Atlanta United and new manager Frank de Boer entered the 2019 season with sky high expectations. And for good reason. On the personnel side, Atlanta lost Miguel Almirón, but the club replaced him with Argentina international, Pity Martinez, while the rest of the side’s core remained intact.
However, while Atlanta maintained decent stability on the player side, the departure of Tata Martino saw the entire coaching staff turnover. And with only a few weeks of practices to adapt to a new system, the kinks showed in a disappointing first leg in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16, as the defending MLS Champions were defeated handily 3-1 by a Herediano side who were superior on the day.
Only time will tell exactly what the Dutchman wants from his side. But despite the sub-par performance in Heredia, certain aspects of the new gaffer’s tactics did come into full view.
Let’s take a look.
Attack Through the “Wingers”
While a more fluid performance and increased experience with de Boer’s system should bring more of his tactics to light, one clear wrinkle is his expectation for his wide attackers in Ezequiel Barco and Pity. Both started the match as inverted wingers, encouraging them to cut inside onto their strong foot, and shoot. But what’s most intriguing about FdB’s wingers is that they are hardly wide players. Instead, they’re free role attackers whose movement often starts from a wide area, but usually leads them into more central positions.
Above, we see a perfect example of how FdB wants his wingers to come deeper and/or more centrally to get things started. We see Pity dropping back to receive the outlet from Remedi, and then passes to Barco (check the meg on that pass tho), who’s similarly positioned in a more central part of the pitch. After that, both players make a beeline towards goal, with Josef Martinez in front of them.
Let’s get a little more in depth with the tactic below, and evaluate how it lead directly to Julian Gressel’s first goal.
From the start of the play, watch the positioning of Pity, who again is in a deeper, more central spot to get things started. We also see how de Boer often wants his attacks to start from longer passes from within Atlanta’s own half, finding Barco or Pity with space to turn and run at defenders.
Let’s take a quick look at the shape in the initial approach to the goal.
We really get an idea of how FdB wants to attack above.
Per usual, both of the wingers have remained in more central positions off the ball. Meanwhile, it’s the wing backs in Bello (top of screen) and Gressel (bottom) who provide the width. This was also true under Martino, but the wingers or attacking midfielders would look to link up with those wings backs, whereas now Pity and Barco look to link more centrally, leaving the wing backs more isolated.
Later on, substitute wingers Darlington Nagbe and Tito Villalba linked up for a big chance.
Again, watch how Villalba starts the attack, checking to the ball in a more central area and receiving a pass from Atlanta’s defensive half. Gressel and Bello are wide just as they were in the lead up to the opening goal.
While the disjointed nature of Atlanta’s attack made it difficult to get a complete idea of life under de Boer, the manner in which he wants to attack with his wingers seems clear.
A Different Kind of Press
Tata Martino made a name for himself in MLS with his vaunted high press defensively. Often, he’d instruct his team to press up onto the opposition’s defenders in possession, not allowing simple buildup out of the back, even from goal kicks. But under de Boer, things are slightly, but crucially different.
In Heredia, the Dutchman opted for a “delayed press,” as he often has in the past. This simply means that while Atlanta did press, they set up their initial defensive line, or “line of engagement,” a little further back than under Martino. Let’s check out an example below.
As we see, the press is not as urgent. Most importantly, both wing backs remain on the defensive line, and both center midfielders stay conservative. This allows Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to make a crucial intervention at the end of the play with plenty of cover behind him after Bello gets beaten by a one-two.
Now, let’s check out a less savory example.
This time, once the ball is switched to the right side of defense, Bello, Gressel, and both center midfielders have pressed. And it’s this weak press (more on this in a moment) which allows the initial ball out of the back to José Guillermo Ortiz to start the attack.
The failure of the press in front of them leaves Atlanta’s center backs in a tough 3v3 situation against Herediano’s two forwards (Ortiz and Aldo Magana) and winger Luis Diaz. This prevents any sort of urgent pressure on Ortiz after he receives the ball at midfield, as all three center backs must account for an attacker on their own, without help from the midfielders or wing backs.
So, how did Atlanta’s center backs get put in such a seemingly tough situation so suddenly? Well, let’s take a closer look at the pressure in front of them. In the image below, we see the beginnings of the back-to-front goal.
Not only is the press is late, it’s unbalanced, with an astounding five Atlanta players filling up a similar area (and four of them within around 10 yards of each other). Much of the imbalance is due to Barco, who appears to be in “Tata mode,” overpressing from his spot on the left side. Gressel should be the one to press above, not Barco. Simply put, having this many players in a similar area in the final third while out of possession is asking for trouble.
For context, lets refer back to the similar play we watched earlier, as Herediano build out from an almost identical spot.
Atlanta are far less committed in this instance and most importantly, Barco has stayed at home, which confirms that his mistake on the goal was a crucial one.
Now, let’s go back to the goal. With Atlanta overloaded on the right side due to overpressing and Barco’s individual error, Bello and Larentowicz opt to press after the ball is switched to the right, as well. Take a look at Atlanta’s “press” just before Herediano break.
Amazingly, we see here that seven Atlanta players are committed forward, with the majority of them not even close to the ball. This results in the aforementioned 3v3 situation leading to the goal. Needless, to say, if a team concedes goals from a poorly executed press, this is about what it will look like.
Two Center Mids, Not Three
Eric Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz formed an effective pairing at center defensive midfield (CDM) for much of last season. But the duo struggled mightily in Costa Rica. So, what was the difference? Obviously, match sharpness played a huge factor. But the duo are also being asked to do substantially more than before.
Under Tata Martino, regardless of formation, the two CDM’s had another midfielder in front of them, whether it be Almiron, Julian Gressel or Darlington Nagbe. But now, without a third center midfielder, there is more pressure on the two. Just watch this clip below leading to a chance for Herediano’s Jimmy Marin.
Needless to say, this is an uncharacteristic giveaway from Larentowicz. Last season, in this scenario where Remedi is caught wide and is marked, there would be a third center midfielder providing a passing option. Instead, without the help of that third CM, the veteran panics and loses the ball in a bad spot, leading to a shot on target from Marin.
This is just one of many areas where Larentowicz, Remedi, and surely others, must adjust to the new duties of the center midfielders under de Boer.
A Long Way to Go
Even though we won’t have a clearer look at FdB’s full tactical intentions for some time, three major changes from the days of Tata have shown themselves - different roles for the wingers in possession, two center mids instead of three, and a more delayed form of high pressure. When it came to all three of those brand new tactics, Atlanta were predictably inconsistent and disjointed in Costa Rica.
No matter what happens, Atlanta United have the talent for a successful 2019. But adapting to a new manager and system may take some time.