Following a thoroughly disappointing 4-0 rout at the hands of Inter Miami it is going to be hard for Atlanta to lift their heads up and go again against Cruz Azul, but we must do exactly that. Heading into the last match of the group stage, Atlanta needs to win to advance while Cruz Azul just can't lose. This means Atlanta will need to come out on the front foot and be ready to take the game to a team that really should have beat Miami but just couldn't finish.
Not being mentally ready and in the right mindset to come out and play has been a weird issue for Atlanta United this year. The team comes out and plays lackadaisical soccer like they just don't care and then in the 85th minute realize they need to win and start to really play and push for a goal or two. If Pineda can get the team in the right mental state to come out and redeem themselves, Atlanta will have a far better chance of beating the Liga MX outfit. It seems like if the team could get ready for any game it would be the revenge game after a disastrous embarrassment. That logic hasn't always come through, though, with Atlanta following up an embarrassing US Open Cup exit to Memphis 901 with a sluggish performance in a 3-1 loss to Nashville.
Fixing the Back Line
When the Athletic has an article on whether the 4-0 game was because of Messi or Atlanta's deficiencies in defense, something needs to be fixed. The game saw several defensive breakdowns that Messi and co. took full advantage of. In the first goal, there is no excuse for losing track of Messi. Purata steps up with him so that Messi isn't free in the space between the defensive and midfield lines and then loses track of him and Messi runs into the space behind him. Then the second goal sees Atlanta fail to track the trailing runner, yet again, and, unfortunately, the trailing runner is Messi who is going to make no mistake from 8 yards out. In goal three, how does nobody pressure either Cremaschi or Taylor in any real way--that is just unacceptable. Lastly, goal four sees Ronald Hernandez run 30 yards without putting any pressure on Messi while also playing Taylor onsides.
All four goals are poor and utterly exposed four different parts of our porous defense. Going into the Cruz Azul game we will need to improve the back line as they should have scored several goals against Miami, if not for some poor luck and Drake Callender. If Cruz Azul's game against Inter Miami was an accurate depiction of their attack, there will be a lot of pressure on the fullbacks to deal with Antuna, Duenas, Rivero, and Rotondi. This will game be a big test for Pineda and the Atlanta United defense to see how they can recover from a smacking and set up a, hopefully, water-tight defense.
Dynamism in Attack
Looking now to the attack Atlanta will--obviously--need to score to win, and considering the defense they will probably have to score multiple times. The attack itself is very strong with young talent in abundance in the form of Caleb Wiley, Thiago Almada, and Tyler Wolff. In addition, if we can get the ball to him, Giakoumakis is an incredible target man striker. That "if we can get the ball to him" is the problem. There are two main ways we can attack: we can play through the wings and then get the ball into the middle by either a cross or just passing through a midfielder, most likely Almada, or we can bring the ball up the middle from the get-go.
So far, Atlanta typically prefers to bring the ball up the wings--this makes sense, we have fast wide players who are usually able to beat their man. The flaw with this, though, is that we are bad at putting crosses into the box. Lennon is fast and good at progressing the ball down the field but then he is bad at putting in accurate crosses. This is really unfortunate considering he puts in 8 crosses a game, on average. He has good assist stats because of the sheer volume of crosses he attempts but if he could put them into more dangerous areas Atlanta would be such a better team. The other way Atlanta can bring the ball in from the wings is by bringing it back through the midfield (Almada). This requires more skill on the ball to break down the defense but allows for more options to attack, rather than just whipping a cross in and hoping.
The other main option Atlanta has to attack is to bring the ball up the middle of the field. This is typically more difficult as the opposition will traditionally defend the middle strongly but allows for more options in attack. To make this work, Atlanta could create passing triangles with Almada, a wide player, and midfielder such as Sosa or Rossetto. This will allow them to quickly pass the ball up the field and better circumvent the Cruz Azul defense. Then, with Almada on the ball around the top of the box he has many dangerous options. He can play a through ball for a winger or Gigi or he can have a shot or he can circulate the ball around the midfield more. This is how I think Atlanta would be the most dangerous in the attack. It was also the main way Miami attacked us and it was clear to see how having good midfielders on the ball around the edge of the box can wreck defenses. No matter how Atlanta chooses to go forward, though, it will need to be far more incisive and purposeful than in the past if Pineda wants to advance to the knockout stages.