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The Good and Bad of Atlanta United’s 3-5-2

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The match against NYCFC showed us both sides of the new formation.

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know by now, Tata Martino shifted Atlanta United’s shape after a dismal start to the season in Houston, moving from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2. Yours truly and our own John Fuller covered the manager’s formation change last month. And the move sparked the team’s current five-match unbeaten run, seeing AU shift into a more direct, counter attacking side in recent weeks.

However, Sunday’s visit from unbeaten NYCFC surely represented United’s biggest test of the season. And in the end, the visitors thoroughly tested Atlanta throughout a quality 90 minutes of play that finished 2-2. Not only did NYCFC become the first team to take points off of the hosts since that opening day debacle in Houston, but they also tested Atlanta’s 3-5-2 to the max, at times exposing the shape’s weaknesses. Meanwhile, to their credit, AU responded brilliantly, showing off the potency of the team’s shape despite the quality of opposition.

Goal No. 1

Simply put, Atlanta’s opening goal was an absolute thing of beauty. After a poor backpass from Chris McCann temporarily put the hosts under pressure, United win the ball back and storm forward to net the opening goal from Greg Garza.

Let’s again recall one of Martino’s main directives in the 3-5-2 - that one of his “strikers” is not required to stay high up the pitch like a typical No. 9, and are instead allowed to roam into space to start attacks. And as we’ve also discussed previously, Miguel Almirón in particular likes to drift to his left to find space when he’s a part of the strike pairing, and he does so to start the attack above.

But let’s not forget about the goal scorer Greg Garza, whose positioning as a wing back was perfect. Watch Garza after AU win the ball back, as the left footer keeps his width while the defense tracks Almirón into the middle. Then, he shows his tactical directives as a wing back in a 3-5-2, staying in line with the ball, cutting inside in case a back post ball is played, and then finding himself on hand to slot home the rebound after Sean Johnson spilled the Almirón shot.

But what’s also interesting about this goal is that we see the advantages of the 3-5-2 on the defensive side. When the play begins, it looks like AU are in trouble. But the poor back pass from center half McCann isn’t the death knell it might be in a back four, as he has not one, but two fellow center halves to cover in Michael Parkhurst and Leondro Gonzalez Pirez. And of course Mr. Reliable Jeff Larentowicz is there to assist from his defensive midfield position. We see the play beginning to develop below.

Larentowicz covering is absolutely crucial, but having LGP already positioned centrally is a big help. Above we see Larentowicz communicating to Parkhurst to show Medina to his right, as he believes that he and LGP can cut off Medina’s stronger left side. Not only is this bit of communication critical, but it also shows quick thinking on the part of Larentowicz and Parkhurst, as a left footed player such as Medina would typically be shown onto his stronger left side. But with two center backs, and Larentowicz trailing, quick communication and good positioning effectively cuts off any realistic method of attack for the tricky winger. Just look below at the results before Parkhurst wins the ball back.

Parkhurst is in position to make the tackle, while Larentowicz (who is still motioning for Parkhurst to show Medina right) successfully cuts off Medina’s stronger left side, with LGP likely their to cover should he get beat. Meanwhile, Parky simply waits for the left footer to move to his weak side, wins the ball, and starts the attack thereafter.

Again, we see how the 3-5-2 may have created a goal that wouldn’t have occurred in a different shape. Would the defense have been able to recover from McCann’s error with only one center half back to cover? Does Almirón find that space wide left if he’s not given a license to roam by Martino? And of course, is Garza that high up the pitch if he’s playing a traditional fullback position in a back four? Take away any of these three occurrences, and this is a goal that likely does not happen.

By Design

Also worth noting is the stark similarities between the opening goal against NYCFC, and Almirón’s cracking finish against D.C. United. When we take a look at that the many common factors of the two goals, it becomes clear that neither happened by accident.

