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How Atlanta United’s 3-5-2 formation beat Real Salt Lake

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Tata Martino showed us a more aggressive and conservative version of the formation. And it worked wonders.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Atlanta United FC Adam Hagy -USA TODAY Sports

An Important Gameplan for an Important Match

Atlanta United made Saturday’s victory over visiting Real Salt Lake look easy. But playing their third match in 7 days against a well-rested and in-form RSL side was no easy task. After all, the Five Stripes had only arrived back in town Thursday morning after a wild win in San Jose, and were preparing to play their third match in seven days.

With only one day of full training to prepare and surely tired legs aplenty, executing Tata Martino’s gameplan became all the more important. After playing primarily a 4-2-3-1 in SJ, Martino decided to revert to the below 3-5-2 (if we want to get nit-picky this is a 3-4-1-2) formation his side had used in Colorado one week previous. And his players executed the plan to a “T,” showing off the shape’s fluidity by getting back into position defensively, and then looking to score off the counter behind the individual brilliance of the attack.

Atlanta’s starting lineup and formation against RSL

In the end, United got exactly what they wanted. With a counter attacking style, they looked comfortable without the ball, limiting RSL chances for the full 90 minutes. And when the Five Stripes won the ball back, they looked exceedingly dangerous on the break.

Let’s take a look at how Atlanta’s gameplan stymied the visitors, leading the hosts to their third win in seven days, clinching a playoff bye and taking a critical step towards the Supporters Shield in the process.

First Half

In the first half Saturday, the Five Stripes came out looking to attack. But unlike in the 4-2-3-1 often used by Martino, high pressure and possession football give way to more of a delayed pressure, with the counter attack being a principle method of getting forward.

We can get an idea of how the tactic works below early in the match.

Watch forwards Tito Villalba, Josef Martinez and center attacking midfielder Miguel Almirón - the trio provides pressure high, but we can see that United’s shape is not as conducive to such pressure, and the defense quickly drops behind the ball after the three-man press is broken, looking to win it back in the defensive half. Meanwhile, the aforementioned three attackers show little initiative defensively, instead looking to find pockets of space to begin the counter should a well-positioned defense win the ball back. We also see how quickly Atlanta’s “back three” can transform into five, with Julian Gressel and George Bello getting back defensively in wide positions. Even though Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi have a difficult job defensively in the midfield with Almirón not coming back, the extra center back can easily step up and become a de facto defensive midfielder (we see Pirez do this above), and still have plenty of cover.

And while this shape often concedes possession, it still strikes great fear into opposition defenses with the brilliance of Atlanta’s front three ready to start the counter. And the presence of the three attackers also opens up space for right wing back Julian Gressel to run on to in wide areas. As we see with the buildup below leading to Villalba’s shot off the post, the attacking trio consistently wreak havoc on quick, direct attacks.

We see a similar result later in the half, leading to Atlanta taking the lead.

We really see the impact of Martino’s tactics above. Almirón and Martinez remain high up the pitch, creating a huge gap between defense and midfield. Mean time, Villalba is also positioned higher up the pitch in midfield, which draws the defense and opens up acres of space for Darlington Nagbe to run into. It’s also no mistake that once again we see a late arriving run from Gressel leading to the chance, and this time the German takes the final touch.

Second Half: A More Measured Approach

In the second half, United extended the lead to 2-0 on a goal from Villalba, and then showed off a more defensive outlook in the 3-5-2. For starters, Almirón and Tito were both asked to come back and defend. And the back three became a back five much more consistently, with Bello (and later Jose Hernandez) and Gressel staying at home in more traditional full back positions.

But Martino has never been one to completely park the bus. And the Five Stripes still looked extremely dangerous on the counter over the last 25 minutes or so, continuing to create the best chances despite not seeing a ton of the ball. Let’s take a look at one of those chances created through these tactics below.

We see that United look calm and composed with their defensive shape. We can also see that Almirón and Tito come back far further defensively than they were earlier in the match. However, although the Paraguayan internationals are being asked to play deeper, Martino doesn’t position them behind the ball, as they again wait to pounce on the counter. And with RSL throwing numbers forward, United created several chances this way, and may have won by more if not for the above heroics from Nick Rimando.

A Complete 90 Minutes

Perhaps the scoreline didn’t show it, but Atlanta United’s 3-5-2 formation absolutely dominated RSL at the Benz. Check out Opta’s xG plot below, showing that United had far more chances, and were essentially unperturbed by a decent RSL attack.

Not only did United dominate with respect to chance creation, they dominated in the exact manner that their manager intended thanks to a solid defensive shape that can seamlessly morph from three to five defenders, and of course the counterattacking proficiency of Almirón, Villalba, and Martinez.

The win over RSL showed us that Atlanta’s 3-5-2 is incredibly effective, but also quite fluid and multi-faceted. So with the playoffs looming, will this be United’s primary formation in the postseason? This writer certainly thinks so. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow and find out why.