Atlanta United were able to contain the New York City FC attack in the first leg of their Eastern Conference semi-final. In large part, that was because of the decreased influence of Maxi Moralez. The same will have to happen in the second leg on Sunday.
They had just seen New York tear through the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round with a series of searing counter-attacks and fluent, attacking moves. They were not to fall into the same, ensnaring trap.
And Martino highlighted one man that his Atlanta players needed to stop from dictating the game if they were to hang onto the coattails of the NYCFC attack, and it was not David Villa. No, Maxi Moralez was the undoubted object of Martino’s attention.
More from MLS Multiplex
- Javier Milei Elected in Argentina: Potential Impacts on MLS and Signings of Argentine Players
- Orlando City and New York City FC in the Battle for Matías Arezo; Grêmio Enters Negotiations! Who Will Come Out on Top?
- USA, Honduras, Panama, and Canada Close in on a Spot in the 2024 Copa America
- De Gea Turns Down Al-Nassr’s Lucrative Offer: Speculation Points to Possible Reunion with Messi at Inter Miami
- Messi’s Magnetic Impact in the United States
In the first half, Moralez was man-marked throughout, largely be Eric Remedi. Moralez played centrally, as he does most of the time for NYCFC. But after the half, as Dome Torrent explained this week, a tactical switch was swiftly made:
"“It’s impossible to connect in between Yangel [Herrera], [Alex] Ring and other players and especially with Maxi [Moralez] because he’s [marked] man-to-man and he decide [sic] to play in the middle <…> He could play like a winger. That is the change we made in the second half.”"
As Torrent highlights, this change made a difference. Moralez created one chance in the first half. He created two in the second. He attempted four dribbles in the match, three of which came after the break from out wide. He completed only five open-play passes in the first 45 minutes. This number almost tripled in the second half.
The effect of Moralez increased when he moved wide, which is peculiar to say for a player is largely defined as a central creator and flourishes when he plays centrally. But that is to give credit to Martino and Atlanta. The 3-5-2 that was deployed, with three centre-halves and three central midfielders, clogged up the middle of the field and denied Moralez those pockets of space that he loves to manipulate.
As New York prepare to travel to Mercedes Benz Stadium in need of a turnaround, the way in which Martino sets up his Atlanta team to again try and combat the NYCFC attack will be fascinating. The pitch in Atlanta is bigger, obviously, and that extra yard of space could be the difference between Moralez slipping that crucial through pass into Villa and Remedi getting a foot in to prevent it.
New York will have to chase the game, if it comes to it, and Atlanta are in the envious position of being able to sit deep and play on the counter-attack, something that they can do terrifyingly well with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez leading the line.
But if Moralez can impact the second leg as he did in the second half of the first leg, his team is not out of this just yet. If Atlanta can disrupt his rhythm, however, it could be curtains.