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How Julian Gressel changed Tata Martino’s tactical plan

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The rookie midfielder isn’t the best player on the team sheet, but he’s one of the most important for Atlanta United

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

“Who did we end up taking with the other first round pick?”

I heard this often following Atlanta’s selection of Julian Gressel with the 8th pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Our other first round pick, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, was the “prize player” and the one many thought would have the bigger impact this early in the season. But Miles Robinson, a physical CB who is a promising prospect, was taken second and hasn’t seen the field in league play. Gressel, on the other hand, has started each of first-placed Atlanta’s three league matches having seemingly forced out veteran CM Chris McCann. Why did this happen? Gressel played an attacking role in college, so how is he replacing a “grit” player in McCann? It starts with a formation change.

Switch to a 4-3-3

All signs pointed toward Atlanta playing in a 4-2-3-1 to start the season. In the first preseason game vs. Charleston Battery, Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann started together as holding midfielders. While Chris McCann ventured quite far up the left channel, he still played alongside Larentowicz with Miguel Almiron ahead of them as the playmaker.

In Atlanta’s third preseason game against Seattle, Tata Martino gave Gressel a spot in the starting XI and he must’ve impressed the manager. Gressel has started every game since, despite receiving a red card in the 4-2 win over the Sounders. It wasn’t just a straight swap for Gressel into McCann’s role though. Martino played him on the right of a three-man midfield, with Larentowicz protecting he and Almiron who alternated pushing forward to join the attack.

Starting XI vs Charleston Battery
Starting XI vs. Seattle Sounders

Clearly Martino was pleased with what he saw from Gressel that night, but he also would have liked the way the team functioned as a whole. For the sake of saving myself from writing something twice, here’s a snippet from my recap of that 4-2 victory over Seattle:

Aside from his natural ability, Gressel’s inclusion in the team provided an extra dimension to Atlanta’s attack that Chris McCann cannot contribute. McCann played farther forward than your typical defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 in the first two games, but wasn’t able to provide a threat with his positioning. He’s just not that type of player. Gressel was able to take advantage of it, and it gave Atlanta a whole new dynamism as he dovetailed with Almiron.

Attacking the channels

Gressel simply being better with the ball than McCann isn’t what necessarily makes him a better option, it’s that Gressel allows Atlanta to put pressure on all five attacking areas at any given time. Let’s look at these formations again, but this time with the channels (or half spaces) highlighted so we can see the left wing, left channel, center, right channel and right wing.

When we look again, we can see that the 4-3-3 is clearly the most efficient structure for Atlanta to mount it’s attack. Chris McCann doesn’t have to make lung-bursting runs from deep midfield to fill a space, and Yamil Asad has a simplified role on the wing where he isn’t obligated to mark his fullback while also cutting in on his right foot to create in the middle. The five across the front more or less fill the five spaces:

Left Wing — Asad

Left Channel — Almiron

Center — Josef Martinez

Right Channel — Gressel

Right Wing — Hector Villalba

With Greg Garza and Tyrone Mears also playing wide and in tandem with the wingers, it allows even more freedom of movement for Asad and Villalba to cut inside.

But it isn’t only the attack that benefits from a 4-3-3. This formation utilizes the full skill sets of Almiron and Gressel, who are both willing to get stuck in a tackle and track back and defend. Almiron especially doesn’t get enough credit for this facet of his game, which is naturally masked by his offensive output and skill. Almiron is most natural as a box-to-box CM where he can run at defenses from deep and generally move around the field with freedom. To this effect, the 4-3-3 also allows both midfielders license to drop deeper and help build the attack without breaking the structure of the system. But finally, and maybe most importantly, the 4-3-3 allows Atlanta to press effectively against the majority of MLS teams who are playing some variation of a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. The 4-3-3 naturally allows Gressel and Almiron to press the opposing central midfielders, and leaves Carlos Carmona, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to mark the opposing two strikers or ST/CAM combo. That’s a 3v2 advantage for Atlanta.

Conclusion

Despite claims of McCann having unfairly lost his role in the starting XI, there’s little doubt that Gressel offers the best compliment to Atlanta’s attacking force. He’s a two-way player that puts his teammates in a better position to make plays, while also giving the team a more solid structure. Don’t pay attention to the way the club posts the roster on Twitter as a 4-2-3-1. It’s a 4-3-3, and it’s made a huge difference for the team.