Armchair Analyst: Josef's binge, NYCFC's Free 8s & more from Week 23

No need for a lede this week, let's just pour up and dive in:

Sunk Costs

Josef Martinez got two more goals this weekend, in what was ultimately a disappointing 2-2 home draw for Atlanta United against a visiting Toronto FC side that's just about rounding into "uh oh, they're back" form.

Josef now has 26 goals on the season, is a mortal lock to eclipse the single-season mark of 27 goals (shared jointly between Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips), is averaging 1.16 goals per 90 (best in league history), has netted each of the last eight goals his team has scored (a league record), and 11 of the last 12 they've scored.

All of that is "wow." But yeah... there's a kernel of worry there, because Atlanta have left points on the board time and again via their lack of finishing from other sources. Miguel Almiron has vastly underperformed his expected goals numbers, and Tito Villalba hasn't been the same kind of threat he was last year. If you bunker against this team and do it well (i.e., if you keep track of Josef), you can snag a result even as the Five Stripes control the entire game.

Do it poorly, though, and you end up with a furious 'keeper:

Am I right to call this a worry for Atlanta? On the year they're just 2-3-5 against what I consider to be "good" teams, and have struggled against the likes of Portland and Seattle when those particular sides have parked the bus.

Tata Martino, for one, is unconcerned. He lit up when asked about why only Martinez is scoring.

"On the second goal, was he taking a ball from the air, fighting off an entire defense and got a goal? No! There's ball circulation that ends with [Villalba] waiting for the move, playing a cross, then Josef's goal. I would be worried if we lump the ball in and let Josef manage himself alone, but this is not the case. Our right wing has eight assists, our left has 10 assists," he said.

"Look at Josef´s 26 goals getting 24 assists – analyze that."

All of that is true, even if Tata's math is slightly off. You can see in the video above that Atlanta weren't hoping to break down the bunker; they were specifically targeting certain parts of the bunker and forcing the TFC players to come play the ball instead of staying the zone. This was planned, and you'd be dumb not to plan to create chances for the most lethal goalscorer in league history, right?

"Truth is, he has big virtues, but there's also a play circuit that allows Josef to find empty spaces. Otherwise our opponents only would have to keep him away from getting chances. That would be too easy, so they have to move to fill the gaps he is creating for his teammates. Those gaps are created with our ball circulation," Tata continued.

"Sincerely I don't mind and I mean it – he won´t stop making goals. There's no way to neutralize a No. 9 when you have a team that supports our style of play. You look at FC Barcelona—you can’t keep [Lionel] Messi from making 40 goals per season, because there's a style of play that allows Messi or [Luis] Suárez to finish in best conditions."

This is a really good answer to an entirely fair question, and it does the right thing in putting the onus on the opposition to go to the film, unwind Atlanta's sequences of play, and figure out how to stop putting the ball on Martinez's head in the six-yard box. You want to stop them, you've got to stop him.

But it also dodges the issue: Atlanta keep dropping results when they're the better team, and it's because if the chance falls to someone not named Josef Martinez, it's not going in the back of the net.

Off Brand

It was a good weekend for dropped points in the Eastern Conference. Ten teams played, and only one – RBNY – walked out with the full three points.

That includes a 2-2 Vancouver draw at NYCFC in one of the more unexpected outcomes of the year (but, because this is MLS, not even the most unexpected of the week). It's fair to say that NYCFC have missed David Villa, and it's also fair to say that his absence isn't the sum total of what I will lightly term their "struggles." They lost last week during a brutal stretch, played poorly in a win at Orlando before that, and then surrendered a home result for only the second time all season.

For a team as good as the one from the Bronx, that is "struggling."

Let's unpack how and why that happened against a 'Caps team that had only 27 percent of possession on the day, and played a lineup comprising mostly reserves, and were outshot 22-8.

