With Atlanta United right back Franco Escobar reportedly picking up an injury in the lead-up to Atlanta United’s match against Orlando City last Friday, Tata Martino elected to replace him with Julian Gressel, starting for the first time as a traditional right back.
Several months ago, I asked Martino whether he thought Julian Gressel could serve as a right back in his preferred 4-2-3-1 lineup, and he furrowed his brow and shook his head, explaining that he was still learning to adapt his game, at that time, to the wingback position he was playing in a 3-5-2.
But Friday, Martino decided Gressel was ready for the role. He didn’t have to play Gressel at right back. It seems it would be easy enough to revert the team into a 3-5-2 like the team played against Toronto a couple weeks ago when Escobar was serving a suspension. But by playing the German international at right back, not only did it show how desperate Martino is to keep Gressel in the lineup based on form, but it showed faith that he’d hold up defensively in a highly charged atmosphere.
And he did. Gressel was superb on the night, rarely getting beaten by opposing wingers and helping the Five Stripes dominate the ball going forward. We know that Gressel’s strengths lie in his ability to combine with midfield and provide service to Josef Martinez, and we saw that ability manifest itself in Gressel’s assist on Martinez’s record-breaking goal.
The most interesting part of Gressel’s involvement in that attacking move was the way Gressel involved himself. Typically, fullbacks won’t veer far from the touchline when the team has the ball, generally serving as a player that stretches the pitch wide and can swing in crosses if left unmarked. Of course, Gressel’s skillset fits this role to a T and it’s what he did for most of the night. However, for his assist, he showed his versatility by coming infield after playing a 1-2 with Tito Villalba and serving Josef like a true playmaker from a central position. This is the kind of dynamism that only Gressel can offer Atlanta United from the right back position.
Of course, the counter-argument to Gressel keeping his spot at right back over Escobar at this point—aside from inherent experience at the position—is defensively. The sample size of Gressel’s defensive ability at the position is obviously limited, but if the German were to be the right back in the playoffs, he’d be facing much more talented attacking opposition than what was in front of him Friday. That’s not to say he can’t be a sound defensive player at right back, I just think we don’t know for certain yet. That said, the signs Friday were positive ones.
Additionally, you can argue that come playoff time, it’s very beneficial to have a player of Gressel’s versatility on the bench. That way, you can use him as a substitute at almost any position and his insertion could even coincide with changing the shape, which can be very difficult for opposing teams to deal with on the fly. That said, Tata Martino has shown no inclination thus far of removing Gressel from the starting lineup. Martino has started him in 25 of Atlanta’s 26 games this season and has lasted the full 90 minutes in 21 of those 25 matches.
We’ve known that selection issues will appear as Ezequiel Barco comes back into the team and Darlington Nagbe and Greg Garza regain fitness. At the end of the day, some very good MLS players—All-Star caliber players—will be left on the bench for the playoffs barring injury. What would you do if you were Tata? Regardless, we can all agree it’s a good problem to have.