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Four Reasons Why Atlanta United is Struggling

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The struggle is real (and frustrating)

MLS: FC Cincinnati at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As I watched the ref blow his whistle to conclude the lackluster 1-1 draw between Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union Sunday night, the frustration that has been building since the loss to DC United came to a head. I was frustrated with the boring display of soccer we witnessed. I was frustrated that 72% possession ended with us having less expected goals (xG) than Philadelphia. I was frustrated that the atmosphere was flat. I was frustrated that I wasn’t having fun.

Win, lose, or draw, typically under Tata Martino, Atlanta United were at least entertaining. Sure, a game here or there left you wanting, but we’d follow up with an attacking onslaught in the next one. Outside of the Herediano game at Kennesaw State, I’ve been bored with the possession style of soccer and I’m sure you have, too.

So, let’s dive into what is wrong with our beloved Atlanta United.

Everything. EVERYTHING can be attributed to one of the following:

(1) Everyone having to figure out what they are supposed to be doing in the 3-4-3. Players are being too scared to make runs into the box out of fear that their defensive responsibilities will not be picked up by a teammate. Everyone is worried about the back three being caught in an unfavorable counter attack when Atlanta inevitably gives up possession.

(2) The 3-4-3 playing key players out of their strengths.

(3) Key players playing poorly because of #2; they’re gassed or they’re just playing below their shown ability.

AND

(4) Terrible personnel decisions.

The 3-4-3 is Hard to Master Quickly

I refuse to place all of Atlanta United’s issues on a formation. As you’ll see below, the issues are four-fold. I also think that the Five Stripes’ Faithful are placing way too much hope that the 4-3-3 formation is the savior of the attack or that someone like Guillermo Barros Schelotto or another 4-3-3 disciple would be faring better.

In theory, the 3-4-3 should be more attacking than the 4-3-3. In the 4-3-3, the fullbacks will occasionally get involved with the attack, and you see this more with super-club budgets that can pay top dollar for great defending fullbacks that double as wingers. However, in MLS, and traditionally, the four in the back are there to support the attack but focus on defending. Furthermore, even when the midfield is set up with a CAM, one of the three midfielders will adopt a defensive role. So, you’re typically going forward with five players meant for attack.

The 3-4-3 dedicates seven players for attack, and while they all don’t attack at once, it is created to be a more diverse attack meant to unlock teams parking the bus. It’s been the opposite for the Five Stripes. The 3-4-3 is always a fluid shape that requires all players to read the attack and adopt different responsibilities based on their teammates’ movement and the opponent’s reactions. It takes time and experience to learn this give and take. While you’re learning, you are more hesitant to risk. That’s what we’re watching play out--a team with 72% possession but only 3 shots on goal.

For this reason, I believe Frank de Boer when he says the chances will come later in the season. With time comes experience. With experience comes confidence. With confidence comes accepting risk. With risk comes attack. I just don’t know how many more possession-based/non-attacking performances I can stomach.

[Narrator]: All of them. He’s addicted to this team.

The 3-4-3 Ain’t It, Chief

So sure, the 3-4-3 works out in time. Great. Okay.

But the 3-4-3 does not play many of the players to their strengths.

As currently used, Eric Remedi is a problem. He is not an attacking or link-up CM, he doesn’t have those tools in the toolbox. However, he is great with keeping possession and defending in the middle of the field. He is the prototypical CDM and has had MOTM performances when used there in 2018. Right now, as a CM in the 3-4-3, he’s being asked to do things that he isn't capable of doing.

Presently, Darlington Nagbe is being asked to do too much in defense. Nagbe, by nature, needs to link-up or be a possession CM. He has shown his talent in his possession and passing ability towards goal (see Josef’s goal against Monterrey). But let’s not kid ourselves. He is not a #10. He’s not going to consistently fill the space behind Josef. The team doesn’t have that player in its current midfield.

There is now enough data to show that in MLS, Ezequiel Barco is not a winger. If it didn’t work under Tata, it sure isn’t going to work under de Boer. The kid is a baller centrally as a CAM. You saw it once he came on against Union. Put him as a CAM and be done with it.