First, here is NYCFC head coach Dome Torrent's postgame money quote:

"We found [Ismael Tajouri-Shradi] many, many times on the left side, we played free and this is our intention," he offered. "Play with the wingers wide and they cross all the time inside. The best way for me to attack is our wingers wide."

This is somewhat unusual in the modern game, one in which wingers are mostly inverted and fullbacks mostly overlap. But this is not unusual for City Football Group, and the system Torrent's describing is the same one that Pep Guardiola mostly used at Manchester City last year.

1. The wingers stay wide instead of being inverted, effectively spreading out the entire opposing backline instead of letting them stay compact

2. The fullbacks push up usually in support – as a platform for distribution – rather than as pure overlappers. When they do push into the attack, it's as often as not to be underlappers, i.e. playing inside the winger rather than outside the winger

3. The midfield has a back point and two playmakers. Kevin De Bruyne called the role a "free 8," but really they're just modern No. 10s who have to defend a little bit

4. Because the wingers are wide and the fullbacks are supporting possession, the Free 8s push forward to attack inside channels while the No. 9 occupies central defenders. Simple spacing – the wingers are pulling the backline apart by staying wide, remember – gives them more room to get into dangerous spots

5. That's how Jesus Medina gets goals like this:

Tajouri-Shradi is the wide winger, Anton Tinnerholm is the underlapping right back, and Medina is the Free 8. This is literally ripped from the Man City playbook.

The problem with this approach is simple: It throws a lot of numbers forward and exposes the hell out of you on the counter. And if your Free 8s aren't able to put in the requisite defensive work – and neither Medina nor Maxi Moralez did in this one – then you will give up goals on the counter by losing the ball in central midfield and why don't I just show you the clip?

This is a very different way of approaching the game from what this team did under Patrick Vieira. I respect Torrent's attempt to put his own mark on the team (even if I think many of his personnel choices are bad), and I still think NYCFC are much more good than bad. I still think they're one of the three or four best teams in MLS.

But here's a note my colleague Bobby Warshaw sent me, and I agree with every word:

NYCFC has been great at times – MTL and Columbus wins – but also really bad at times. If they click, they could be the best team in the league; but I’m worried they are tinkering so much and it makes whether they click on a given day random and unpredictable/untrustworthy.

A few more things to ponder...

9. The actual most shocking result of the weekend came in Frisco, where San Jose picked up just their third win of the year – and their first over anybody but Minnesota Unitedwith a 3-1 result over FC Dallas. It marked FCD's first loss at home this season.

San Jose did well to capitalize on a couple of bad errors from Jesse Gonzalez, and got probably their best central midfield performance of the season. Both Luis Felipe and Anibal Godoy (who I have been vocally down on) were clean on the ball and active off it, and that allowed the Quakes to be both solid and dangerous. It was a nice change, and a much-needed win.

For FCD... don't look now, but they're just 4-4-1 across all competitions since Mauro Diaz left.

8. No Zlatan, no party. The Galaxy went to Colorado without their star striker and left with a 2-1 loss, snapping their nine-game unbeaten run. LA aren't/weren't really able to control games with the ball, which means their defense has to scramble and make plays. As we've seen all season, that's not, uh, their forte. And David Bingham has done them few favors in net.

Colorado did well to only field three center backs instead of their usual four or five. Bobby will have a nice long look at their new 4-4-2 diamond – and how it's reviving Kellyn Acosta – this week.

7. Our Face of the Week goes to Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer, who was super duper pleased with Will Bruin's stoppage time goal for a come-from-behind 2-1 win at Minnesota:

This was all born of a switch to the 4-4-2, which allowed Bruin and Raul Ruidiaz to play off of each other for a few minutes. It's looked very, very promising thus far in limited minutes.

If I was a MNUFC fan I'd probably be asking questions as to why Michael Boxall didn't contest the long-ball that led to Bruin's goal, and why Francisco Calvo didn't track Bruin at all.

