After a brilliant first season in MLS, Atlanta United FC were considered to be among the favorites to win the Eastern Conference in 2018. But a troubling 4-0 opening day defeat in Houston put a damper on some of that hype. With a potential early season crisis looming, manager Tata Martino went back to the drawing board, making some changes to his lineup and shape for game two against DC United.
The Argentine moved Michael Parkhurst back into the back four in place of Jeff Larentowicz, who in turn moved up to his normal spot at center defensive midfield (CDM). The other big change came from a switch in the team’s formation, as Martino altered the shape from AU’s usual 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2. And after 90 minutes on Saturday, the changes were surely vindicated. The Five Stripes were in control for most of the match, and rolled to a 3-1 win over visiting D.C. United.
As always, it was improved individual performances from United that made the real difference from the opening day clunker, especially in defense, where ATL sported a much more comfortable and organized look. But how did Martino’s formation tweak impact the match specifically? Turns out, the biggest impact was not so much in defense (where better individual performances made the difference), but in attack, as Martino’s system allowed for more freedom from his center attacking mid (CAM) Miguel Almirón and second striker, Tito Villalba. This attacking tweak worked wonders, and was directly responsible for the opening two goals.
New Shape, More Freedom
Before we dive into the goals, let’s gloss over some of the basics with respect to the 3-5-2. (Dirty South Soccer’s own John Fuller will be diving deeper into this later this week.) Let’s take a quick look at the shape from the opening kickoff.
Most of this is your standard 3-5-2 - Josef Martinez and Villalba move higher, while wing backs Julian Gressel and Greg Garza immediately push down the flanks, and the back three spread wide in possession. But what’s really interesting from the kickoff is the movement of Villalba and Almirón. Watch as Tito lags behind Martinez from the kickoff, sitting in space in the right half. Meanwhile, Almirón immediately drifts left. While these initial movements didn’t impact the play above, you can often learn players’ tactical orders in the early minutes, when the manager’s instructions are still fresh in their minds. And with hindsight at our disposal, it’s become quite clear that these first seconds were a sign of things to come from Atlanta.
Attacking “free roles” for Villalba and Almirón were the main wrinkle in Martino’s 3-5-2. The Argentine was allowed to drop deeper and find space, while fellow striker Martinez was able to focus on his more preferred role of a traditional No. 9. Meanwhile, with two strikers instead of one, Almirón is increasingly able to drift left (as he prefers) or deeper into midfield to find the ball, knowing that he wouldn’t be leaving Martinez isolated up front, and that Villalba could fill in at the traditional CAM position in his stead, when necessary. We see an example below, as the Atlanta playmaker links with Greg Garza down the left just moments into the match, effectively transitioning the Five Stripes from defense to attack.
This wouldn’t work nearly as well if Miggy was stationed specifically in the middle of the pitch. But with two up front, we see Villalba easily able to temporarily fill in at Almirón’s usual No. 10 role beneath Martinez, allowing Almirón to set up the attack from the left alongside Garza with virtually zero resistance.
Goal No. 1
What’s important here is the movement of Villalba. Watch him at the very beginning of the clip when DC still have the ball, as he stays wide and actually moves away from the defense while the visitors posses, ending up in this dangerous attacking area.
Once the ball is won back, it’s as simple as Nagbe finding the pacey Villalba behind the defense, leaving the undeniable quality of Tito and Martinez to do the rest.
Simply put, this is a goal that likely isn’t possible in the 4-2-3-1, at least not from this exact position. Were Tito playing as a right winger, he would likely be asked to do a job defensively here, rather than backing away and providing an outlet for the counter. Martinez isn’t the type of player to come back deep (especially into wide areas) to start the counter anyway, but more of the poaching type who wants to get the final touch. With Josef playing the role of poacher and Tito freed up to provide him service, this counter attack becomes possible.
Goal No. 2
Similar to the first goal, it’s the freedom afforded to AU’s attackers that generates the opportunity. Check out how the play starts - Almirón has again floated to the left wing, receiving the LGP long ball from that spot to start the attack, before cutting inside into acres of space. As we see below, the middle of the pitch is wide open as Almirón moves towards the center.
Had the CAM not been afforded such freedoms, he would likely be positioned in that open space centrally. Instead, Atlanta’s superstar has acres of space to dribble into, with two strikers occupying the back line. The other key is Julian Gressel. You’d never know the second-year man was making his right wing back debut, as he does brilliantly to get high and wide immediately.
Then, as the ball approaches him, Villalba once again drops deeper, while Martinez makes the “striker’s run” into the box. This creates a numerical mismatch on the right with Gressel and Tito, preventing DCU’s Nick DeLeon from applying immediate ball pressure to Villalba before he finds the German with space and time. The individual qualities of the German and Paraguayan take care of the rest.
Once again, the directives for Almirón to find the ball in a plethora of areas (especially the left) and for Tito to drop deep from his forward position (mainly on the right), have created the basis for the goal.
The Way Forward?
The Five Stripes may have enjoyed great success in the 3-5-2 last weekend. But the gaffer isn’t ready to commit to it just yet.
“I’m not saying we’re going to play that way every game,” he said. “The team is capable of both systems. I thought it was a good chance to try it today.”
With plenty of season left, it’s too early to draw conclusions on the 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 formations. Larentowicz moving to CDM perhaps made just as much of a difference as the change in shape, as did the revelation of Gressel at right wing back. But what we do know is that Martino’s iteration of the 3-5-2 means increased freedom for the likes of Villalba and Almirón, and it was such freedom that spurred Atlanta to all three points on Saturday.