Inter Miami head coach Tata Martino indicated in the run-up to this one that Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets will see an increase in minutes for this one. Considering they played the majority of the second half in Friday’s Leagues Cup win over Cruz Azul, everyone has rightfully jumped to the conclusion that both will start tonight.
It will obviously be fascinating for a number of reasons, including it being our first true data point on what Inter Miami will look like in a full game with two players unlikely to make an impact defensively. Yeah, that’s not the narrative most folks will go with outside of Atlanta, but the Five Stripes should try and see it as an opportunity — even more so if Josef Martinez starts.
Atlanta United’s most critical outfield problems this year have largely centered around buildup. Gonzalo Pineda’s game model dictates that the team play out of the back, control the ball and use possession as a means of defense. When the team has stalled in its own half due to the opponent’s press or Atlanta’s own struggles to pull apart a rigid mid-block, the Five Stripes have been prone to bad giveaways, overly methodical play and minimal chance creation. When they’ve been able to move the ball into the opponent’s final third with ease, they’ve generally been a good-to-maybe-even-very-good attacking team.
Atlanta should, in theory, have no problem working the ball into Inter Miami’s final third tonight. Let’s be clear about where Miami actually stands. This is a 1996 Honda Civic that just had a NASA rocket booster attached to it. Yes, it got exponentially faster, but it is not a good car. This team has spent the year in last place for a reason. They’re poor defensively, their midfield has been hobbled by injuries and they don’t have high-end quality attacking pieces.
Now, obviously, the problem with all of that is that Atlanta United has already lost to that Civic sans rocket booster. This won’t be easy.
And it seems likely to expect Atlanta to be holding on for dear life on any counterattack. If the Five Stripes are controlling possession, their rest defense—a poorly-named soccer term that basically means the shape you keep in possession so that you can effectively shift immediately into defense after a turnover—will be critical.
Beyond that, there’s only so much you can control. The greatest player of all time is going to get his. All you can do is hope to capitalize on some potentially easy chance creation opportunities, outpace whatever magic he’s able to produce and keep the ball away from him as much as possible.
“You know my philosophy. The best way to limit a very good player is don’t give him the ball,” Gonzalo Pineda told media on Monday. “It’s having more of the ball than them. It’s having good possession.
“If Messi is going to create danger at some point, instead of 15 chances for Messi to create danger, what if it is only three?” he added. “What if we limit in that way that amount of chances, and hopefully, he’s not sharp in two of those three.”
What is the Leagues Cup?
The Leagues Cup is a tournament that pits teams from the Mexican and United States leagues against each other, and consists of 15 groups of 3 teams each. The first two from each zone access the round of 16, where they are joined by Pachuca and LAFC, already classified as champions of the Liga MX and MLS, respectively
“Since those two have gotten here, the spirit has changed,” Miami right-back DeAndre Yedlin said. “Obviously, guys are really excited. But I think just their presence gives everybody more confidence. And I think also the teams that we’re playing against now have a bit of fear in their eyes. When those two are on the field, you know you’re in for a tough game.”
The match was also Martino’s first against his former club, which he led to the MLS Cup title in 2018. Martino, who was named Miami’s coach on June 28, confirmed Monday that Messi would be the team’s captain against Atlanta and moving forward.
“I think the fans respond according to what they see and what the team transmits to them. Many come to see Lionel. Celebrities and regular fans. He stands out but he can also spread that support from the fans to the rest of the team,” Martino said.
His thoughts on fans leaving in droves after Messi was substituted: “I didn’t really notice. The type of player he is, Messi is a global star, some fans might only be here to see him, but he would prefer if the fans would stay until the end to applaud the team, but I can also understand it.”
On Friday, Messi produced a trademark moment of magic to give Miami a 2-1 win, curling a free kick from just outside the penalty area into the top corner to put a bow on the storybook saga that saw him ultimately sign with co-owner David Beckham’s side in MLS.
Miami and Atlanta are currently playing in the inaugural Leagues Cup competition a World Cup-style tournament between MLS and Liga MX sides. Messi could make his official debut in an MLS game at home against Charlotte on Aug. 20.
One player who will have to wait for his debut is another former Barcelona player, Jordi Alba, who signed with Miami on July 20, but he was not included in Miami’s squad list for the game against Atlanta.
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