It may seem like some time ago, but just over one month has passed since Atlanta United’s rookie Julian Gressel appeared poised to take the MLS by storm. The eighth pick of last January’s MLS SuperDraft began the season with several solid performances at the center midfield position, with Tata Martino selecting him over the likes of former Wigan and Burnley man Chris McCann and MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz.
But after his fast start to the season, the demands of professional soccer seemed to be taking their toll. It all started with a below average performance at Seattle in early April, followed by a poor showing in Toronto, where Gressel completed a paltry 59% of his passes and only even attempted 37 over the 90 minutes. Then in Montreal, Gressel was dispossessed more than any other center mid over the entire match, despite being subbed off after just 45 minutes. Gressel's form then hit rock bottom in losses to D.C and NYCFC. In New York, he completed just seven passes before being substituted in the 57th minute. It seemed the player who had wowed us all early in the season was fast becoming a liability.
In his infinite wisdom, Martino kept Gressel in the starting lineup when the team visited Portland last Sunday, but used him in a wide right position for the first time. The move paid off, as Gressel scored his first MLS goal, and played his best match since his early season flurry.
A Good Fit
It's important to note that Martino's decision to move Gressel wide was not the risky decision it may have first appeared. After all, Gressel started at Providence College as a wide player, providing a dangerous outside presence in the attack. But as his career continued, Gressel became more naturally suited to a central role, even filling in at striker his senior year after an injury to the starter.
While his future likely rests in the center of the park, one can see why Gressel was initially seen as a wide player. His high work rate and ability to cover ground are musts for any wide man, where prolonged, lung-busting runs are part of the gig. Gressel also likes to take on his marker and go 1-on-1, evidenced by him leading all of AUFC’s center mids sans Miguel Almiron in completed dribbles per game.
We see his natural ability as as a wide player below, as he receives the ball in his own half from a headed clearance and proceeds to skin two defenders in space and win the foul, giving Atlanta time to catch their collective breaths and transition back into the attack.
This play shows Gressel’s experience playing on the flanks, as he stays composed despite being 1-on-2 and his team under pressure from the home side. Can you imagine fellow center midfielders Carlos Carmona, Larentowicz, or McCann showing this quick burst of pace in a similar position? Probably not.
A Different Element
Gressel's instincts as a central player also add a second dimension to his game when out wide, often playing more of an inside forward role than that of winger. And the 23-year old showed off this versatility several times against Portland, displaying a tendency to move into central areas in the attack whenever possible.
In the above scenario, an out-and-out winger like Tito Villalba’s first instinct would often be to use his pace and make a run in between center back Liam Ridgewell and left fullback Vytas Andriuškevičius, hoping to receive a through pass into the right half of the 18-yard box. But Gressel's movement is the opposite of this, as he is looks to make a diagonal run towards the penalty spot, and this movement almost pays dividends.
We again saw the attacking instinct of a central player on his 46th-minute goal. Right from the opening kickoff, the No. 24 immediately moves into the middle. But it's his movement after Atlanta lose the ball where he again shows his attacking instincts as a central player.
While many midfielders might have begun sprinting back to defend, Gressel embodies Martino's aggressive style to a "T," remaining high and central to see if Atlanta can win the ball back with their high press. This positioning makes him a real threat once Larentowicz wins the ball back, as Gressel temporarily becomes a second striker alongside Villalba.
Portland are unprepared for Gressel being central, and many of their defenders don't seem to recognize Gressel's presence once Atlanta regain possession. Just check out the defensive positioning and awareness as Larentowicz’s ball comes into the middle.
Obviously, center back Roy Miller (No. 7) and defensive midfielder Diego Chara (No. 21) feel the need to collapse on Villalba. But away from the ball, Chara’s CDM-mate David Guzman (trailing play) and center back Liam Ridgewell (No. 21) also appear preoccupied with the Atlanta striker, perhaps not expecting a wide player to be coming into a dangerous central position. Even left back Vytas Andriuškevičius (No. 5), who can see the entire play developing, doesn’t appear concerned or aware of Gressel’s presence.
And we all know what happens next, as Gressel receives the ball in front of a shocked Ridgewell, and finishes with aplomb.
Good for the Team
After Josef Martinez went down with injury, Atlanta have been in desperate search of a striker who fills a similar role. Kenwyne Jones struggled to fill that void, leaving Villalba as perhaps Atlanta's best option in Martinez' absence. But before making the move to Gressel, Martino had been given little choice but to start Jones without a viable option to replace Villalba out wide.
Meantime, whenever moving Villalba up front, playmaker Miguel Almiron was forced to move into Villalba’s spot, leaving Atlanta without a true attacking mid to pull the strings in the final third. In fact, it was Gressel himself who often tried to slot into the Paraguayan’s No. 10 position in these situations, and he struggled mightily.
Moving Gressel to a wide position cured both of these problems. Almiron was able to slide into the middle where he's most needed, while Villalba could comfortably move up top and provide the pacey outlet that the team needs in attack.
Martino's adeptness might not only pay dividends with regards to the teams' attacking shape, but also for Gressel himself. Gressel is clearly comfortable out wide, and now can play a position with more freedom and less pressure than a central mid. If he plays like he did in Portland, he may be able re-discover the form he enjoyed at the beginning season, paving the way for a return to the center of the pitch.
Surely, the inevitable return of Martinez will see Villalba back to his normal position out wide, leaving Gressel out of favor. But as long as Martinez remains out of commission, we've surely learned that the threat of Gressel on the right seems the best move, at least for the time being.