Wednesday we got our first glimpse of what Atlanta United will look like under the leadership of Frank de Boer. The 6-1 mauling of a Club Tijuana team composed largely of U-20 players can’t be viewed as the authoritative answer to the questions we’ve all had ever since MLS Cup last December, but it does provide a few hints as to what we might expect, and from whom.
Here, then, are five takeaways from the team’s second pre-season game.
The 3-4-3 is likely going to be the default formation
The 3-4-3 has never previously been used by Atlanta, but its emergence under de Boer is hardly surprising. It has a long and storied history in Dutch soccer, and especially at Ajax, where Rinus Michels used it for his 1970s team featuring the total football approach and the legendary Johan Cruyff.
The formation is intentionally very fluid, a necessity for the total football concept, and morphs very quickly into various other formations depending on how the midfield is deployed (flat 4, diamond, 2-2). Its primary advantage is that it is a very attacking setup, but it can also adapt just as easily into a solid defensive wall.
It will also mean a third evolution in Five Stripes play. We have seen a high-press team in the 4-2-3-1 and a play-from-the-back possession team in the 3-5-2. De Boer’s focus seems to be press and possess. Against Xolos Atlanta unsurprisingly controlled the ball for the vast majority of the game, and did so extremely high on the field. Defense was almost an afterthought (and if you have ever watched any Eredivisie games, that’s not untypical of the league). However, when the team did drop back to defend, we saw 4 and 5-man back lines that were very difficult to penetrate.
Finally, we saw players switching positions frequently in true total football style. This is going to be fun. It will confuse and frustrate opponents and will also be a joy to watch. The beautiful game at its finest.
We’re going to see lots of goals
Atlanta is now 13-2 in scoring in two preseason games. Obviously, that’s not sustainable in competitive play unless we play Orlando or New England every week. But with be Boer’s high play approach, we will surely see more than our fair share of goals. Josef Martinez, who scored four and assisted on the other two, looks just a hungry as ever, and even in a meaningless preseason scrimmage was evidently frustrated when he couldn’t finish chances. He even scored one from outside the penalty area. Additionally, Ezequiel Barco was robbed of a goal by a dodgy offside call, Julian Gressel slammed an upright and Miles Robinson tipped a header off the crossbar.
This will be Barco’s year, for good or ill
Out from under the shadow of Miguel Almiron and able to play in a more natural central position, Ezequiel Barco has his chance to shine. Yesterday we saw him zipping up and down the field instead of across it aimlessly, controlling and passing the ball well and generally looking like a man possessed, possibly because he’s borrowing Josef’s hairstylist. He’s still drawing fouls too. He appears to realize this is his opportunity to prove himself and looks to be intent on doing just that. We will see a very different player this season.
Frank de Boer likes tall players
Michael Parkhurst must be feeling a tad small right now. We got out first experience of Brek Shea in an Atlanta uniform, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Miles Robinson were also in the lineup. All three are over 6 feet tall. Shea was something of a surprise in that he looked more than just…serviceable. Has he finally found a manager that can figure out how to use him? We shall see.
Pity Martinez is going to be electric
He played only 40 minutes, but wow. From the second he came on, he dominated the game. Blistering speed, pinpoint passing, an eye for the goal, spins, nutmegs, tackles. Filth everywhere. He also looked to have already established a rapport with Barco and Josef. He’s going to be money well spent.
As with any preseason game, there are of course just as many questions raised as answers given. What’s up with Darlington Nagbe? How will Florentin Pogba fit in? Will we see more of George Bello? For all of these, we are still in wait and see mode. But we are just two weeks away from a real game. That wait is not that long any more.