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Talking Tactics: How Frank de Boer won the tactical battle in Atlanta United’s 2-0 win

Atlanta United’s manager played a big part in their win over New England.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

4-3-3 or 3-4-3? That was the question heading into last weekend’s matchup in New England against the Revolution. Frank de Boer had employed both formations for the Five Stripes this season. In the end de Boer opted for the 4-3-3, but added a wrinkle through the center of the pitch we haven’t yet seen this season, and in some cases saw Atlanta United in more of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 formation.

Let’s take a look.

The Plan

While de Boer had previously played a traditional midfield three in Columbus, but this time he instructed his most attacking center midfielder (center attacking midfielder or CAM) to essentially ignore their defensive responsibilities and remain high up the pitch, sometimes almost playing as a second striker with Josef Martinez.

Only defending with two through the center is often a huge risk in the modern game, where most teams play with three center midfielders, and this numerical disadvantage can be problematic. But de Boer had clearly added this wrinkle specifically to combat Brad Friedel’s tactics, as the Revs typically play a 4-4-2 which also includes just two center midfielders (keeping things 2v2 in the middle), as they look to press high up the pitch and go direct to goal. As we see below from the Revs’ average positions, this often ends up looking like more of a 4-2-4 formation with both wingers pushing high into attack to try and win the ball back.

Looking at the image above, you can see how the press leaves New England’s two CMs, Scott Caldwell (No. 6) and Wilfried Zahibo (No. 23), completely exposed with too much ground to cover defensively should Atlanta break New England’s high pressing line of four. The man to receive the pass to break that press was usually the CAM, who played almost as a second striker in the first half with little defensive responsibility, as discussed earlier. Darlington Nagbe began in that spot, and it wasn’t long before he created a huge chance for Josef Martinez.

The tactics are clear. Even with Atlanta building out of the back, Nagbe sits high and central, and once he wins the ball, all that’s left to do is slot Josef Martinez through on goal.

Soon after, an injury to Eric Remedi forced Nagbe back into one of the two holding midfield positions, and Ezequiel Barco entered at CAM. Barco would put on his best performance as an Atlanta United player. And as mentioned earlier, New England only playing two center midfielders allowed him to find space and focus on his strengths in the attack. Watch his movement on the goal below.

Immediately after the throw in, Barco is on the move looking to exploit the vacant space in the middle, as we see in the screencap below.

New England’s two center midfielders are occupied by the ball - Caldwell is hassling Josef Martinez on the ball, while Zahibo (No. 23) is caught ball watching as he covers space centrally, allowing Barco to sneak behind him and break into space down the middle without the presence of a third center midfielder. Once the Revs notice where he is, it’s already too late.

Getting More Aggressive

De Boer got even more aggressive in the second half, turning his formation into an outright 4-4-1-1. Check out the shape below just after the second half kickoff.

Villalba has swapped with Barco, moving next to Martinez up front. And we can see quite clearly above that FdB’s advanced 4-3-3 is now a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 with Tito as a withdrawn striker.

The presence of another out-and-out striker gave the Revs all sorts of problems, as the visitors continued to slice through their high press and get into space. Below, we see Ezequiel Barco’s golazo to seal the deal.

Villalba’s positioning is important. The right winger at the time is Julian Gressel, who is nowhere close to Michael Parkhurst after the captain receives the ball on the right touchline. But with Villalba playing high as a striker, he’s able to drift to the right back’s side and receive the flick to start the danger. Then, having another striker in Josef Martinez on the field draws defenders into the box, leaving Barco on the left to scoop up the pass, and let his class do the rest.

And the scoreline could’ve been much higher. Just watch these two chances for Martinez and Villalba. Both are created from the two’s interaction as a strike pairing. In one example, Tito comes back from his striker position to steal the ball from the Revs and breaks away. In another, it’s Martinez dropping in to spring his striker partner in behind.

The shape is slightly different than the first half, but the attacking MO is similar. And as we see above, it’s the space in front of the back four (with both of New England’s CDM’s caught out) that is exploited en route to a big chance, just as it was through Barco and Nagbe in the first half.

Credit Where Credit’s Due

While many bemoaned Frank de Boer’s lack of tactical flexibility early on, the manager has shown this to quite clearly not be the case. After switching to a 4-3-3 in Columbus, FdB stuck with four in the back in New England, but added a wrinkle in the midfield, asking his CAM to become a second striker when necessary in the first half, and later turning this position into an out-and-out forward in a 4-4-2 in the second 45 minutes. These changes, coupled with a great back-to-front performance from the players, made last weekend a very good night indeed not just for Atlanta United, but also their manager.