Atlanta’s personnel screams for a 4-3-3, but the formation isn’t a savior if de Boer doesn't want to attack. My only solace is that maybe the stuff about Escobar’s injury/ 3 CB is true, and Frank will shift to a 4-3-3 when he’s back. He ran that at Ajax and averaged 2 goals per game.

The players are not playing well

Like mentioned above, maybe it’s because they’re being asked to do things they can’t do. It would demonstrate some of the attacking issues.

Atlanta United has also had some injuries. George Bello, who would be first choice LWB, hasn’t played since the first game. Gressel picked up an injury at a key time. Escobar broke a collarbone on the second day of practice and hasn’t played at all. Nagbe “picked up a knock” and missed time. So, the team hasn’t been at full strength, which really isn’t an excuse because in soccer, teams are rarely 100% healthy. However, the replacements have not played to the level needed.

One of the most disappointing elements to the slow start is big offseason addition Pity Martinez. As heir-apparent to Miguel Almiron, he just hasn’t gelled with this team yet. Pity needs to take this international break to regain...something. Adjusting to a new country? Absolutely. Fitness? Sure. Turf? Get out of here with that excuse. Pity isn’t playing up to his caliber — yet. He’s not winning 1v1s. He was forgettable and added nothing to the side Sunday night. He’s gassed and needs a break. He’s about to get one. Let’s hope he comes back a different player.

Tito lovers, jump to the next section. Gressel needs to be the starting RW. I love Tito, but he’s not a starter for us. He’s the perfect supersub when he can run against tired legs and his speed can take advantage where his lack of technical ability can’t. Against fresh legs, he’s limited. He lacks the first touch and ability in close proximity to sustain attacks early in games. However, after the defenders have 70 minutes of fatigue, there’s no better player in MLS to abuse the tired side. He is who he is and that has a lot of value late in games.

Brad Guzan has not been stellar. His gaff against Acosta’s strike comes to mind. The defense let him down against Union on their lone goal, but he couldn't make a challenge. He has had some superb stops, but he has not played up to his ceiling this season.

Michael Parkhurst looks tired. He’s been the epitome of the MLS professional for years, but Father Time is catching up. I believe he is first man out when Franco Escobar returns.

Brek Shea had a coming out party in the second leg against Herediano. I was excited about the prospects of him playing with better teammates. Since then, he has shown us that he is the same player as he was in Vancouver. He is limited and cannot fully support the attack because he has to compensate for his defense. If the team goes 4-3-3, he’s not a LB and I don’t know how he makes the starting XI.

Poor Personnel Decisions

After the Monterrey game, Doug Roberson of the AJC wrote, “de Boer said with Escobar out, and no ready replacement at right fullback, the coaching staff made the decision in the preseason to go with a 3-4-3 formation.” This poses a big question: How does one man’s injury dictate the formation the coach wants to use? The answer is that the roster only has one RB on it (and don’t call Gressel a RB, he’s not). Atlanta should have a backup RB. But while that’s a front office issue, de Boer has made mistakes as well.

Against Monterrey, he didn’t sub until the 90th minute; then he subbed three. That just doesn’t make sense.

Maybe the team had to focus on defense so much that once de Boer made the 3-4-3 decision that it still hasn’t worked the kinks out. However, Atlanta United has been shifting to multiple formations the past two games with nothing of substance to show. De Boer has had 3 months to learn his personnel. I don’t see how he watches the games and can conclude that Remedi is an attacking CM, Shea is LWB or LB, Barco is a winger, and Parky can play LB. The positioning of players in the formations that he’s trying is not leading to success.

Atlanta United needs a CAM like it needs oxygen. The team is inept without it. Barco came in, and even though he started at the wing, the Five Stripes were dangerous when he was central (his header, the dummy, his dribbles in the box). Someone needs to fill that space behind Josef. Barco is the guy to do it.

As weird as it sounds, the 3-4-3 could work AFTER these players gel in the 4-3-3. I don’t think Atlanta could have started 2018 in the 3-5-2 even though the team dominated in that formation in the playoffs. Atlanta had to evolve into it. The team may need to evolve to a three centerback formation this year as well. Even still, the roster doesn’t have the CMs to make the 3-4-3 work.

Although it’s a work in progress, two points out of a possible nine with two games at home against the bottom of the East is unacceptable. Atlanta United is running out of time.