After a dominant performance against Chattanooga in a much anticipated opening friendly, Atlanta United somewhat came falling back to earth in a 2-1 loss against Columbus Crew. This was then followed by a dominant performance against the Seattle Sounders backups, and a narrow victory against Charleston Battery. A lot of Martino’s stylistic features were on display throughout Pre-season, the high line, the high full backs and the quick narrow interchanging of positions, but some of the performances were quite incomplete. This is however to be expected as his style is hard to teach and learn.
In reality, there is no need to overreact or draw wide-ranging conclusions from this Pre-season, even if Atlanta had lost a game by eight goals, it wouldn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things. Pre-season friendlies are about adjusting to the new tactics and building on field relationships with your team mates whilst learning to understand their personal preferences.
The Columbus Crew was a very fun first test, as they are one of the ‘better’ footballing sides in the League. They average the most short passes, the most through balls per game, and the least long balls per game. Whilst this style didn’t necessarily turn Gregg Berhalter’s side into world beaters, it is clear that they have a specific style that they would like to play.
Whilst Atlanta United may in fact become the dominant force that many expect them too, I personally believe that this team is going to hit a couple of bumps in the road. This is mainly because the style they are trying to play is one that takes a while to learn, and one that will be foreign to a lot of the players on the roster. It is pivotal however that Atlanta United stick with their style for a while, even if the results don’t come in immediately.
Tata Martino hasn’t filled his roster with foreign players because they are better than home grown ones, but he has done it because they know his style, and can help the older guys such as Parkhurst, and the young guys such as Mikey Ambrose, adjust to a style that has been rarely seen in American football.
The quality of football in MLS isn’t terrible at all, some teams play an extremely attacking style and the European reputation of it being a ‘kick and rush’ style League simply isn’t fair. But it is fair to say that not many coaches have tried to implement a Marcelo Bielsa style formation with high pressing and short passing.
New York City FC played in this way last year as Patrick Vieira was ordered by the Manchester City hierarchy to play a 4-3-3 formation with a high defensive line and high pressure. Whilst Gerardo Martino isn’t working under literal constraints, it is clear that he is a coach who wants the game to be played in a certain way. Darren Eales rightfully summed up the philosophy as ‘fluid’ in an interview with ESPN, and Martino will not sacrifice his principles, even if the results don’t come quickly.
Whilst Martino is a much more experienced coach than Patrick Vieira, he could take some notes from the former Arsenal midfielder. New York City struggled at the beginning of the year under Vieira, the defending was pathetic and the football appeared to be slow and mechanical as the players clearly had not gelled to each other. This was largely because of Frank Lampard’s delayed arrival, but the style was struggling at first.
NYCFC only won one of their opening eight matches, and they conceded 13 goals in those eight games whilst failing to provide David Villa with clear-cut chances on a consistent basis. The City hierarchy were slightly concerned about the results, but they were confident that Patrick Vieira would eventually stamp his authority on MLS, which was seen as being a League that wasn’t ready to be changed.
Whilst NYCFC were inconsistent throughout, they stuck to their guns and managed to make the playoffs whilst finishing 2nd in the Eastern Conference. A big reason for this was Patrick Vieira’s style as it was a great fit for the variety of young pacey and technical players that he had at his disposal. The older players were key, but the players that were brought in by technical director Claudio Reyna were all perfect fits in his system.
It is here that you start to see similarities with Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra’s roster construction, as they have both gone after a specific type of player. They have signed players who are pass first, and they have tried to sign defenders with composure who don’t just lump the ball towards Kenwyne Jones when an attacker is within ten feet of them.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has stuck out so far as a player who is capable of playing vertical passes into the forwards, this is incredibly important as it is a way to avoid becoming slow, but also as a way of beating the high press. Pirez has been signed in order to bring calm to the build-up play, and if Atlanta were to abandon their style after a couple of bumps on the road, this whole offseason will have been a complete waste of time.
If Atlanta were playing a bog standard 4-4-2 formation based on launching 30 crosses a game into the box, then the gelling period would be a lot quicker as the players would have simple, easily defined roles. The current formation is complex, but it gives Atlanta a much higher ceiling than a team that plays direct, bog standard, vanilla football.
Individual errors could happen early on as a lot of the players will be having to second guess themselves in order to make the right decision, and to play within the tactical framework. Defenders will be encouraged to try and break the lines by passing into midfield, which can sometimes be difficult when you’re under pressure. It is however important they stick with it, and the results could be devastating as Atlanta will be playing a style that is far more advanced than at least 75% of teams in MLS.
Atlanta fans should be refreshed that there are ambitious people who understand football in the front office, they understand that you need to have a specific style in order to succeed, and the importance of drilling this into every part of the franchise is paramount.
I am not trying to be a pessimist, it might be that Atlanta United gel fast and make the playoffs without any terrible bumps, but history tells us that there will be a settling in period. Regardless, at times, you need to take a couple of steps backwards in order to move forwards, and Atlanta could the beneficiaries of patience.
Gerardo Martino doesn’t just have the potential to bring beautiful football to the most beautiful region of America, but he has the chance to change the entire outlook of US football. Jurgen Klinsmann tried to do this, and though a lot of you will disagree, the German had a lot of the right ideas. Klinsmann’s issue was that he simply couldn’t execute them. Martino will not have the same issues, his track record is incredible and if he is given proper time, and full control over the roster, then he could be the most important man in the history of US football.
Even if Martino’s style doesn’t appear to be working at first, changing it in order to get some instantaneous type results, would be one of the biggest disasters possible. Teams that stick to their philosophies are the ones that get talked about for years, as opposed to reactionary teams that want to play the sport in a bad way.