction into the starting lineup paired nicely with the target Ronny Deila placed on his back, who countered with a familiar 4-2-3-1 of his own that was very aware of how important the Argentine midfielder was to Atlanta fulfilling its attacking ambition. For much of his 62 minutes on the field, Sosa was comfortably situated either in Taty or Maxi’s cover shadow or closed down by an advancing Alfredo Morales or James Sands.
NYCFC’s tight defensive shape clogged the middle and prevented Atlanta from making Sosa the focal point Pineda needed him to be. Playing narrow then invited transitions out wide through fullbacks George Bello and Brooks Lennon who unsurprisingly struggled to take advantage given they’re two of the six most negative passers in MLS according to American Soccer Analysis’ goals added (g+) metric. Activating a high press regularly unsettled the Atlanta backline and while Deila fluctuated its aggression, the 63 attacking third pressures were the 2nd-most NYCFC have had all season and generated many of their most dangerous offensive moments.
At 53.5% average possession this campaign, the Pigeons like to possess only slightly less than Atlanta. But why try and hold the ball when the opposition is apt to give it to you in high leverage areas anyway? The comfort NYCFC felt in destabilizing Atlanta buildups informed their offensive approach, which focused on field position at the sacrifice of possession. This directness resulted in chaotic stretches, most notably in the first 30 minutes of the game when neither team controlled the match. But getting the ball upfield to the front four, who maintained nearly half (48%) of NYCFC’s possession on their own, provided quick opportunities to attack width in transition. There was more than enough space to do so with Atlanta fullbacks routinely pushed high and out of position to compensate for their deficiencies in the buildup.
After the opening half hour, NYCFC’s direct nature and counter-press gained control despite possessing at their second-lowest clip of the season of 42%. Yet even as the field tilted more towards Brad Guzan, the home team had a difficult time creating chances of their own, generating only 0.46 xG from open play. Their best stretch came in the first 20 minutes of the second half when Tayvon Gray was encouraged to step into the attack after spending the first half with a restraining bolt securely fastened to his back.
His two first half touches in Atlanta territory grew to 11 in the second 45’, picking his spots to push forward well and contributing on both sequences that led to the corner goals from Taty Castellanos and Alex Callens. While relying on dead ball opportunities may not be a sustainable offensive plan for most, The Outfield’s Chris Campbell outlined how Rob Vartughian has made it one for the Pigeons after finishing with the 3rd most shot-creating actions from dead balls in MLS. Atlanta’s defense deserves their fair share of blame but Deila’s set piece guru continued to get his attackers into space, particularly on the well-designed play for the second goal.
A two-goal lead early in the second half only reinforced Deila’s original gameplan and inhibited Pineda’s. Dreams of building through the middle devolved into Atlanta’s inherent nature to play hero-ball via Ezequiel Barco or Marcelino Moreno. Their individual skill wasn’t enough to access dangerous areas in NYCFC’s half and Josef Martinez and Julian Araujo’s anonymity subsequently grew. Sosa’s substitution in the 62’ felt symbolic in that Pineda admitted to himself it was time to give up on delusions of buildup grandeur. It was even more appropriate that it was the same minute the Yankee Stadium crowd began Ole’ing Atlanta because the result already seemed so secure.
Even though Sean Johnson was forced to make a few saves in the second half, the 0.47 xG NYCFC conceded reflects how easily stifled the Five Stripes’ attack was at every level. Ronny Deila capping the night with a Tony Rocha victory cigar just goes to show just how comfortable a win this really was. That isn’t to say NYCFC doesn’t have room to improve on this performance, Deila will certainly want to create more in open play in the next round. But even if NYCFC were far from their best, they were still far better than the opposition.
Whether that remains the case in the Conference Semifinal becomes the question as Ronny Deila and Co. turn their attention to a matchup versus Supporter’s Shield-winning New England. Neither xGD (8th) or g+ (9th) indicate that the Revolution are the all-time great team their MLS record 73 points insists. Nevertheless, NYCFC will have to be at their best to come out on top against a team very used to winning close games. Bruce Arena leads a team boasting an impressive home record powered by a +9.54 open play xG differential at Gillette Stadium, which is 3rd in the league.
Don’t be surprised if Deila is once again happy to play without the ball and if Bruce Arena indulges him given New England’s 54.35% possession at home. Even if conceding possession, the underlying metrics suggest the Revs are a good matchup for the Pigeons. NYCFC are 1st in the league at limiting g+ allowed to attacking mids and strikers, making them well set up to contain Adam Buksa (0.18 g+ per 96) and Carles Gil (0.14 g+ per 96), the top two MLS attackers in non-interrupting g+. Simultaneously, New England allows the 3rd-most g+ to strikers and NYCFC happen to have the best damn one there is out there in Taty Castellanos.
But the Golden Boot winner will have to confront Matt Turner, who has already stood on his head against them once before this season. Turner’s ability to be the great equalizer in goal is one of a handful of reasons why NYCFC still enter this Conference Semifinal as clear road underdogs despite the promising statistics. Maintain hope though; they’re more than capable of advancing if they come correct.❧
Image: Leslie Thornton, Begin Again, Again