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Talking Tactics Pt. II: Atlanta United’s formation situation

How might Frank de Boer tweak his team’s shape?

MLS: Champions League-Monterrey at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that Atlanta United’s attack has been struggling this year. Well, “struggling” may be an understatement. Outside of the game in Kennesaw, the word “non-existent” would be more accurate. De Boer’s preferred 3-4-3 formation has become the scapegoat and focus of United fans’ rage. However, the formation is not the be-all, end-all issue in our attack; it’s an element, but not the sole reason for the lack of chances. So why is the attack so bad and what can Frank de Boer do to fix it?

The Problem

I give you Exhibit A.

FC Cincinnati did what DC United and Monterrey had done: cut off service to Josef Martinez. This is the soccer equivalent to a football team stuffing the run and making the inexperienced quarterback beat you with the passing game. By taking Josef away, Atlanta needs its wingers and midfield to step up and create chances. For Frank de Boer and this system, these chances should come through the wings. Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked out well, or at all, really. The reason, per Frank de Boer, is a lack of “runners,” as he stated in the press conference after the draw against Cincinnati.

Atlanta’s Ideal 3-4-3

What should make the 3-4-3 an attractive style of soccer is the number of runners available via due to this formation. The runner being a player moving towards goal without the ball, getting the defense out of position, and creating opportunities. Theoretically, in the lineup above, you have seven possible attack-minded players and Josef, Pity, Barco, Remedi, and Nagbe would have the onus of running into space and through the defense to create passing lanes and chances. However, out of those five, who have you seen make these quality runs? Josef and…?

Cincy (and DC United and Monterrey as well) knew this, marked Josef, and cut off supply. The wings were either pushed out of the penalty box or left with low-probability, contested crosses. Of the few dangerous crosses that flashed in front of goal, there was no one there to put them in. Why? No runners.

For the 3-4-3 to work, United has to risk moving forward and neglect their defensive responsibilities. The players who do not make the run have the responsibility of picking up the runner’s defensive role. Possession is a safety harness here, as the player with the ball has to assess the quality of the run versus the probability of losing possession – and this decision has to be made in milliseconds. Choosing possession allows the team to keep the ball and avoid a counter attack. Making a run means giving up your defensive responsibilities and risking the counter attack. This season, outside of the Herediano game at KSU, it appears that no player feels comfortable with the risk of making the run.

So, how do we fix this?

In short, players need to make more runs.

Pity and Barco have to move into the box without the ball. Both like to have the ball at their feet, but as long as Josef is the only vertical passing option and he’s surrounded by three or four defenders, nothing productive is going to happen for them. When the wingbacks or center midfielders have the ball, Pity or Barco need to become a vertical passing option.

Someone needs to fill the center of the field.

There is a Miguel Almiron shaped hole 18 yards out in front of goal. Pity and Barco are hugging the touchline so much that no one is moving centrally. Shea is limited and is staying wide to maintain some ability to defend. Many times, he and Pity were taking up the same space. Gressel rarely attacked the center when the winger held wide, presumably for the same reason. Nagbe/Larry and Remedi are central, but far from goal, again focusing on keeping defensive responsibilities.

The team needs time and experience to make the 3-4-3 work.

The players have to learn how to read the attack and shift defensive responsibilities when players make runs. This early in the season, it’s obvious that the team has not become comfortable with this concept. There is a process – a feel – that the players have to develop in order for them to move more confidently and seamlessly as a team in attack, and thus, defense. As they get experience, they’ll get more confident. With confidence will come more runners and more chances because they know their defensive void is being filled.

De Boer may have known what he’s talking about when he confidently stated that more chances will come “later in the season.” At first, it seemed like magical belief and wishful thinking, but as a disciple of this form of soccer, he knows that the team needs to master understanding of their roles and possession in order to have confidence moving forward and creating the runners we need.

So why go through these growing pains at all?

Could we go to a 4-3-3 and solve this tomorrow? Potentially. Here’s our best possible 4-3-3

The 4-3-3 has much more distinct attack and defensive responsibilities. In a world where coaches are only around for a few seasons and immediate success is required, the 4-3-3 fits nicely. Four in the back doesn’t put quite the emphasis on keeping possession due to the safety net behind the six attacking players. Let the front four bomb forward with little hesitation.

In our current situation, the absence in the middle of the field is our biggest issue. The 4-3-3 forces a player to fill the space behind Josef. This void could easily be solved by putting Barco in the CAM role where he showed promise during the 2nd leg against Monterrey. Place Pity at LW and Gressel at RW, with little defensive responsibility, and we have an attack to which we’re accustomed.

I can already see the comments pleading for Tito, but at RW and RB, Gressel + Escobar is better than Tito and Gressel. Tito remains the super-sub but gets frequent starts when Gressel needs rest, or Gressel slides to CM or RB for a game to rest Nagbe, Remedi, or Escobar.

De Boer stated after Wednesday’s home game versus Monterrey that Franco Escobar’s absence and no true right full-back replacements was a reason for the 3-4-3. Even though Tata implemented the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 with frequency, let’s not forget that Atlanta United played its best soccer when in the 3-5-2 -- which is only a shifted 3-4-3. We dominated the MLS Cup playoffs with three at the back. This success is another major reason why de Boer opted for this formation.

Regardless if we like it now, the 3-4-3 can be successful once mastered. Who knows, in time it may be far more lucrative than the 4-3-3. Maybe Escobar returns and we shift formation away from 3 CBs. Regardless, Frank de Boer is not Tata Martino and we will be a possession-minded team. With de Boer and this system, we’re going to have to remain patient.