By Tiotal Football (@tiotalfootball)
It’s obvious Atlanta United’s expansion year was a success. You’re probably tired of reading about that. Quickly though, and then I’ll get into the more descriptive soccer things and a look to next year. In 2017, ATLUTD finished 4th in a strong East and were inches from 2nd and a first round bye with plenty of weird bounces that could've gone either way. That’s a successful first year (before you even talk about the goals and the attendance and the merchandise sales). It’s the sort of expansion year that a team might just want to consolidate around and make incremental improvements to, heading into the next season (Ron Howard voice: they would not do this).
Key Team Features in 2017
Atlanta United’s most distinctive attribute was the high press. Atlanta disrupted its opponents’ own-half buildups at a rate bested only by the New York Red Bulls. Atlanta’s opponent’s in turn passed the ball in their own half less than any other team in MLS, frequently opting to bypass the press and go long with lower percentage passes and more direct play. Only Red Bulls were forced to defend a higher percentage of long balls relative to other passes.
This may have generally worked as a defensive tactic as Atlanta allowed the fifth fewest shots in MLS and the second fewest “big chances”, which is a subjective but useful metric (they had 39, behind SKC’s 38 against a league average 53).
When opponents did pass it around in their own half, they were often penalized by swarming pressure and a quick strike counter. As a reward for winning the ball further forward, Atlanta created the second most “big chances” in MLS (71, bested only by Toronto’s 73), and scored 70 goals (also 2nd to Toronto’s 79).
In possession, Atlanta were fairly committed to building from the back despite early expansion growing pains on a smaller playing surface at Bobby Dodd Stadium. They played the 5th most passes in their own half but ranked only 9th in own-half passes per giveaway. Basically, while Tata Martino wants to play the ball on the ground out of the back, this is not an easy thing to do in MLS, and it’s often punished. This isn't something Martino was willing to compromise on in the first year. Atlanta’s buildup numbers improved in the back half of the season on the larger playing surface at Mercedes Benz Stadium. But overall, the team looked most dangerous setting traps and countering in space.
Whether in a quick transition or in longer sustained possession, Atlanta enjoyed playing through balls in 2017. They attempted the second most in MLS (33, behind Columbus’ 39 vs a league average 22). Atlanta completed its through ball passes at a mediocre rate of 58% (league average is 62%), either a reflection of so-so passing, or perhaps attempting more bullish attempts than the average through ball. With Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba making frequent and repeated sprints behind the back line, it appeared as though the Atlanta creators are instructed to play the through ball first and ask questions later.
That said, by the numbers, Atlanta passed very well in the attacking phase. ASA’s xPass metric has them exceeding their expected pass completion rate by 3% in the final third, the highest overage of any MLS team, and their overall passing percentage in the final third was second highest in MLS at 72%. This may have been inflated by a few games where the team played up a man or two for long stretches.
Another key element of the team in 2017 was in goal. Brad Guzan is a good goalkeeper in MLS, which shouldn't be a surprise as the team used the top spot in the allocation order to acquire him. In 2017, only 32% of all “big chances” put on target were saved across all MLS. Guzan saved 55% of the big chances he faced, second only to SKC keeper Tim Melia’s rather insane 67%. ASA’s xG GK model shows a similar result, with Tim Melia robbing a goal every three games vs expectations and Guzan close behind, robbing a goal every 3.5 games. No one else is really close to these two in this metric. With only a half season under his belt the sample was halved, so it’s not certain that this type of pace is sustainable for the polar bear over a full season. Still, I could be convinced that if anyone can beat the averages consistently, a former Premier League and USMNT keeper might…err but Tim Howard did drop off in his first full season back in the states, albeit at an age five years older than Guzan.
Set piece defending is one of those things that all fanbases claim their team is bad at. Atlanta United were bad at it. MLS teams were able to convert corner kicks directly into shots 19% of the time on average in 2017, and when you include shots that were generated indirectly from corner kick moments, that number is 37% (interestingly, up from a three year avg of 32%). But against Atlanta, the initial ball in assisted a shot a league high 28% of the time, and 43% of the time (third worst in MLS) from that slightly broader perspective. Atlanta also blocked a league high 34% of shots from corners (league avg = 22%), and I imagine that had something to do with the team giving up only five corner goals on 7+ expected corner goals. I can’t think of a tactical or personnel reason why the high block percentages might persist in 2018, and the team has gotten shorter in the offseason, not taller. Watch out for this.
