Matchday 18 of the 2020 MLS season saw 10th placed Atlanta United travel to 12th placed Inter Miami. Whilst Atlanta have failed to hit the heights of recent seasons and Miami have struggled to get going in their first MLS season, both teams still have realistic hopes of making the expanded end of season playoffs.
This tactical analysis will provide analysis of the tactics of Inter Miami and Atlanta United. The focus of the analysis will be how Inter Miami attacked with a narrow front three and how Atlanta adapted to the threats Miami were posing.
Inter Miami head coach, Diego Alonso, opted to revert to his sides usual 4-3-3 formation instead of sticking with the 3-5-2 used at the weekend in their victory over Houston Dynamo. Miami’s front three consisted of ex-Estudiantes player Matías Pellegrini, Lewis Morgan, formerly of Celtic, and one-time Real Madrid star Gonzalo Higuaín.
Interim head coach Stephen Glass set his Atlanta United side up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with four changes to the side that lost to New York Red Bulls at the weekend. Centre forward Adam Jahn (#14), right-forward Manuel Castro (#15), defensive midfielder Remedi (#5), and centre-back Miles Robinson (#12) all returned to the starting line-up.
Miami’s front three
The above image shows the average positions of the Miami players when they touched the ball. It highlights how Miami’s front three (#7, #9 and #11) played high and very narrow. This allowed them to be close enough to combine well with each other and create counter-movements to disrupt Atlanta’s back four.
This section will provide typical scenarios of how Miami’s front players, through their positioning and dynamic movements, were able to create space for either themselves or an overlapping full-back to get in behind Atlanta’s backline.
The above image shows the Miami left centre-back (circled) having just received the ball from his central defensive partner. As the centre-back took a forward first touch, his left-forward made a movement across the Atlanta right-back and towards the ball.
This simple movement was enough to drag the Atlanta right-back, who followed the forward, out of position. This created space behind the right-back for the Miami left-back to run into. With the nearest Atlanta players distracted by the ball, the left-back was able to receive a ball unopposed in the wide-area in behind the Atlanta backline.
This image provides another example of how Miami’s front three created space in behind for their full-backs. Instead of movements dragging the Atlanta full-backs out of position, the positioning of the three forwards, the striker between Atlanta’s centre-backs and the wide forwards between the Atlanta centre backs and full-backs, caused Atlanta difficulty.
This positioning allowed the three Miami forwards to occupy the four Atlanta defenders, pinning the Atlanta full-backs. This created space in the wide areas for the advanced Miami full-backs to progress into and receive passes in behind the Atlanta backline.
It also gave Miami the option of playing more direct, longer balls into Higuaín, their centre-forward. With his aerial ability and Miami effectively creating a 3vs2 on Atlanta’s centre-backs, any direct ball looked threatening. This was especially useful from deeper positions when Atlanta had pressed high and cut off all short passing options.
This image shows the moments after Higuaín has dropped towards his midfield to receive the ball. Because of his high starting position, up against the centre back, he has drawn the centre back with him. This has created a big gap between the Atlanta right back and left-centre back that allows him to play a through ball between them.
The wide forwards’ narrow and high starting position means they can immediately attack the central space behind the Atlanta back four and run onto a central through ball. Had they been in more typical positions for a front three, i.e. spread out further and in wider positions, their runs would have had to be made down the sides of the Atalanta back four. These runs would have been far less threatening and allowed the defenders more time to recover.
Atlanta’s defensive block
In the second half, perhaps in response to both how well Miami moved the ball in midfield and the threat of their front three, Atlanta defended slightly deeper, more compact and were less inclined to press Miami in their own half. Whilst this allowed Miami more possession than in the first half, their xG remained the same.
As the above image shows, Atlanta allowed Miami to progress with the ball unopposed until they were close to entering their half of the pitch. Both the midfielders and forwards organised themselves in a “V” shape with their back four (just out of shot) about 10 yards from the deepest midfielders. This compact shape that formed a diagonal barrier was usually enough to discourage Miami from playing into central areas and forced them to play out wide.
This disrupted Miami’s flow to some extent, making it harder for their midfielders to connect passes, and helped to nullify a lot of the threat the Miami front three were posing in the first half. With Atlanta’s lines closer together, there was no room for the Miami front three to drop into.
The forwards, not being able to get the ball at their feet, made longer balls aimed over the top of the Atlanta backline more predictable. This allowed Atlanta’s backline to drop towards their own goal as soon as they sensed a long ball coming. Being able to drop off that second or two earlier made the long ball easier to defend and prevented an aerial battle with Higuaín.
The above image shows how compact Atlanta were when Miami had possession in their half. All 10 outfield players are behind the ball and well within the width of the box. This left Miami little option but to play into the wide areas.
On this occasion, Miami’s left centre-back decides to switch the ball to his left-forward, Lewis Morgan. Morgan has moved to a wider position than in the first half to find some space. With the ball being in their air for a substantial amount of time, Atlanta should be able to shift to that side of the pitch, crowd out the wide forward and regain possession.
The above image shows the moments after Miami’s left centre-back has switched the ball and Morgan is about to take his first touch. The Atlanta left-back has read the pass and reacted quick enough to put Morgan under immediate pressure.
However, the rest of his team has decided to remain in their block and defend the central areas of the pitch. This leaves the left-back isolated. Morgan beats the left-back one on one and delivers a cross which leads to Miami’s opening goal.
Whilst Atlanta’s block frustrated Miami to an extent, their inability to defend the ball in wide areas was ultimately what caused them to concede.
Both teams have similar, possession-based, styles of play which made this game an interesting tactical battle. On this occasion though, Miami were clearly the better team with superior possession and xG. They will be disappointed that they could not hold on to their 1-0 lead.
A draw did little to help either team in their bid to make the playoffs. They both have plenty of quality in their sides but will have to start picking up points quickly if they are to salvage anything from their disappointing seasons so far.