Did Bruce Arena provide a blueprint for the rest of the league on how to stop Atlanta’s influential midfielder?
By this point, Atlanta United fans have a decent impression of what to expect from Gabriel Heinze’s highly innovative and fluid style of play, and how the constant movement and high tempo make it a difficult one to defend. But last Saturday in New England, the Revolution took the Five Stripes out of their game in a way we haven’t seen before. The key? Cutting off service to Atlanta’s table-setter in attack, Santiago Sosa.
2 on 1
We’ve already discussed how crucial Sosa is to Gabriel Heinze’s system, as the connection from defense to attack goes almost exclusively through the young center midfielder. And the 22-year old has not disappointed, pinging balls around the park and unbalancing defense’s from his deep-lying midfield position.
New England manager Bruce Arena clearly recognized the influence of the Argentine, and decided the best way to defend Atlanta was to defend Sosa almost as an attacker, surrounding him with one or two players all evening in Atlanta’s buildup.
The two players tasked to man marking Sosa were striker Adam Buksa (No. 9) and attacking midfielder Carles Gil (No. 22). Below, we see the plan in action,
Buksa and Gil shadow Sosa after he takes the free kick quickly, with Gil tracking him into the midfield, preventing Atlanta’s playmaker from getting on the ball in an area where he’s most dangerous and forcing Atlanta to play negatively back towards their own goal.
We get an even better picture of the plan’s comprehensiveness below. Buksa and Gil prioritize marking Sosa even if it allows Atlanta’s center backs to carry the ball forward (in this case it’s Anton Walkes)
This time, Sosa initially is on the right, but New England’s front two track him to that side, and then follow him all the way into midfield, keeping him off the ball.
Let’s take another look. Buksa confirms the plan in the first few moments of the video below, as he almost overpresses onto Brad Guzan, before quickly sliding over towards Sosa and communicating with a point to Gil to pinch and bracket the midfielder. Later, we see the two again never giving Sosa time to breathe, and once again allowing Walkes to advance the ball to no avail for Atlanta.
We see our final example below. This time, it’s Alan Franco who’s allowed to carry the ball forward out of the back, with Sosa being the priority for New England defensively. Once again, we see a poor ball to end the attack for Atlanta, and the hosts going the other way.
By the Numbers
So, did the plan work? On the one hand, Sosa was on the ball plenty, attempting 69 passes, more than the 62 he attempted against Chicago and the 60 against Orlando. But Arena’s plan wasn’t necessarily to keep Sosa off the ball, but to limit him in dangerous areas.
Let’s take a look at his pass maps from Atlanta’s three MLS matches. First. let’s take a look at Sosa’s pass map from the first two MLS matches, starting with Orlando.
And now, Chicago.
Simply put, Sosa is all over the ball. We see a ton of passes completed at all different lengths of pass.
Now, let’s look at the map from last weekend.
The visual makes it clear that Arena’s plan worked. We see that most of Sosa’s passes are shorter in length and often backwards, but also that he was not allowed on the ball whatsoever close to midfield, an area where he can pick out passes forward and set the table for Atlanta’s attack.
Players Win Matches. Not Tactics.
Simply put, Bruce Arena’s plan to stop Santiago Sosa was a brilliant one. But Atlanta will expect better play in possession from the rest of their players, especially with New England allowing Franco, Walkes, and later Miles Robinson to carry the ball to midfield often unchallenged. But Atlanta’s individual performances were lacking, and we saw a couple of examples earlier of their lack of quality in possession without Sosa to lean on.
Surely, there will be more great matches to come for Sosa. But if Atlanta can’t find another player to unlock defenses through, that will certainly spell trouble.