Atlanta United rolled into Seattle on Friday night and earned itself a well-deserved point despite missing the league’s leading scorer (Josef Martinez) and leaving star players Miguel Almiron and Carlos Carmona on the bench following the international break. Here’s what we learned:
Tata will stick to his system
Tonight left no doubt that Atlanta United Manager Tata Martino will not deviate from the tactical philosophy he’s instilled so far this season. The philosophy is to press all the way back to the goalkeeper and always hassle the opposition. Thus, Martino sticks with three central midfielders and a speedy front three who can close down and pressure the opponent’s back line. A fast striker also forces the opposition back line to retreat more when Atlanta has the ball, giving the team more space to play and possess the ball.
In keeping with the tactic, Tito Villalba started at striker over the veteran, former Premier League striker Kenwyne Jones. Debate will undoubtedly ensue over Jones’ viability in the squad and whether Martino values him. I don’t think it’s fair to write him off yet. He played as much as Almiron over the international break, who also didn’t start. But I digress, Villalba starting up top was a surprise, but I think it was the right call, as he got in behind Seattle’s defense on several occasions and contributed to some dangerous attacks. That said, his touch needs improving if he’s to become productive in this role.
This team can play ugly
Atlanta displayed grit, nastiness, and determination that hasn’t been as apparent in the three games to start the season. Having established a reputation in the league for playing attacking, attractive soccer, many wondered whether Atlanta would be able to cope when the game doesn’t go in its favor. The Sounders played on the front foot for most of the game Friday, including the clear majority of the second half. But Atlanta showed toughness and competence in defense as Larentowicz provided a solid shield for the back four.
While staying solid defensively, the team was still able to spring some dangerous counter attacks. Seattle struggled to deal with Atlanta’s pace in the first half, and Asad and Villalba caused problems for the Sounders back line. In the end, all three points were there for the taking.
Atlanta’s press needs to be refined
Yamil Asad, Tito Villalba and Jacob Peterson, the front line deployed by Martinez Friday night, were tasked with spurring the defense into action. In a pressing system like Atlanta plays, everyone reacts to the movement of the front three, who dictate the press. You can’t fault their effort Friday night, but they probably over-exerted themselves in the first half. Too often, Villalba or Asad in particular would chase down the goalkeeper unnecessarily, when Stefan Frei and the Seattle defenders could easily pass around the one or two players who had the energy to press.
In Martino’s system, the front players need to be smart about when to trigger the press, and when to consolidate the team shape and recuperate physically. Of course, the whole point of the system is to close down as much as possible, but there’s a fine line between “always” and “as often as possible.” If you’re pressing the opposition all the time, you’ll eventually get opened up with ease and tire yourself out.
Gressel is still raw, but it’s clear why Tata likes him
Julian Gressel had an interesting game that was equal parts sloppy, dangerous, dangerous in a different kind of way, and tenacious. Gressel gave the ball away at times in perilous positions and had some poor touches that squashed some Atlanta attacks. But when those bad touches happened, Gressel persistently chased down Seattle players and won the ball back on multiple occasions. It’s for this reason that Tata will continue to give the young German opportunities. The manager trusts that Gressel will contribute to the teams defensive intensity while – for lack of a better term – “trying shit” to help the team create chances. With Gresselmania clearly sweeping through the southeast (if not, the nation), it’s important to remember that he’s not a perfect player. But he has a great opportunity to drastically improve under Martino’s tutelage with his determined attitude.