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How Atlanta United’s playing style evolved in 2018

Versatile shape and tactics were key to the championship winning side

MLS: Atlanta United FC at San Jose Earthquakes John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

In their inaugural 2017 season, it was pretty easy to describe Atlanta United. Without the ball they pressed high hoping to force their opponents into mistakes in the most dangerous of areas (and then create shots in transition). In possession, they spread out and worked the ball patiently (and fairly indirectly) to invite pressure from their opponents and to pass through them to create above average final third chances. You could back up this description with stats as well. Atlanta had elite pressing figures (close behind the dogmatic pressing New York teams) and had some of the highest possession numbers in the league. While their 2017 shot output was respectable but not remarkable, Atlanta converted the shots they created at astronomical rates, perhaps from some luck, but perhaps from creating space by way of the sheer number of quality attacking options on the field at one time.

The 2018 Atlanta United playing style is slightly more opaque — a cocktail of several different motivations at different points in the season. It begun in the offseason when linchpins of the high press, left sided attacking midfielder Yamil Asad and central midfield rover Carlos Carmona weren’t back for 2018. Asad and Carmona were (at least initially) replaced by Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe, two players crisp on the ball, who could dominate possession with skilled passing and dribbling, clever movement, and tidy ball control, but who were hardly known for their tenacity and defensive pressure. Nonetheless when the whistle blew in Houston to begin the team’s 2018 campaign, Gerardo Martino’s men were strutting in the ole 4-3-3 and applying a furious pressure to the Dynamo. And then, within a half hour they were getting their asses kicked like they hadn’t experienced before. The game ended three goals to nil? four?...hell I don’t remember. Houston scored several times and left the team (and fanbase) stunned.

What’s relevant about that match to this discussion is that the loss was a cataclysmic event as it relates to Atlanta’s tactics (or at least to it’s formation). Over the next 8 games, Tata’s team played a 3-5-2, with the manager speaking about the switch as his own way of replacing Carlos Carmona (his true replacement in Eric Remedi had yet to arrive). The team played well and won 7 of those next 8 games, but the 2017 nostalgia of the high pressing Five Stripes was partially gone, replaced by something else -- something difficult to describe, and Tata even started to mention in passing how he really wanted to get back to the 4-3-3 so that the team could more easily press the opposition’s half.

It was actually Barco’s return to health after starting off the season with a rather large knock, that - to my eye at least - tipped the team back into a 4-3-3, despite the roaring success of the 3-5-2. And this glorious return came at home against Sporting Kansas City, a game which was going very well — Atlanta was all up in Kansas City’s final third and firing off a few warning shots — until SKC slid a throughball past Michael Parkhurst and a late reacting Brad Guzan was red carded ultimately allowing SKC to hang on for the win.

Despite this setback, Tata did not abandon the back 4. While he reverted back to a 3/5 against the two New York teams, in the short/medium term, the back 4 became the norm, and the high press returned impressively. At the midseason point, Atlanta were actually rating better in the pressing metrics than the New York teams, which mean they were pressing more vigorously than anyone in MLS. This continued for several months with the back 4 being the structure of choice for something like 15 out of the next 19 matches, a fact that will likely be forgotten when many look back at this successful campaign. Somewhere in there, Darlington Nagbe went down with a significant injury, but the team continued to rack up goals and points. The “Peachtree Press” was back!

The team signed Eric Remedi as the neo-Carmona who slotted into midfield fairly quickly and once Darlington Nagbe returned, the team actually went back to the 3-5-2 well for a spell, before ending the season with a pair of back-4 matches, a successful result at home against Chicago, and to end the season, a calamity in Toronto, in which a visibly tired Atlanta United got caught out time and time again, and watched the Supporters Shield slip from their grasp. Somewhere in that transitional period between the 4-3-3 and Remedi/Nagbe’s return and the back 3, the high press slowed considerably and this showed up in the pressing numbers.

As the season came to a close, and Atlanta was staring at a playoff run that would include both very dangerous New York teams, I had real questions about what the identity of the team was supposed to be. There was also some weirdness in personnel: Tito was hurt, and Almiron was hurt but coming back(!) and Barco was... I don’t know. Barco was benched.

At the beginning of the season I had postulated that Atlanta United had made this huge gamble (swapping Asad + Carmona for Barco + Nagbe), which was either going to end in tears or in an MLS Cup victory with an ascendant globally elite Ezequiel Barco tekkerzing all the college graduates in MLS. The idea was that while the front office was boosting the ceiling of the team, the increased team turnover had posed substantive risks. If Barco and Nagbe didn’t bed in well, or if we couldn’t find an adequate replacement for Carmona, there was real risk of an implosion. Again, this had been my perspective in the preseason.

