Welcome to Atlanta
When Atlanta United signed defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz last December, few batted an eye. Tata Martino had seemingly signed a solid veteran player to merely provide depth and experience. Furthermore, Larentowicz’ style of play didn’t seem to fit. While reliable and consistent over his 12-years in the league, his playing style hardly fit the aggressive, creative, attacking vision of his manager.
This narrative seemingly continued into preseason and briefly into the regular season, as well. Rookie Julian Gressel forced his way into the starting lineup through the middle to start the year, with Chilean international Carlos Carmona serving as the team’s central defensive midfielder (CDM). Larentowicz did start the second match of the season for the suspended Carmona, before returning to the bench and coming on as a late substitute against Chicago. Then, after injuries and suspensions forced him into the lineup, he struggled in matches against Seattle and Toronto, pairing poorly with the more aggressive and enigmatic Carmona in front of the back four. It seemed that at full strength, Larentowicz was best used as a sub when the team was looking to switch to a more conservative approach.
But soon Tata Martino realized that while the Brown alum’s positioning and style of play indeed may not match up with that of his teammates, this exact contrast could provide great value. And today, Larentowicz has surely gone from a squad player to an invaluable part of the starting 11, as his more conservative style allows all those around him the freedom that they covet.
Protecting Against the Counter
It is no secret that Martino wants his side to get forward and take chances. We see this with both full backs Tyrone Mears and Greg Garza bombing forward. Even center half Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is often looking to get into the attack. This sort of attacking style is easy on the eye, but it can also lead to a slew of chances for the opposition whenever Atlanta loses the ball and players are caught out of position defensively.
Like many teams have this season, the Houston Dynamo came to Atlanta last Sunday sporting a conservative formation meant to absorb the host’s pressure, and then pounce on any United error in attack and counter. In the end, AUFC enjoyed a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the Dynamo. But the game might have been different had Houston been able to score on a series of counters early in the match. Enter, Larentowicz.
In this particular instance, we see Larentowicz slotting in for Pirez, who wants to be more aggressive with the ball at his feet. Fortunately, Larentowicz is covering the space in behind LGP after he gets caught on the ball, slowing down the counter and turning a full blown opportunity into a half-chance for Mauro Manotas.
Larentowicz’ positioning can also provide protection for the wide players. As we see in the play below, Larentowicz is able to save left back Greg Garza, who is caught high up the left side of the pitch after the team loses the ball on the opposite flank. Garza has no chance to catch back up to winger Andrew Wenger after the ball is lost. But Larentowicz again gets into a position to cut off the run, turning a one-on-one with the goalkeeper into a harmless strike from Boniek Garcia.
With the Ball
Larentowicz’ style also allows his surrounding teammates to move freely in the attack. Below, we see one of Larentowicz’ more unnoticed and invaluable contributions to AUFC’s shape, as he drops all the way in between both center halves, allowing for a quick switch of play between Pirez and Michael Parkhurst, as well as a critical safety valve defensively should the ball be lost.
This clip shows that this was clearly a directive from Martino, as Larentowicz is between the center backs immediately after the opening kickoff.
Now, let’s look below at the tactic in action, and it’s immense value to holding onto possession.
Parkhurst realizes he’s dribbling into trouble down the right wing, with fellow center half Pirez a risky long ball’s distance away. Larentowicz provides an outlet for the under pressure Parkhurst, making the switch of play and easy retention of possession look simple.
While the MLS veteran’s propensity to drop deep pays dividends defensively, it can also provide the anchor for a back-to-front attack, especially when teams are chasing the game, and forced to high press Atlanta’s back four and midfield. Typically, this means we will also see Carmona dropping into a consistently deeper position to counteract the opponent’s press, but his role as an aggressive ball winner can remain the same (just in a more constricted area), thanks to the presence of his fellow CDM.
Just look how Larentowicz’ contribution helps Carmona and Pirez play freely even against constant pressure from the Houston front line, helping them find attackers in space for a quick and danger counter, leading to a penalty kick.
It’s Larentowicz’ mere presence that allows Atlanta to stay composed and confident against the high press of Houston. First, Pirez runs into trouble, but knows he can come back to Larentowicz (although he actually misplaces the pass). We also see Carmona able to press freely to force the giveaway, with Larentowicz covering should be find himself over-committed. Once again, Larentowicz is aware and positioned perfectly after Carmona forces the turnover, quickly re-distributing to Pirez, and his more creative and technical teammates do the rest.
While Larentowicz’ role is clearly crucial when on the field, his value has often become even more clear when he is not on the pitch.
Lawrentowicz absence during the D.C. United provides a perfect blueprint of how United can struggle without him. In both the Houston and D.C. matches, the road side came to Bobby Dodd with virtually identical counter attacking tactics. And like Houston, D.C. also created some chances from early Atlanta gaffes. But against D.C. there was no Larentowicz to cover for these errors, and the counters and direct attacks that turned into half chances against the Dynamo ended up being Atlanta’s undoing in the 3-1 defeat. Watch as Luciano Acosta’s game-changing and game-winning goal from which AUFC could never recover.
Acosta exploits the aggressiveness of Atlanta’s center mids, easily beating the early pressure from Gressel, while Carmona shows his aggressive roots by marking tightly higher up the pitch, leaving the back four vulnerable to Acosta’s run. Larentowicz sitting in that space surely makes things much more difficult for Acosta.
It’s hard to imagine anyone could have predicted that Jeff Larentowicz would provide such a critical piece to Atlanta United. But as we’ve seen, it’s what makes him different from his teammates that makes him so special.