Columbus Crew against Atlanta United in MAPFRE Stadium was one of the interesting match-ups happening in the last fixture of the regular season in MLS. In this fixture, the Crew really needed this win if they want to finish among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta also needed to grab the important win in this match but for a different reason. They were one point behind the final playoff spot in the league.
However, this game brought a cruel end to Atlanta side as they lost the game by 2-1. Columbus’ star players, Lucas Zelarayán and Gyasi Zardes scored to take full three points for Columbus. Atlanta’s Marcelino Moreno pulled back one goal for the Five Stripes after converting a penalty, but that was not enough for them to take Atlanta into the playoff spot.
This tactical analysis piece will analyse the prominent aspects from both sides’ tactics in this match. This analysis will also focus on the underlying issues that cost Atlanta United a victory in this match.
Before we delve into the analysis, we will look at both teams’ formations and starting line-ups in this game.
Caleb Porter deployed his Columbus side with a 4-4-2 formation, with Eloy Room chosen as the goalkeeper. Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams were the centre-back pair, flanked by Harrison Afful on the right and Milton Valenzuela on the left. Darlington Nagbe and Artur both played as the centre-midfielder duo, with Derrick Etienne and Pedro Santos played on the right and left flanks respectively. This time, Gyasi Zardes was partnered up with Lucas Zelarayán at the front as the team’s centre-forwards.
As for Atlanta United, the manager Stephen Glass played a 4-4-1-1 formation in this match. Former EPL goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, started between the sticks, while the back four consisted of Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson, Fernando Meza and George Bello. A former Rangers loanee, Emerson Hyndman formed a double-pivot with Jeff Larentowicz at the base of the midfield, with Marcelino Moreno played in front of them. Jürgen Damm and Ezequiel Barco started at both flanks, with Jon Gallagher completed the line-up as a lone centre-forward for the visitor.
Columbus’ tactics during in possession
With Zelarayán, Zardes, and Nagbe played together once again, Porter’s Columbus side looked better than their performances in the first half of the season, especially when they were in possession. They had attempted a total of nine shots in the opponent’s half, with four shots on target. They produced an xG (expected goals) of 1.49 for the whole match, albeit slightly lower than Glass’ side (2.49). They had attempted a total passes of 349, with an accuracy of 88%. They had tried 104 total forward passes, with 32 passes reaching into the final third. They also produced seven key passes throughout the match, more than the opposition (6).
Their remarkable stats showed that they were a better team in the game as they created more quality chances, although their possession was much lower than Atlanta with 48%. Porter’s tactics proved to be favourable in this match due to their flexible structure and intelligent positional play.
First, we look at Columbus’ structure when they held the possession. Although Porter started his team in 4-4-2 formation, most of the times it changed into 2-4-3-1 or 3-3-4 when they held the possession. Their structure was flexible and easy to adapt accordingly to the opposition’s gameplan.
The above analysis showed Columbus’ structure when they built their attacking from the back. Their tactics involved the full-backs and wingers’ position in the structure. Both Columbus’ full-backs moved upwards to provide width for the team build-up. Since the full-backs pushed to the wide space, the opposition’s structure was stretched out to the wide. This opened the opportunity for Columbus to overload the centre of the pitch, so their wingers tucked inside into the middle space.
Next, Columbus’ build-up tactics also involved the role of the double-pivot at the base of their midfield. Nagbe is a great ball carrier as he can hold the ball better than Artur due to his body size and strength. Hence, he was tasked to bring the ball through the middle channel and control the centre of the pitch. In the meantime, Artur was tasked to drop in between the centre-backs, so both centre-backs can split wide and support the full-backs when they were in possession.
The most crucial piece for Porter’s tactics to be successful was Zelarayán’s role in the build-up. He started this match as the centre-forward, but most of the times he dropped deeper to become a roaming playmaker behind Zardes. He has pace and brilliant off-the-ball movement in his skillset, so his role in the midfield position was very crucial in creating dangerous opportunity. The example can be seen in the below image.
In the above analysis, we see Columbus’ actions in finding the opportunity to create a goalscoring chance in the final third. Both of the wingers and Zardes were already being marked by the opposition defences. Zelarayán used this opportunity to exploit a large gap between Atlanta’s defenders. If Nagbe was quick enough to see Zelarayán’s movement into the box, this scenario could escalate into a clear-cut chance given the Argentine skills in the penalty box. However, the Atlanta player was quicker than Nagbe as he was being pressed by the defender and passed the ball back to Artur.
Atlanta’s strategies in attacking through the right flank
Glass’ Atlanta side produced much more quality chances than the home side as the statistic showed they had 2.49 xG compared to Columbus’ 1.49. Yet, the interesting fact about this game was the Five Stripes mostly created high-quality chances on the right flank. The graphs below illustrated the danger level of Atlanta’s attacking and their crossing position.
From the graphs, we can observe that most of the chances came from the middle channel and the right flank. Glass’ men had attempted 12 attacks by utilising the middle channel and 29 attacks coming from the right flank. However, they did not find success on the left flank, with only six attacks coming from that side.