Of note: Adrian Heath benched Christian Ramirez in this one, and there are credible whispers he's being shopped. A number of teams out there could use a goalscoring No. 9.

6. Real Salt Lake gave themselves a "gotta have it" 2-1 win over visiting Chicago on Saturday night in Sandy.

Midfielder Damir Kreilach – playing a box-to-box role in this one – got both goals for the hosts, and while his defensive deficiencies are always lurking, it's been fun to watch him figure out this league and his teammates over the course of a season. For example, he knows that RSL center forward Corey Baird only rarely hits the "A gap" between the central defenders, and instead prefers to drift to the back post. That opens up the A gap for a late, Frank Lampard-esque run out of midfield, which is exactly how Kreilach got the game's first goal.

Chicago are now down to 10th in the East and are under 1 ppg. They have completely failed to build off of a strong 2017 season.

5. Few teams in league history have been able to grind as well as this year's Timbers. They weren't great in Saturday's 3-0 win over a short-handed Philadelphia side:

But they're now unbeaten in 15, and picked up just their second multi-goal win of the year. They make you earn every inch, and the Union weren't good enough to make a dent.

4. Orlando City came back from two goals down, and then came back from one goal down to steal a 3-3 home draw against the Revs thanks to a goal in second-half stoppage.

This game was entirely bonkers, and an entirely bad result for both teams. The Lions already have a bunch of nails in their coffin, and this is very obviously one more. But the Revs... the Revs had this, but once again their inability to defend in their own 18 just destroyed their hopes of creating any sort of breathing room between them and the hunting pack.

New England are now winless in five, have one win in eight, and are 4-6-7 since April 14. Only Orlando, San Jose, Colorado and D.C. United have fewer points since then.

3. Speaking of D.C., they went to Montreal and got a very useful point via a 1-1 draw thanks to a Yamil Asad goal (and how much would Atlanta give to have him back right now?), which canceled out Matteo Mancosu's opener.

United shifted out of their usual 4-1-4-1 for more of a 4-2-3-1 with Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno on the "2" line, effectively shielding what's usually a pretty vulnerable backline. Given that, the Impact were kind of flummoxed when it came to consistent chance generation. And given their inability to press, they couldn't just turn defense into offense.

This was a bad, bad result for Montreal, who are still technically above the playoff line but are actually seventh in the East on PPG, and have a mostly pretty tough schedule remaining. If the miss the playoffs by a point or two, this is the game they should point at.

2. LAFC are suddenly sliding. Following Sunday's 2-1 loss at RBNY they're winless in four and have just one win in their last six. Teams have limited their ability to build triangles up and down the pitch – everybody's got tape to dissect now – and that means Adama Diomande isn't getting anymore tap-ins, and nobody's really picking up the slack.

On the defensive side, it's simple: Mistakes are getting punished. Tyler Miller's spill led to the first New York goal, and a simple ball over the top led to the second. The season is a grind, and exhaustion leads to both lapses in concentration and physical failures. Expect a different-looking lineup for Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Houston.

For RBNY, they're back to 2 ppg, tied with Atlanta for best in the league, and their +21 goal differential is second-best.

1. And finally, our Pass of the Week goes to Sporting KC's 16-year-old playmaker Gianluca Busio, who got the game-winning assist in his side's 1-0 win at Houston:

Great pass, and a good interview as well. As he said, he was able to "drift" into Zone 14, and Houston have had trouble tracking movement through there all season in Juan David Cabezas' absence. 

Houston lost their minds in this one, with three players seeing red and head coach Wilmer Cabrera also being dismissed. Given how far they are from the playoff line, how poor they are on the road and how the rest of their schedule looks, it seems quite likely their hopes of a return trip to the playoffs are just about fried.

Which makes Wednesday's Open Cup semifinal that much bigger. Win there, and they have a shot at at least salvaging something from an otherwise colossally disappointing 2018.

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