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Atlanta United’s Defensive Resurgence the Key

Improved play from Atlanta’s defense, especially its center halves, has spurred on their recent success.

ATLANTA UNITED

A New Day

A successful footballing side typically features a strong pair of center halves. And after a rough start to the season in the back, it’s certainly no coincidence that Atlanta’s current run of fine defensive form starts with the pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who have arguably enjoyed their best stretch of play this year over the past two months.

With both center backs firing on all cylinders, AUFC have been able to grind out several important results during a time where the offense was firing blanks. This helped AUFC to wins at Columbus and Orlando City, and earning a point in Kansas City and Philadelphia. Altogether the Five Stripes have conceded just seven times over the last eight matches.

The shift comes both thanks to a newfound solidity between Parkhurst and Pirez, and a tweak in tactics from Tata Martino. Between the two, AUFC will hope that they have found the formula for a consistent defensive unit.

Too Much Freedom?

Martino wants his side to attack and play at a high tempo, requiring players to be more flexible with their positioning, allowing for them to participate consistently in both defense and attack. This principle holds true even for his center halves. Parkhurst has always been known for his solid on-ball ability, while the talented Gonzalez Pirez loves to get involved in the attack, spraying long balls over the top, and even making marauding runs forward when possible, which is likely why he is currently second on the team in successful dribbles per game, per whoscored.com

Although the defensive unit showed flashes of brilliance over the first month of the season, the “free flowing” play from the back four was soon providing more bad than good. This trend was especially on display on the road, where the team went winless over a five- match stretch during May and June. During this run, the back four leaked goals, conceding 13 times during that stretch. And although Atlanta’s plethora of attacking talent was often enough to win matches at home, improved defensive performances were clearly needed to get results away, where it’s always harder to score goals.

Not only were Atlanta conceding in bunches, but many of the goals frustratingly stemmed from the individual errors of Parkhurst and/or Pirez, spelling disaster in the back. Both were perhaps guilty of abusing the freedom afforded them by their manager, losing the ball in bad areas after over-elaborating on the ball, missing on overly direct passes, and marking poorly on set pieces.

We see one example of this below, as mistakes by each center back result in the go-ahead goal in Chicago, a goal that came during a period where the Five Stripes were seemingly in control of the match.

Parkhurst makes the initial error that leads to the chance, as he pays the price for dribbling out of the back, losing the ball with little cover. Meanwhile, LGP falls asleep as his captain wanders forward, falling asleep and not holding the defensive line properly, which allows tbe speedy David Accam to get in behind.

Now, let’s check out another bit of poor defending during the loss in New York, when David Villa and company wreaked havoc on the Atlanta defense at Yankee Stadium.

Watch as the long ball comes from NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, and you’ll see where LGP and Parkhurst get it wrong, as both of them aggressively press high to try and win the header, leaving the 18-yard box completely open for eventual goal scorer Maxi Moralez.

Soon after these defeats, Atlanta’ road form truly hit rock bottom, as they were defeated by Eastern Conference cellar dwellers, D.C. United. The opposition had only scored once in their previous eight matches, but came through with a 2-1 victory and thoroughly dominated the match. Having suffered defeat to one of the league’s worst sides on the road, it was clearly time to make some changes to what seemed a completely inept defensive unit, at least away from home.

Making the Change

The first signs of new defensive life came during a trip to Columbus in July. The Crew had enjoyed a strong season at home thus far, and featured the dangerous attacking triumvirate of Justin Meram, Ola Kamara, and Frederico Higuain. But when the final whistle blew, AUFC had turned in one of their more solid performances of the season, getting a brace from Tito Villalba and shutting down the Crew attack in a 2-0 victory.

So what changed? Much of the recent success has to do with a newfound positional discipline from Parkhurst and LGP.

As we see here, the center backs stay composed and alert as the Crew progress into an dangerous attacking position. Parkhurst marks Kamara out of the play, and Pirez stays at home rather than aggressively pushing up on his man, which allows for him to eventually provide the all-important interception to prevent the chance. Just think about the difference here as compared to the aforementioned goal for NYCFC, where both center backs prematurely pressed forward, conceding an easy chance for the opposition. Not so this time, as both center backs play a more settled and conservative style, preventing a chance in the process.

The system remained during late July’s trip south to Orlando. Although Atlanta’s set piece defending was quite poor throughout the 90 minutes, United did defend well in the run of play, especially in the second half as OCSC threw bodies forward, forcing Martino to finish with an especially defensive outlook that featured a center midfield trio made up exclusively of defensive minded middies in Jeff Larentowicz, Carlos Carmona, and Chris McCann.

But while much of the improved defensive form simply comes down to smarter play from the back line, Martino has had an obvious impact, too. While in the past we saw the back four exposed after pushing high up the pitch with, or without the ball, the pass maps below show that the two center backs have clearly been instructed to avoid these scenarios, sitting deeper and not getting forward as often.

This is made obvious when looking at the pairing’s slight change in positioning. Just check out the positioning of Parkhurst and Pirez when comparing early-season road defeats to DCU and NYCFC to away performances against SKC and Columbus.

Here we can see the change up close. In both of the defeats, Pirez and Parkhurst are positioned higher up the pitch as one. But in the more recent matches against KC and Columbus, we see a much more conservative version of LGP and Parkhurst, with both playing deeper. and one playing behind the other to provide defensive cover.

Interestingly, Martino has not changed a thing at home, where the team has enjoyed fine form all season. Allowing for completely free-flowing movement, Pirez and Parkhurst are given much more freedom to roam forward.

As we can see from the previous two home matches, the center backs are much further forward than away from home, with Pirez even playing a bit in front of Parkhurst and Larentowicz.

hat being said, United have hardly played at home over the last three months. And considering the success his defense has had away from home, coupled with the subsequent drop in form from the attack, it’s certainly possible that Martino will stick with the system he’s largely crafted away from home.

The New Normal?

With his expansion side playing mainly on the road thus far, Martino’s side have been up against it from day one. But his adjustments defensively have made a big difference in keeping the team above the red line despite playing so many matches away from home. And the proof is in the pudding. Thanks to a strong back line, the Five Stripes have been able to get results in Orlando, Kansas City, and Philadelphia, all matches where the attack was not at its best, giving Martino’s side an important lifeline during a time where many teams’ season may have hit skids.

This newfound defensive consistency should give United confidence heading into the business end of the season. Without question United’s attack must rediscover their early season form. But the team will have confidence knowing that a solid back line gives them the ability to grind out an ugly result, when needed.

Should the defensive continue its good play and a star-studded attack find its footing, United could be set for a special run of form as they open up Mercedez Benz Stadium this month. And as we’ve seen from past matches, the key to success may rest with continued good play from Atlanta’s starting center halves.