The crossing stats also prove that Atlanta found more success by crossing from the right flank. They had attempted a total of 20 crosses from both sides, and nine crosses accurately reached their intended targets. They had attempted only one cross from the left side, but they put 16 crosses from the right side, with 8 crosses reached the targets.
Based on the aforementioned statistics, we know that Atlanta was more threatening at the right side as they created 1.20 xG from that side. Next, we need to analyse how they achieved those numbers at the right flank by looking at the match footage below.
The most crucial piece in the United’s attacking through the right flank was the positioning of Damm and Escobar. The right-winger and the right full-back had a great understanding from each other as they looked to cover each other in the match. Notice that Damm positioned himself near to the touchline. Usually, most of the clubs applied modern tactics where wingers always cut inside to get into a good position in the box. The right-back, Escobar placed himself in the half-space and acted as an underlapping full-back, which is also quite rare in modern football.
Both players had important roles during the build-up phase, especially Escobar. As we can see from the image above, Escobar just received the ball from Hyndman in the middle third. Columbus applied an aggressive pressing method towards the ball carrier, so Escobar used this tactic to his own good. Notice that Damm’s marker already left Damm to press Escobar. Given the space at the right side, Damm can exploit that area with enough time when he received the ball from his teammate.
As Damm already got free from his marker, Escobar chipped the ball to release himself from the pressing and passed it to Hyndman. Then, Hyndman passed it to Damm, who already made a run at the wider space. He made his run to the corner touchline before he could cross to his teammates in the box. The reason he made his run at the sides of the penalty box was to create space for Escobar to place himself in the penalty box. This example can be seen in the image below.
Escobar ran behind his marker and arrived inside the penalty box to overload the penalty box. Damm got past his marker before he crossed the ball into the box. This attacking tactic ended with the opposition blocked the cross and went out for a corner kick. This tactic proved beneficial for Atlanta United as Damm attempted 11 crosses with 36% accuracy, the highest in this match.
Underlying issues in Atlanta United
Throughout the match, both teams showed a great display to get a victory in this match. However, there were a few issues in Atlanta’s gameplan as Columbus capitalised these issues splendidly.
As mentioned in the previous section, Atlanta United mostly utilised the right flank as their hub in creating dangerous chances in the penalty box. They tried to attack at the left flank but with no greater effect. This problem happened because of lack of understanding between the left-back Bello and the left-winger Barco. One of the examples can be seen in the match footage below.
The tactics for the left flank actually was the same as the tactics at the right flank. Bello acted as the underlapping full-back, but he rarely went forward whenever Atlanta tried to penetrate at the left flank. Meanwhile, Barco was hard to be seen as he was supposed to position himself in the right place.
In the above analysis, Bello made a run after receiving a pass from Barco. Barco should make a run to support Bello, but he stayed deep. Bello’s run ended with Atlanta losing the ball in the half-space after being pressured by four Columbus players. Combining the lack of cohesion with Columbus’ impressive 4-4-2 defensive block, Atlanta had a hard time penetrating the block through the left flank.
The lack of support from midfielders was also one of the underlying issues that Glass needed to improve. This issue happened a few times when Atlanta wingers played the ball in the wider spaces. Their centre-forward was not getting enough support from the midfielders inside the penalty box. The lack of support can be seen more clearly when the centre-forward Gallagher was delivered the cross.
In the above analysis, we can see that Gallagher and Moreno were in the 18-yard box. They were heavily outnumbered in the box as they need to duel with five Columbus defenders. Gallagher failed in attempting to cross to the Moreno as Columbus’ right-back blocked the cross. Their scoring chance would greatly increase if other midfielders or forwards arrived quickly in the box and supported both players in terms of numerical superiority and aerial duels in the box.
Another issue also happened during the defensive transition. This issue had cost them the match as they got countered by numerous times.
As mentioned before, Escobar and Bello went forwards as the underlapping full-back to support the wingers. However, when Atlanta lost the ball in the final third, their defensive line only covered by three defensive players.
The image above was taken before Zardes scored the second goal of the match. After winning the ball inside his own penalty box, Artur realised Zardes had occupied the space that being left by Atlanta’s right-back. Glass’ tactics had been backfired to the team as the space left by his full-back was vulnerable to any counter-attack from the opposition, and Zardes did well to capitalise it.
To conclude this analysis, both teams had a few great opportunities and high-quality chances in this game. Both teams had played very well in terms of their positional play and creating chances from the flanks. However, certain problems in Atlanta’s tactics had prevented them from winning the full three points and getting the final playoffs spot. Glass and his team needed to go back to the tactical board and polish their strategies for upcoming MLS 2021 season.
With the victory, Columbus collected 41 points from 23 games and finished third by having the tiebreaker over Orlando City in wins per game. With playoffs spot already confirmed before this game, they will look forward into hosting their first round of the MLS Cup playoffs against New York Red Bulls later this month. On the other hand, Atlanta still have another match to prepare for before the new season starts in March next year. They have to play against Club América in CONCACAF’s quarter-final this December.