“We need to be a little bit more dynamic. I think right now, we’re just a little too easy to play against. We need more runs in behind, we need more shooting from distance. We just need to know the offense to click a little bit better.”
That was captain Michael Parkhurst’s assessment of Atlanta United’s attacking performance in a 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake Friday night, per a quote sheet provided by the club. After winning five consecutive matches, Atlanta now has dropped two in a row, and going forward, the Five Stripes have ground to a halt.
Parkhurst succinctly summed up Atlanta’s offensive woes. Against RSL, Frank de Boer’s team managed just three shots on target. It struggled to build opportunities from possession, and it hardly threatened in transition. One moment of brilliance led to an equalizing goal and gave Atlanta the opportunity to get out of town with a point.
In the 78th minute, substitutes Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and Franco Escobar linked up on the right flank. With Escobar bursting forward, Pity Martínez played a perfectly waited and perfectly placed pass into his compatriot’s stride. Escobar’s deft touch took him through Salt Lake’s back four, and the fullback squared a low ball across the penalty area. Josef Martínez, looking like his old self, crashed the goal, surging across centerback Justen Glad and redirecting the pass past goalkeeper Nick Rimando from seven yards.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) May 25, 2019
It appeared the goal was enough for a road result, but Jefferson Savarino’s strike in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time broke Atlanta’s heart.
Fatigue a factor
The Five Stripes finished a three-game road trip with their sixth contest in 20 days Friday. After a training session on Wednesday, which came following two days off, winger Julian Gressel admitted he would be “lying if I said I felt great.” Gressel looked exhausted against RSL, and so did most of his teammates.
Darlington Nagbe started the game as an attacking midfielder, and Dion Pereira made his first start on the left wing. Without the ball, Atlanta sits in a 4-4-1-1 formation. With Nagbe playing higher up the field near Josef Martínez, his best attribute — an ability to collect, keep and advance the ball — was wasted. Pereira spent more time positioned deeper, limiting his opportunities to attack defenders one-v-one.
There are times to be critical of the tactics, but what was de Boer supposed to do? Ezequiel Barco is off in Poland for the Under-20 World Cup. Pity Martínez needed a rest and started on the bench. Andrew Carleton still is working to earn his manager’s trust. Nagbe’s positioning made it difficult for Atlanta to keep possession, which in turn made it difficult for Pereira to get on the ball in places where he could be most effective. But de Boer did not have another option at the 10. It was no surprise that the Five Stripes looked better when Pity Martínez came on and Nagbe moved back in midfield.
“I thought that he did his job defensively,” Parkhurst said of Pereira’s full debut. “As a whole, the team didn’t create too much tonight. So I don’t think that he performed poorly.”
Parkhurst was right. Atlanta needs to do more in attack: better passes, better runs off the ball. As long as the team is playing with such fatigue, great improvement cannot expected. The Five Stripes host Minnesota United this Wednesday and the Chicago Fire on Saturday. After that, there will be time to rest on a three-and-a-half-week international break.
And then Atlanta will play eight games in a month — in addition to at least one U.S. Open Cup match — culminating with a trip to face Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium.
Death by golazos
Despite the struggles, the Five Stripes will feel a little hard done by the result. Defensively, Atlanta did not allow Salt Lake to get dangerous looks in the penalty area. RSL’s opener and its 94th-minute dagger both were quality strikes from distance.
“We tried to press but we were too late so then you have to wait to press,” de Boer said of Sebastián Saucedo’s 36th-minute goal from 20 yards. “We still went to go pressing and you see what’s happening: they make a switch to the other side and you get those quality players in a one-against-one action. Maybe because Saucedo scored against Toronto exactly the same, we have to anticipate it better. You could say it’s quality, but we have to do better in those situations.”
On 25-yard Savarino’s winner, de Boer instructed his team to foul before a shot could be taken, but the manager’s shouts were not heard.
“I had shouted ‘make a foul, make a foul’ because they were trying to escape and we have to recognize that in that moment,” de Boer said. “We still didn’t do that and they just kept on going. Every time it’s like a domino, it just drops, it goes, and every time we are too late. Of course, you can say it’s a good goal, but it cannot happen. We have to make the foul much easier on their half and we then we can settle back behind the ball, then it’s no problem.”
“I couldn’t hear anything,” Parkhurst said. “I figure it’s possible. I have to go back and look to see if we had a chance to foul. If you foul Savarino right there, it’s it’s kind of a dangerous spot as well. Maybe prior to that we had a chance.”
— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) May 25, 2019
For all the discussion of Atlanta’s lack of quality in attack, advanced states gave an edge to the Five Stripes. De Boer’s team finished with an expected-goals rating of 0.9. That is not good, to be sure, but Salt Lake rated out at 0.75. The Five Stripes have limited opponents this season by forcing them to settle for shots from distance. Ten of RSL’s 15 shots were taken from outside the penalty area, and none of those that came inside 18 yards were on target. The home team won on two golazos.