With less than three weeks to go until Atlanta United take the field in Costa Rica for their first-ever CCL match, it’s time to start thinking about how the team will look in 2019. During the team’s cup run under Tata Martino, the lineup remained consistent. A 5-3-2 variation with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron as the team’s main attackers. Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, and Julian Gressel (moved over from RWB) occupied the midfield. Then you had the usual back five of Greg Garza, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, and Franco Escobar.
It took nearly the full regular season for Martino to settle on that consistent set-up.
Heading into a season where you’re the defending MLS Cup champions, it makes sense to try to keep as much the same as possible. But, with a new manager in Frank de Boer coming in, it’s inevitable that there will be some changes in philosophy and personnel made.
We already know that there will be two changes to that consistent lineup from the playoffs. Greg Garza was traded literally days after lifting the Cup and Miguel Almiron has gone on to the Premier League. So, how could the Atlanta United preferred lineup look under de Boer?
First off let’s think about the formation. Last week, the Dutchman dropped a big hint at what type of formation he’s thinking about playing. When discussing with the AJC how important Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is to the team, he mentioned that with a three-in-the-back formation it’s important to have centerback depth.
So, if we assume that three-in-the-back is how he’ll set up, there are two ways he could go. The obvious way is to stay with the same 3-5-2 (5-3-2) that Tata implemented. That is certainly a possibility. However, in this scenario you are still likely to have two very talented attackers in Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba on the bench. While that was fine during the Cup run, it’s hard to envision that being feasible during long stretches of the season.
Sure, with many competitions to play in this season everyone will have a part to play, but in all likelihood a preferred XI will be decided on for the majority of the important matches, just like Tata did.
If the two-attacker set-up isn’t de Boer’s choice, it seems likely that he’ll take a page from one of his idols’ playbook. At Crystal Palace, his plan was to implement the 3-4-3 that Johan Cruyff made famous at Barcelona:
De Boer has a long-term vision for Palace based on the principles of his mentor, Johan Cruyff. He wants to change the style of play from counter-attacking football to a more possession-based, high-pressing game. Palace will play 3-4-3, but he expects his players to be tactically flexible. [Evening Standard]
Unfortunately for him, the ridged style of the Premiership and the incompatibility of the Palace squad made that impossible. In Atlanta he will not have those problems. He’ll have plenty of flexibility at his disposal along with players who are already accustomed to playing a three-in-the-back style successfully.
In Cruyff’s 3-4-3, the fullbacks/wide midfielders are required to be technical players able to play as a central midfielder would. This allows for formational flexibility. Thankfully, Atlanta United have players who fit this description perfectly.
The first is obvious: Julian Gressel. When the German wasn’t helping dominate the Portland Timbers in the midfield during MLS Cup, he was often playing wingback at an advanced level under Tata Martino.
On the left side you have two different options to replace Garza in George Bello and Brek Shea. Both players were attackers in their earlier years and have since been pushed back into the defense, meaning they have the technical skills to go forward. Bello proved in his few appearances last season that he has extraordinary potential. De Boer was brought in with a vision to develop young talent. It only makes sense that Bello would have an inside track into his ideal lineup, especially since the youngster has the skillset to fit how he wants to play. It’s impossible to know how training camp is going, but if I were betting on the outcome of the starting left-sided job, I’d put it on Bello. But, if he’s deemed not ready for the responsibility, Shea is there.
The rest of the set-up aside from one spot fills itself out. Pity Martinez will replace Miguel Almiron and take up one of the winger spots alongside Josef Martinez up top. Eric Remedi will be your pure defensive-minded midfielder and Darlington Nagbe will likely be in front of him with more attacking freedom.
Your back three is pretty predictable if everyone is healthy (and still on the roster by the time the season starts): Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, and Franco Escobar. Then, Brad Guzan is in goal, of course.
That leaves the second winger spot open for competition and brings us back to Tito and Barco battling for minutes. Whichever one has the better training camp could get the spot. Or it could just come down to which one de Boer thinks fits his style of play better. We all know Tito has a flair for the sensational, but Barco is the player the team has invested tons of money in and is the more technically gifted of the two.
So, here’s how this potential first-choice lineup could look on paper:
Alignment can be up for debate. For me, it makes the most sense to have both wingers inverted if you’ll have two attack-minded wide players behind them consistently making overlapping runs and trying to get in behind. Having the wingers cutting in on their preferred foots for shooting chances just makes the most sense.
De Boer stressed the importance of having defenders playing to their preferred foots. He told the AJC that the team is on the search for a left-footed centerback. Does this mean Gonzalez Pirez will be moved away from the left side he patrolled all of last season? We’ll have to wait and see on that.
This is one possible lineup we could see if we’re correct in predicting the way de Boer is thinking. There are obviously many more formations and looks that are possible, and we want to let you — the readers — decide. In the comments, post your favorite starting XI. Can be any shape and any players. We’ll choose our 8 favorite and we’ll put them in a bracket for everyone to vote and ultimately decide what the starting lineup should be for Frank de Boer. Once we have the answer, we march on Franklin Gateway until our voices are heard.