On Thursday night, Atlanta United dismantled the Philadelphia Union. Their high energy and possession-based style were critical to that victory. Here’s why.
In the first half of Thursday night’s Eastern Conference semi-final between Atlanta United and the Philadelphia Union, it was clear why Atlanta looked like they had 20 players on the pitch. The Five Stripes nearly doubled up possession time in the first half, their players buzzing all around the pitch as they dominated play. And this would lay the foundation for a superb performance and victory.
It was the play of the Atlanta midfield that was instrumental in the first half. Their passing was crisp and sharp, they dictated the play and controlled the game without ever letting the Union near the ball. This allowed them to build attacks and tired out an already struggling Union who played 120 minutes just four days prior.
The first goal was the perfect illustration of this creative, combination football. Gonzalo Martinez and Darlington Nagbe were at the heart of it, the two combining in between the Union lines to eventually spring Julian Gressel clear, the German brilliantly chipping over the onrushing Andre Blake. It was a sign of things to come.
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In addition to this possession dominance, Atlanta united evolved their 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 diamond and then back again. Defending the changing styles wore Philadelphia down and contributed greatly to the Union losing energy as a team and giving up possession. By the 70th minute, Philadelphia was closing the possession gap with Atlanta, but they never pulled even. And it turned out to be a game determined by the team in possession.
Philadelphia could stay close in passing accuracy, 84%-85%, and shots, 12-12. But Atlanta’s possession gap, 53.3%-46.7%, kept wearing the Union down, even as Jim Curtin subbed in fresh legs.
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This would lead to the second goal. A Union attack ended when a loose pass arrived at the feet of Gressel. No one had the energy to press the ball. Josef Martinez darted in behind in the backline. One long, straight pass and a thumping left-footed finish later and Atlanta United were two goals to the good, the game all but over.
This was Martinez’s first postseason goal of the season. After notching 27 in the regular season, it was only a matter of time that he made his mark on the playoffs. And given the tired legs of the Union defense, his razor-sharp speed was just waiting for that crucial mistake. And boy did he take advantage.
Martinez and Gressel could factor greatly for Atlanta United this postseason. All they need do to is stay consistent with their established styles. The pair were the stars of the show on Thursday night. They will need to be so again if Atlanta dream of making to their second MLS Cup final in two years.
Atlanta United have to get through Toronto FC for the Eastern Conference final. And with a high-energy performance that dominates possession, just as they showed against Philadelphia Union, they will have more than just a shot.