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Talking Tactics: How will Atlanta United attack New England Revolution in MLS Cup playoffs?

Frank de Boer tweaked his attacking tactics in the final match of the regular season against New England. Is this a sign of things to come?

MLS: New England Revolution at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason = New Approach

In 2018, we saw Tata Martino make a tactical tweak heading into the MLS Playoffs, moving to a more defensive iteration of the team’s 3-5-2 en route to an MLS Cup. And Frank de Boer may have shown us a tactical tweak of his own heading into the 2019 post season, at least if we base it off of the team’s attacking strategy in their final regular season match against New England Revolution, whom the Five Stripes will face this weekend in the first round of the postseason.

We’ve discussed de Boer’s aggressive approach in the past, where he employs three defenders and sees his formation morph between a 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2 during the match. One constant has been in attack, where the gaffer has preferred his side to morph into a front three with Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco or Emerson Hyndman flanking Josef Martinez to his right and left sides, respectively. But with a fully healthy Barco at his disposal for the first time in months, de Boer sprung a surprise agsint New England inserted the 20-year old into the starting lineup in place of Pity, rather than playing the two together, as he had previously in the regular season when both were available.

Conventional wisdom told us that Barco and Hyndman would play the same attacking roles that we had previously discussed. And de Boer asked Hyndman to drift left, as per usual. However, Barco played more centrally (rather than drifting to Josef Martinez’s right) to essentially form a strike partnership with Martinez, which also allowed the dangerous Julian Gressel space and time to operate down the right without a winger drifting into his area. The tactical tweak worked wonders, and provided Atlanta with another way of attacking heading into the postseason.

Small Tweak, Big Difference

As we just discussed, we usually see Atlanta attacking with Pity Martinez and Emerson Hyndman or Ezequiel Barco drifting to either side of Josef and playing inverted. But with Barco into the lineup for Pity, there was a slight change in the attacking shape. And we see this in the average positions below. (Hyndman’s circle mostly covers up Barco’s)

Hyndman is in a similar spot to where he normally would be, playing behind Josef and slightly to his left. But Barco is playing centrally, underneath, or even alongside, Josef Martinez. In fact, the folks at Whoscored and MLS listed the Atlanta formation as having two out and out forwards between Martinez and Barco, as the Five Stripes played a 3-1-4-2 formation for the first time this season (Barco playing as a second striker beneath Josef).

Film Study

That positional difference may seem small, but it has a genuine impact on the shape in attack. Our best example came just minutes into the match, as Atlanta scored the opening goal.

There are several key factors to watch here. Firstly, we see Barco abandoning the position Pity would normally take on the right, floating to the center and left of the pitch alongside Hyndman and Justin Meram. We even see center midfielders Nagbe and Larentowicz shade towards the left. This is more or less what we saw in the average positions earlier. And it leaves Julian Gressel in acres of space, allowing one of MLS’ best assist-makers time to pick out the final pass. Just look below at the player positioning from two different angles before Gressel gets in behind. Atlanta’s entire attack sans Gressel has shifted to the left. Meanwhile, Gressel sits isolated and out of the frame, ready to receive the ball from Hyndman in space.

Simply put, Julian Gressel ends up in space because the New England defense have little other choice but to leave him unmarked (unless they want to completely sacrifice the dangerous attacking threat of No. 70 Penilla at the bottom of your screen).

Now, let’s take a look at the team before the final ball is played. Not a single player has run to Gressel to show for a pass. Instead, it’s multiple runs into the box (allowing Gressel space) to receive the final ball.

Simply put, this goal did not happen by accident.

Now, let’s take a look at a few more examples during the first half.

The attacking onus is clear - overload the middle and left side to connect passes, and then hit an isolated Gressel on the right, leaving him to do what he does best.

To confirm our suspicions from the film, let’s take a look at where, and what type of passes, these players are making. First, we see Hyndman and Barco below. (green lines are passes completed, reds are incomplete passes, and yellows are chances created)

While both are allowed to float around the pitch, most of their passes come in the middle portion or left parts of the pitch.

And finally, let’s take a look at Gressel’s pass map. (blue lines are assists)

Quite clearly, Gressel is carrying the load on the right by his lonesome. And that’s exactly what the Five Stripes would’ve wanted, as this means he’s afforded space to operate and hit the final ball from anywhere on the pitch. The directness of Gressel is shown above as almost all of his passes are directly towards goal, and tend to be at longer distances than that of Barco and Hyndman.

De Boer’s tactic is based on two different methods of attack down the left and right flanks - as the combination of Barco and Hynmdan moving together gives Atlanta a numerical advantage in possession wherever they go in midfield, allowing Atlanta to control possession and play creatively down that side. But this also forces the opposing defense to shift to the part of the pitch they inhabit, leaving Gressel in space for a more direct style of play down the right.

More to Come?

Considering that New England are also Atlanta’s opponents for the first round of the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine that de Boer’s change in attack wasn’t a genuine experiment for the first match of the postseason. While many were expecting Barco to replace Hyndman upon his return to the lineup, de Boer opted to not just play him for Pity, but experiment with a different style of play in the process.

More importantly, the change seemed to work. The Five Stripes amassed 20 shots, three goals, and in the end, won comfortably. Not only that, the change achieved it’s specific intention - overloading the left side with more technical players, and leaving Gressel in space on the right to bang in the final ball.

Simply put, Frank de Boer has some interesting tactical decisions to make heading into the playoffs. Will he select his high priced star in Pity Martinez to play with Barco and have each flank Josef Martinez as inverted wingers? Or, will he stick with the Hyndman/Barco combination we saw in the final match of the regular season? And finally, could he simply insert Pity for Hyndman in a like-for-like manner, and insist that he avoid drifting to the right of Josef Martinez, as he’s previously preferred? Only time will tell.