Statistical Outliers and Peculiarities in 2017
By all accounts, Atlanta shot the ball extremely well in 2017. They exceeded their expected goals by the second highest rate seen in ASA’s datasets going back to 2011 (69 goals on 48 xG, bested only by... again Toronto of ‘17). They had the highest open play shot conversion in MLS by a wide margin, and overall total shot and shots on target conversion percentages second only to champions Toronto. They also put shots on frame at a rate higher than any other team in MLS. The reasons behind these results are debatable and I won’t go much further on this one for now. Suffice it to say, it will be great drama to watch in 2018 from an analytics perspective. Namely, will Atlanta United regress back to their expected goals totals in 2018? If they do, were they lucky in 2017? If they continue to beat the models in 2018, then what should we take from it, if anything?
Rarely is an expansion season normal. But I don’t think it’s too bold to suggest Atlanta experienced some peculiar features that won’t recur in 2018. Namely, the team went from playing outdoors on grass on a smaller playing surface at Bobby Dodd Stadium to a deeper, wider turf field in the center of the Death Star of Mercedes Benz Stadium for the last stretch of the season. And perhaps more importantly, they played a lighter but more travel-intensive first half of the season followed by eight games in 24 days played almost entirely at home in the autumn season. The rolling xG chart shows a massive uptick in the trend once the team started playing in MBS. Lastly, no team avoids injuries completely, but injuries to designated players can make things murky. Josef Martinez scored 19 goals in 20 games which is a record-breaking pace, and probably not one we would expect is sustainable over a full 34 game season. As we pivot to looking forward to the 2018 season, all these factors make it difficult to predict the future. 2018 probably will not look like 2017. And that’s before we even consider some the important team changes.
Like I said, a reasonable person might try to consolidate on the inaugural season playoff birth and work around the edges to improve the team heading into 2018. Well, whether the result of outside forces or a focused strategy, Atlanta United have decidedly not done this.
Firstly, they have effectively swapped Yamil Asad for Ezequiel Barco on the left. Asad was a monster for Atlanta United in 2017, putting up 11 assists (on 5.6 xA) and 7 goals (on 4.5 xG). He completed four of eight through balls, and while defensive stats are tricky, his defensive work rate to press forward often as well as track back was exceedingly high. Asad led all wide midfielders in the following stats: tackle attempts, successful tackles, interceptions, and pass blocks, and he was second in clearances. He collected all of these defensive counting stats while Atlanta United led the league in possession – that is to say, if one were to possession-adjust these totals, they would only tower further over those of his peers. He also led wide midfielders in fouls drawn. Since his departure, it was revealed that the club offered him a contract in excess of $300K a year and repeatedly courted him throughout the offseason, but ultimately he did not accept the terms and his rights were traded to DC for $500K-$600K in allocation money over the next few seasons. “Replacing” him, although it appears the club was determined to roster both players, is Ezequiel Barco, an 18 year old phenom who broke the MLS transfer record and all that. Some say there is no ceiling for him. So far the hard evidence we have is that he’s been getting significant minutes in a leadership role on a good team and winning things with said team at such a young age. But I wouldn’t call him an analytics darling heading into the year. In limited preseason minutes, he’s shown great touch and a willingness to run and press, but the key question is if he and Greg Garza can recreate the symbiotic pairing that Asad and Garza had.
If you thought the turnover would stop at the attacking band, you were wrong. Also departing after a season is Carlos Carmona, the glue that held the central midfield together last year (sold to Colo Colo for a rumored $1.5M). Carmona did a bit of everything. He covered the field laterally to pick off opposing teams’ counter attacks (there were many), and he often initiated Atlanta’s high press, leading to turnovers and good opportunities (I recall him sabotaging several goal kicks). He also linked defense and attack, albeit quite conservatively. He is replaced by… well this is weird, but it’s either Darlington Nagbe, who’s arrived in Atlanta to much fanfare and a $1M-$1.6M fee, or it’s a player yet to be signed. I wrote a long stats-filled piece on the Nagbe signing here. By all accounts, Nagbe is going to be used in a central midfield role and not out wide, so while the timing of the transfers is a bit upside down, it makes sense to discuss him as a Carmona replacement, regardless of who else arrives from this point forward. He brings elite dribbling and passing ability (as discussed in that link above), and with that an ability to link defense and attack by breaking lines and eliminating defenders (this is the club’s hope at least). These are things Carmona did not do. The risk in my mind is that he won’t be able to replicate Carmona’s intuition for breaking up counters and leading the press. And if this is truly the tradeoff, was it worth it?
