Things couldn’t be rosier for Atlanta United and Tata Martino right now. They’re on the back of a 6-game unbeaten streak, the team will finally be at nearly perfect health with all its first team regulars in action, and to top it off, Martino apparently had a terrific breakfast Thursday morning.
The Atlanta United manager told media Thursday that Tito Villalba would be available for selection for Saturday’s matchup against the Montreal Impact at 1 p.m. ET. It’s unknown exactly how match fit he is, but judging by the commentary from a week ago when Martino said the injury was minor enough to play through if needed, it stands to reason that Villalba will be raring to go come Saturday.
While this is undoubtedly good news for the Five Stripes, it does present an interesting dilemma tactically. By most logical reasoning, the only way that Atlanta’s star-studded attacking quartet of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba can fit into the same lineup is if the team goes back to the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that it played for almost all of last season and the first game of the current campaign. Some fans seem to be fearful of a move away from the 3-5-2 that has brought with it so much success, but Tata Martino said Thursday there are good reasons for making the move back at some point.
“It’s probable, and it’s one of my wishes that we go back to a four-man back line at times — that we’re able to play both. It’s harder to press in the 3-5-2 because we’re playing with 5 defenders, so it’s harder for us to get an extra guy up the field to help with the press. The guys in central midfield do a good job and know what they have to do, but it’s tougher for us to push the outside guys up.
“What we’d like to improve is being higher up the field, and that is something we’ve been working on — having a higher line and press the team higher up the field and playing more of the game in the opponent’s half. That’s something we’re trying [to do] and something we did well in the first half against LA Galaxy. I think there are certain teams in the league where it will be more suitable for us to play a four-man back line, just down to the characteristics of the [opponent].”
I like this. I like it a lot. Atlanta United is good. Extremely good, in fact. Probably one of, if not the, most talented rosters in the league. The team needs to aim for more than merely winning matches. The team needs to win with a style and a flourish that matches the ambitious ethos that is the Atlanta United brand. The team has adopted the catchphrase “Unite and Conquer” as the club mantra. The team has united. Now it’s time to conquer, and quite frankly, can you really say you conquered MLS if you give up the ball and just hit teams on the counter? Not in my book.
Here’s why. The process of winning is just as important as the result itself. Because at the end of the day, results come and go. Sometimes you play well and you lose. Sometimes you play poorly and win (which I’d argue Atlanta United has done on at least one occasion this season). But what the coaching staff and players are in complete control of is the way they play, and that style is what will build a legacy in MLS. Every season produces a champion. There’s nothing inherently special about that in and of itself. What’s truly special is to create an on-field brand that matches the swagger and bravado and “bigness” the club has aimed for since day one.
So to accomplish all this, Atlanta needs to play on the front foot, impose themselves on the opposition for the vast majority of matches and be brave. That’s why a manager like Tata Martino is here — to help the club do this.
Now watch them play a 3-5-2 Saturday.