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Film Room: Examining how Tata Martino shuffled Atlanta United’s midfield vs. the Chicago Fire

With his midfield mostly back to full health, Tata Martino showed us another tactical wrinkle on Saturday.

Winning Ugly

Atlanta United’s 2-1 win over Chicago Fire wasn’t pretty, but it was a crucial victory, as the three points helped maintain the Five Stripes’ narrow one-point lead over New York Red Bulls in the Supporters Shield race. But the manner of the victory was perhaps the best sign, as Atlanta United showed the ability to “win ugly,” grinding out a one-goal win late after struggling to do so in similar situations earlier this season (vs. Toronto, at Dallas, at New England, for starters).

So, what was the secret formula that saw a far more comfortable Atlanta United down the stretch? Surely, part of it has to do with the natural evolution and growth of the squad throughout the season. But another side to the story is Tata Martino’s second half adjustment in the center of midfield. With an almost fully-healthy midfield (save, Miguel Almirón) and backline at his disposal, Atlanta’s manager opted to leave usual-starter Jeff Larentowicz on the bench. The defensive midfielder’s (“CDM” or “No. 6”) entry helped secure the defense while maintaining aggressive in attack. In the end, the Five Stripes would flourish in an area where they have at times struggled this season—closing out matches.

Remedi Anchors Midfield

Larentowicz has spent the majority of his time this season playing the No. 6 role for Atlanta United. But in his absence, we saw Atlanta’s summer signing, Eric Remedi, in Larentowicz’s stead. In front of him were Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel (who likely started in place of Miguel Almirón).

Needless to say, the Remedi-Nagbe-Gressel group is not one of Atlanta’s more commonly employed midfield trios. And the results were predictably mixed. While all three completed passes at a high percentage and did well going forward, their defensive work showed why these three had not yet been selected together in a starting 11 all year before Saturday. Nagbe and Gressel both played in in front of Remedi in the middle, leaving the Argentine all by his lonesome in front of the back four - a role where his natural instincts as a ball-winning midfielder could at times lead him astray. Let’s look at the match’s best example of such, as the trio struggle to get organized and Remedi over pursues, inadvertently aiding the Fire attack on the equalizing goal.

Watch how Remedi steps up into the midfield, leaving the soft underbelly of the defense (in front of the two center backs) wide open. This leaves the center backs vulnerable, and once Brandt Bronico gets the ball and is able to dribble into the middle with ease, it’s only a matter of seconds before Brad Guzan is picking the ball out of the back of his net.

We see in the screenshot below that Remedi is not back to protect space in front of the back four (the main defensive duty of a CDM), and that Gressel or Nagbe are not able to cover that space in time. Meanwhile, Bronico is free to dribble into the center, putting the Atlanta back line in a tough spot.

Let’s watch one more example below. Again, Remedi over pursues into midfield, leaving space open in front of the defenders, and the Five Stripes barely escape without conceding.

Watch Remedi as he once again over pursues from a deeper spot, leaving the space for Aleksandar Katai to show into and start the attack. With Katai flashing into the space Remedi has left vacant, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is pulled into the midfield to defend. Meanwhile, Remedi trails the play helplessly, unable to protect his defense in the manner he would like.

Enter, Larentowicz

Despite being out of position a few times in the first half, it’s hard to truly criticize Remedi to and expect him to go against his natural instincts as a ball-winner, and sit back in front of the defense at all times. We know by now that his natural game is to provide pressure and win the ball back, something he’s done to great acclaim all season. But as the second half wore on with Atlanta holding a tenuous one-goal advantage, adjustments were needed in midfield.

That adjustment came in the form of Jeff Larentowicz, who entered the match for Andrew Carleton in the 67th minute. We get an idea of Larentowicz’ instructions immediately after coming on to the pitch.

Right away, you can see the Brown alum taking up the the space in front of the back four, covering the exact area that was left empty whenever the Fire looked dangerous in the first half. We get a brief look at Remedi, who has pushed higher up the pitch, ready to try and get forward in attack and also win the ball back, when called upon.

This change helped Martino’s side gain solidity in front of the back four with Larentowicz, while also staying aggressive in attack with Remedi moving into more of a box-to-box position with Nagbe alongside him, and Gressel moving right for the substituted Carleton.

We see an example below of how the move helped Atlanta maintain their aggressiveness, with Larentowicz providing a safety valve in front of the defense. -

Larentowicz doesn’t even come into the frame, but we can safely assume he’s in his deeper lying position, preventing any sort of direct play out of the back and forcing Chicago to build up under pressure. Mean time, with Larentowicz covering behind him, Remedi is now allowed to freely roam up the pitch and press freely. Watch how Remedi’s more-aggressive positioning allows him to cut off a seemingly easy pass, leading to a bad touch and giveaway from the Fire’s Diego Campos.

We saw how the tactic helped Atlanta stay aggressive above. Now let’s see how the tactic works on the defensive side.

Gressel over-pursues from his wide right position to allow the Fire into a similar wide area that started the first goal. But with Larentowicz in position and goal-side of his man centrally, the incisive ball into the middle isn’t available, as it was at times earlier in the match. It’s no mistake that Remedi, now allowed to press and chase more freely, ends up winning the ball back, starting a counter and subsequent long spell of possession for the hosts.

We saw one last wrinkle in the very late-going, as Atlanta fell deeper into a defensive shell to combat the Fire becoming increasingly desperate in attack. Watch below as Larentowicz drops even deeper to provide an extra center back, which allows the midfield to continue to press aggressively, even though Atlanta are forced to play deeper thank to Chicago’s exceedingly aggressive attack.

A Hidden Weapon

Don’t look now, but if Miguel Almirón is back healthy by the playoffs, Martino will be able to make adjustments like this almost seamlessly within his center midfield. With the likes of the star Paraguayan, Remedi, Larentowicz, Nagbe and Gressel all seeing plenty of minutes at center midfield this season, there are wealth of riches at the position, all of them bringing different strengths and weaknesses to the unit.

Of course, we know Almirón will start, if healthy. But the other two spots can be molded to Martino’s liking. For instance, Should the Five Stripes be looking to open up with a more conservative midfield on the road against, say, a DC United, Martino can employ the more defensive pairing tandem of the steady and disciplined Larentowicz with the aggressive ball-winner in Remedi to break up attacks. If they’re chasing a match or looking to boss a match like against Chicago, we might see Remedi all by himself at the CDM spot, with the likes of the dynamic Nagbe or the blossoming attacker in Gressel driving the team forward beneath or even alongside Almirón. And even scarier, the directions of the midfield can change easily with a simple substitution, as we saw with Larentowicz’ entry last Saturday.

We aren’t sure just yet how Martino will handle his logjam at midfield. But with so many proven players to choose from, this is clearly a “good problem” for Atlanta United.