If you’re not familiar with the original “What’s Wrong with Freddie Freeman” meme that this article’s title is based on, here’s a short primer. Hopefully, this piece will have the same effect as its predecessor…
Let’s be clear: we all knew that in its inaugural season, Atlanta United was going to have some struggles, as common with most MLS expansion teams. Big-money signings, a fast-paced style of play, and a new stadium on the way sounded nice on paper, but no one knew how the team would perform on the field and an early-season slump while the team meshed together was not out of the question.
But then the team did this in March.
In its first four matches, the Five Stripes posted a record of 2-1-1 with a +8 goal differential, and their only loss came at the hands of New York Red Bulls, who profited from a lucky own goal near the end of a match clearly dominated by Atlanta’s fast attack.
But in its last five matches, Atlanta has struggled to score goals and win games. Since playing in Seattle on March 31st, Atlanta has posted a 1-3-1 record with a -4 goal differential and dropped to 7th in the Eastern Conference. Clearly, something has changed.
Let’s take a look at some advanced stats and gameplay to figure out what has Atlanta flustered at the end of the first quarter of the MLS season.
There are two perceived points of failure I want to focus on: forward and central defense play.
Assuming Josef Martinez is healthy, Martino has three options at center forward: Martinez, 32-year-old T&T international Kenwyne Jones, and 18-year-old USYNT regular Brandon Vazquez. Let’s compare the three.
|Kenwyne Jones||Josef Martinez||Brandon Vazquez|
|Preferred Positions||ST||ST||ST, CAM|
|Expected Points Generated||0.47||1.18||1.78|
|Key Passes per 96||0.71||0.35||2.53|
|Average WhoScored Rating||6.6||8.36||6.34|
On the stat-sheet, it looks like Vazquez has the advantage over Jones as Martinez’s replacement, but keep in mind that Vazquez has only played 26 total minutes (albeit, a rather successful 26 minutes) as a sub while Jones has started four games and come off the bench in four more. Since we can not rely on numbers to give one or the other an edge, let’s look at performance.
Let’s take a look at the goals Jones has scored…
…and compare them to some of Vazquez’s work:
See the similarities? Both have two big strengths: heading and goal poaching.
Now, let’s compare these two to Martinez:
At only 5’7”, Martinez is shorter than both Jones (6’2”) and Vazquez (6’3”), so he is not the same threat in the air that both of his counterparts are. But what he lacks in height he makes up for with his speed. The majority of Jones and Vazquez’s goals are off set-pieces or from standing positions in the box, while Martinez makes his most dangerous plays on his feet streaking towards the opposing goal and creating his own chances. That kind of dynamic forward play is what the Five Stripes have been missing over the five weeks.
But compounding that lack of dynamic play is that Martino’s offensive philosophy preaches speedy counterattacking soccer, something that Martinez’s speed complemented well. Both Jones and Vazquez have noses for goal and great positioning in the box, but to be most effective, they need consistent build-up play and service from the Atlanta midfield. With Martinez on the field, Miguel Almirón need only slot one pass through an opposing defense’s midfield to Martinez for him to put in the back of the net. Without Martinez, Almirón and his midfield have had to do a lot more ball-control and possession work to get in the right position in the attacking third to make a final pass for Jones/Vazquez. While Vazquez is more of a middle ground between Jones and Martinez and can help out with the necessary build-up play, the fact remains that starting Jones or Vazquez creates more work for the midfield, which leads more opportunities to lose the ball and more turnovers from those opportunities, which is exactly what has been killing Atlanta in the middle third of the field.
Neither Jones nor Vazquez gives Atlanta a particularly significant advantage on the field; both players just can’t replicate the same dynamic chance creation that Martinez brings to the table. In starting Jones over Vazquez the past few weeks, Martino seems to be weighing experience over youth. Instead of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by starting a poacher in Martinez’s absence, Martino should consider returning to a 4-3-3, similar to what he did in Seattle:
That lineup in Seattle was still able to play counterattacking soccer and push the Sounders’ defense, even without Martinez on the field. At the end of the day, Martino needs to play his best and most effective XI week-in and week-out, and neither Jones nor Vazquez fit into that plan.
Central Defense Exposed
Central defense has also been a sore spot for Atlanta throughout the season. Leandro González Pirez has earned high praise for his play throughout the last few weeks, and captain Michael Parkhurst brings a decade’s worth of MLS experience to the backline, but their partnership hasn’t been the most productive. Below are a few instances from last week’s match vs NYCFC where opposing players were able to cut right through it towards goal:
Time and time again, opposing offenses beat Parkhurst to the inside and burn him, or Pirez leaves too much space for an opposing player, allowing him to get in position to burn Parkhurst or for a shot on goal.
If those videos doesn’t convince you that Atlanta’s central defending is porous, take a look at the following breakdown of shots taken against Atlanta:
An overwhelming majority of opponents’ shots are taken from the center of the field and from within the penalty box, where central defense is supposedly most stalwart.
Unfortunately, there’s not much tinkering Tata Martino can do on this end. Taking the armband away from Parkhurst for poor play may send a message to the rest of the team to step up their game, but it’s a move that would reek of internal dysfunction. Besides, his teammates have his back. On the flip-side, Pirez has individually been one of the best centerbacks in the league thus far, covering for Kann when he gets beat and pushing up into the midfield to start counterattacks, so Martino can’t really bench him at this point. Could starting U-20 USYNT regular Miles Robinson instead of Parkhurst help shore up the defense, or does the Pirez-Parkhurst partnership (try saying that three times fast) just need more time to develop? In what could be the best of both those worlds, Martino should take a good look at bringing Robinson into the gameday 18 and subbing in him in for an aging Parkhurst to give the defense a spark late in games, similar to how Vancouver has been bringing in 16-year-old Canadian wunderkind Alphonso Davies to supplement their attack.
Atlanta faces a tough slate of upcoming matches against a cadre of playoff contenders: 5/14 @ Portland, 5/20 vs Houston, 5/28 vs NYCFC, 6/3 @ Vancouver, and 6/10 @ Chicago. The Five Stripes are only 7th in the East and aren’t far from playoff contention in their inaugural season, but they need to mesh and grow together if they are to make it to a November playoff game. This team is capable of playing attractive and exciting soccer week-in and week-out, but Martino needs to work out the kinks and help the squad grind through its first inaugural season slump.