Sometimes we get too hung up on formations. Are we in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3? Is it a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2?
“Technically it’s a 3-6-1,” some jerk will likely say.
The bottom line is the formation of a team is not as important as the players fielded in the lineup and the relationships they have with on another. The only thing that matters is that 1) players are well-suited to their roles and 2) the roles deployed compliment each other. Soccer tactics is nothing more than optimizing your attacking potency while remaining solid defensively.
As Atlanta United’s star signing Ezequiel Barco nears his return to the team to embark upon his first action in MLS, fans are debating how he will fit into the lineup, and what repercussions the move will have on the squad. In all honesty, it shouldn’t be that difficult.
Much has been made about the 3-5-2 that the Five Stripes have used over the last two games, but it’s really not a huge departure from what Atlanta did for much of last year. In possession last season, Jeff Larentowicz would drop between the two center backs, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst, to create a back 3. This season, the back three is still there, except this time it’s the right back, Franco Escobar, serving as the third centerback (only difference being Escobar is playing as the right sided center back instead of in the middle like Larentowicz did).
Here’s the 3-5-2 Atlanta has used its last two games.
But if we remove the names and simply look at the spread, of the players, we can see that this formation is more-or-less a tilted version of a 4-2-3-1.
Why does this matter? It shows that Barco can be introduced into the team without having to drop any of Atlanta’s star attacking players, all while keeping the same overall tactical flow.
This is essentially the same formation as the 3-5-2 with some small tweaks. On the right side, the role of RWB is basically split duties between Tito Villalba and Franco Escobar. Tito provides the forward thrust and counter-attacking threat while Escobar controls the space behind him. On the left side, insert Barco. He will cut inside and link up with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, creating a new, dynamic attacking triumvirate.
Key to all of this is Franco Escobar. Like Larentowicz last year, he will need to be smart in his positioning to make sure the team has balance, especially defensively. In the season opener against Houston, we saw Escobar venturing too high and too far infield and was caught out of position.
A reserved fullback role, as far as positioning goes, is becoming a trend in the modern game. For much of the last decade, we’ve seen fullbacks become more and more attacking, but we’re starting to see many adopt a more disciplined, technical approach in the mold of a Phillip Lahm. Players like David Alaba, Joshua Kimmich, David Azpilacueta, Fabian Delph, and many more are becoming more and more valuable, since they allow teams to have more versatility and tactical unpredictability overall. Here’s a short overview on Delph’s role at Man City under Pep Guardiola.
The bottom line to all of this is the formation in which Atlanta United plays is not the determining factor about whether a tactic will be successful or not. The determining factor is the tactical relationship the players have with one another on the pitch. Atlanta has found great balance the last two weeks, and when you strike that level of harmony, you don’t even seem like you miss a $15 million dollar player. But if Barco can be integrated without disrupting the rest of the team... watch out.