The last major change to the starting 11 is the Return to Hotspur of Anton Walkes, a versatile defender-type brought in on loan last year who ultimately won the starting right back spot over Tyrone Mears. He’s replaced by Franco Escobar of Newell’s, a similarly versatile defender who can play CB or RB. One imagines Martino is intimately familiar with this guy, and accordingly most see him as a low-risk upgrade to the position. I don’t have much further to add on this one, but here’s a little something from SoccerMetrics on his passing. As of writing this, he’s yet to suit up in preseason for the Five Stripes.
More likely than not, we’ll see the team shape that was most common last year: one pacey forward in Martinez, flanked by a creator on the left in Barco, a speedster on the right in Villalba, and the dynamic Almiron playing between the lines and leading the press centrally. The deepest midfielder will be Jeff Larentowicz, dropping back between the center backs in possession, and Nagbe should occupy the Carmona role, shuttling in midfield and connecting defense to attack. Of the two fullbacks, I’d expect Garza to spend more time joining in attack on the left as Barco cuts inside (this was the Garza-Asad model in 2017). This setup might look something like the image to the right.
Something else to look out for is the three man back line (3-4-3 perhaps) that Matino has in the playbook and has commented early in the preseason that they will include in training sessions (as of writing this, it’s appeared a couple times in the second halves of preseason games, though to little success). This would likely feature Leoando Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, and Escobar in a back three with Garza at left wing back and one of Julian Gressel, Sal Zizzo, or Villalba on the right (if Tito is not included in the front 3 which I would imagine is something like Barco-Martinez-Almiron). Many Atlanta fans are eager to see Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin break through and see significant playing time in 2018 after shining for USMNT youth teams in 2017, but we’ll see. It’s also the inaugural year of Atlanta United 2, playing in Gwinnett.
It's likely that the team will sign another holding midfielder to upgrade or spell Larentowicz and replace Carmona, though it’s unclear if this will happen in the early transfer window or later in the summer.
We have to start in a weird place, here. There’s a more than remote possibility (some say it is probable) that Almiron is sold in the summer window with the club reportedly having put a deposit down on another young South American Designated Player in Lucas Rodriguez as replacement. This sort of scenario makes it virtually impossible to predict how 2018 will go. But even if we assume Almiron stays for the full season, the major changes to the team outlined above widen the range of outcomes for 2018. I wrote about it some at DirtySouthSoccer, but Atlanta seem to have decided they’re willing to gamble. In my estimation, they are accepting the risk of missing the playoffs in a strong and improving East (a good measuring stick for the “floor” might be a reloaded Orlando City) in exchange for bumping up the high end of the range all the way to “MLS Cup contender,” should Barco and Nagbe shine.
- Almiron’s potential transfer, the lockerroom impact, and a required rampup period for any replacement
- Replacing Asad’s production (both in terms of chance creation and also defensively) with Barco and the burden of expectations on an 18 year old phenom.
- The middle of the park. Carmona + Larentowicz was good. Atlanta is shooting for a more aggressive Nagbe + Larentowicz. Was ‘Nagbe for Carmona’ the correct swap for a team already full of attacking talent? A gamble for sure.
- High Press strategy requires understanding and chemistry. We know the team can put this together in a short amount of time – see 2017 – but less turnover to the side that put this into practice last year would've consolidated this advantage heading into 2018. Instead there will be some relearning and reacclimatization to new faces.
- While the team showcased an explosive attack in 2017, conversion rates at both ends were favorable. If these were to regress without offsetting improvements in shot volumes, you’re looking at maybe a playoff team, but not a conference leader.
Projection: If I can stick with a range, I’m saying anywhere between 2nd and 7th in the East (a purposefully wider range than what might have been). I think 3rd or 4th place is likely, and I’m going with 4th. There’s not a team in MLS that Atlanta doesn’t have the ability to defeat in 2018, but there’s a lot going on, and more uncertainty that many had expected.