Heading into the playoffs though, this whole concept was broken (or partially). On the one hand, if you were standing there with your arms crossed on Decision Day scolding the team for taking the Barco Gamble, there was an audience ready and willing to like your tweets because of the off-the-field stuff and the way the Supporters Shield slipped away from the club at season’s end and how Yamil Asad will always be beloved. On the other hand, the team was markedly better in 2018, collecting the second most points of any MLS team in history in the face of injuries to key players and other controversies. With Barco benched and Nagbe injured for half the year, the off-season gamble had not worked. AND YET, by regular season numbers (and I’m not talking about fancy numbers, i’m talking about wins, baby), the team may have been one of the best in league history. It was maddening.

Sure enough, the team’s shape throughout the playoffs would punctuate this uncomfortable sensation: a flexible 3-5-2 which was often a back five when Atlanta had the lead, but it wasn’t the more defensive shape, but the personnel decisions that were so intriguing.

Where were the expensive Argentinian wide forwards? Sure, Barco was a project, and there were off the field concerns, but Tito Villalba? One of the scariest players in the league to defend, winner of the fan-vote for both the best goal of the year and the second best, and someone that will high press from sun-up to sun-down if you ask him to? Like, OK some people favor Gressel out on the right for his crosses, so maybe Gressel had just beaten him out? Nope. Gressel had been moved to central midfield and there were no wide midfielders to be seen.

What was happening was that Tata Martino was swiftly locking in his playoff tactics --and a team sheet which wouldn’t budge (except for one injury for 90 minutes) until he was hoisting the Cup in the Home Depot Back Yard Lot brought to you by Home Depot. What exactly were these tactics though?

There were some who wrongly described this overall set of plans as “bunker and counter.” “Atlanta are a sit and counter team now” was a funny thing I read in a couple of places. And anyone who watched the team regularly could dispel this easily. There was one game where I would say Atlanta bunkered and countered, and it was the second leg against the New York Red Bulls where they were up 3-0 on aggregate in New Jersey and clearing balls into the future. But in nearly every other playoff game, the 3-5-2 was used in a rather aggressive manner.

  • At Yankee Stadium, I won’t deny, Atlanta played more of a back 5 and made the game ugly, but they made the game ugly all over the pitch, not just in their own defensive third. On the smaller surface at Yankee Stadium, Atlanta’s outfielders flew around at reckless speed (as did the hosts) and bodies pin-balled against one another in rather violent ways. This was a game of intensive defensive pressure. There really wasn’t the sort of concession of space that you see in a bunker. If you asked Domenec Torrent if his team felt comfortable in possession in this game, he would probably say unsavory things.
  • In the return leg against NYCFC at home, Atlanta was on the front foot for much of the match and ultimately comfortable.
  • In the first and ultimately decisive leg at home against Red Bulls, Atlanta may have been ready to sit deep against the zealous pressing machine of NYRB, but after a few minutes of orienting themselves, they realized it was Red Bulls who had come to concede space and counter. Atlanta comfortably possessed the ball, often in Red Bulls areas for nearly the entire first half, and went on to dominate the game, bagging 3 goals and all but punching their ticket to the Final.
  • Then, the Cup Final against Portland. A comfortable rout, in which Atlanta created the first goal from a high pressure moment and then suffocated Portland for the rest of the game. There were countering opportunities late, the way there always are when a team is leading in a cup final and the opposition has no choice but to run wide open.

So I think a generally acceptable narrative here, might be that while it took a good damn while, Tata did ultimately figure out how to play an active, (somewhat restrained) pressing system out of the 3-5-2 while maintaining control of the ball. It’s also possible that new signing Darlington Nagbe grew into his new role of shuttling/pressing CM and brand new signing Eric Remedi settled into a similar role beside Nagbe just in time for the postseason. It would make sense that each of these players would take some time to gel, and that Remedi in particular may have only really clicked right around when the playoffs started.

Ultimately, I don’t have a great way of summing up the style of the team in 2018, and this may not be uncommon for championship winning teams. As I see it, by the end of 2018, Atlanta United was stocked full of smart well-drilled footballers who understood what their manager wanted out of them (to suppress their opponents’ chances via pressure and to find good chances through smart spacing) and what to expect out of each other (i’m thinking about the twin fusions of Almiron-Martinez and Gressel-Martinez), and importantly, as all championship teams do (except for maybe the 2004 Detroit Pistons) they had a few bona fide cheat codes — namely Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, and probably Leandro Gonzalez Pirez as well.