While some of the specifics of the two goals are different, we can see the movement of the involved players is basically identical. For both goals, Atlanta’s No. 10 receives the ball in essentially the exact same spot on the left wing as the attack develops. We also see Josef Martinez on the last man, keeping the defenders occupied as Almirón takes his space centrally. And of course, we see both wing backs getting forward and stretching the defense, either receiving the ball to provide service to the middle, or occupying defenders to create space centrally.

For reference, let’s take a look at the fascinatingly similar positioning from both goals as Almirón pulls the trigger.

Miggy, Martinez, Garza, and Gressel are in almost the exact same spots (the only difference is Tito Villalba also getting forward against DC). Pretty cool, right? Quite clearly, these two goals show us just how Atlanta firing on all cylinders in the 3-5-2 should look, and also reveals how Martino wants his attackers positioned in attack.

Weaknesses

Like all formations, the 3-5-2 also has its vulnerabilities. But it wasn’t until the NYCFC draw that we truly saw them. As we discussed in the previous section, the Atlanta wing backs are expected to push up into attack. This can leave huge spaces in wide areas, asking the center halves at times to track all the way into those wide positions to defend. We hadn’t seen this soft spot of Atlanta’s shape truly tested, until Patrick Vieira’s side visited Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Our most obvious examples came via NYCFC’s two best attacking moments of the opening half. First, we see an early chance from Jo Inge Berget saved by Brad Guzan.

Had Atlanta been in a 4-2-3-1, that space would’ve been harder to find for Berget. But with three in the back and Gressel all by his own on the right, he is forced to step higher up the pitch to stop the ball, forcing Pirez to fill in where the right back otherwise would be in a back four. While perhaps you could ask more of the AU defense here, the chance stems from Gressel getting overloaded on his side, opening up space for the dangerous Berget behind him.

We see another example when NYCFC win a penalty in the 35th minute. Watch below as the play develops, and a lovely piece of play from the visitors leads to a chance from the spot.

This is perhaps one of the best examples of Atlanta’s vulnerability when it comes to attacks into wide areas, as the aggressive positioning of Gressel or Garza can leave the Five Stripes completely exposed. One can’t blame the German in this case, as he simply has no chance to get back into position after the ball is abruptly lost. Just look where he is at the top of the screenshot below when the ball is given away.

Needless to say, there is simply no way that a wing back can be expected to recover from that position. Instead, with the center backs occupied by David Villa and Maxi Moralez, Berget is able to streak unmarked down the flank. And he has a full head of steam before he is even challenged, at which time he pulls off a nifty move to draw the penalty on Parkhurst.

While the two situations arise from different types of plays, the trend is clear - there is space in wide areas where the AU defense can be had. The key is getting into those areas either before the wing backs can recover defensively (the penalty), or by overloading the wing backs and forcing one of the three center backs to come wide and mark (Berget’s first chance). It is the responsibility of one of Atlanta’s three center backs to come wide in either of these scenarios, forcing them to defend in areas where a central player is typically less comfortable defensively.

Nothing is Perfect

While the visitors showed some of the flaws in United’s attacking 3-5-2 shape, it’s important to note that there is not a formation in existence without it’s vulnerabilities. For example, while a 4-2-3-1 may make it easier to navigate in the back and defend better against counters, stronger sides sometimes were able to neutralize and isolate Josef Martinez up front. With two up front and three in the back, Almirón , Villalba, or Ezequiel Barco can venture up top and take some of the pressure off of Atlanta’s top scorer. And in the mean time, AU are able to keep three center mids and not get outnumbered in the middle.

In the end, it’s the performance of the players on the pitch that will inevitably exploit the weaknesses of any formation. And a class side like NYCFC clearly showed us that just like all shapes and formations, the 3-5-2 can certainly be opened up and exposed.

The good news is that Atlanta’s play in their current shape has yielded far more positive than negative. As long as the team remains in fine form, it’s surely likely we’ll see much more of the fun side of Atlanta’s formation, whether it be a 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, or something else.