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Talking Tactics: Atlanta United’s pivot to a 4-3-3

The Five Stripes started the match in a 4-3-3 for the first time this season.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to Frank de Boer’s tactics, Saturday’s defeat on a waterlogged pitch in Columbus didn’t teach us much. After all, it’s hard to play, or judge, a possession-based system when the ball wont roll more than ten yards. But before the conditions deteriorated, we did have time to analyze one slightly new element of de Boer’s strategy, as he started in a 4-3-3 for the first time all season.

But how exactly does de Boer’s 4-3-3 work with/around Atlanta United’s specific personnel? Let’s take a look.

A New Look

We’ve already discussed how de Boer wants his wingers to play with almost complete positional freedom, asking them to drift into the middle underneath the striker, or even to the other wing altogether to overload defenses in wide areas. As we’ll see, their role is quite similar in Atlanta’s 4-3-3.

The real changes are in the middle. Whereas the 3-4-3 forced Atlanta into playing two center midfielders in Eric Remedi and Darligton Nagbe, a 4-3-3 allows for the more commonly used center midfield trio. De Boer elected to move Julian Gressel (previously a wing back in the 3-4-3) into the third central role. For the most part, Remedi dropped deepest and played the most central, with Nagbe to his left, and Gressel flanking him to his right.

In their most basic form, we see the differences in the two shapes below. First we see the 3-4-3.

And now below, you’ll see the extra body in Gressel through the center in the 4-3-3.

So, what can we expect from this team a with three center mids? For starters, the extra body helps with pressure on the opposition’s midfield and backline, and allows for a more aggressive press.

While de Boer also wanted his team to press in the midfield in a 3-4-3, his center midfielders were naturally a bit more restricted. And as we see above, the mere addition of Gressel through the center allows him to sit high and read the play with plenty of cover, leading to a goal scoring opportunity.


De Boer also added a wrinkle of his own, likely designed to suit his personnel. When in possession in the attacking third, and sometimes in other areas, Gressel would often become the right winger, with Barco moving inside to advance the attack through the middle. We see a good example below.

Should Atlanta remain in a 4-3-3, one would think that the connection between Gressel and the right winger will be essential, whether that player be Barco, Villalba, or Pity Martinez. For Gressel, the interchange allows him to get out wide on the right to attack goal or whip in crosses, and for Barco it allows him to be more creative in the center of the pitch, driving at goal and looking for incisive passes in behind. We see another example of the two hooking up below.

On the other side of the pitch, Tito Villalba’s natural game lead him more so to wider areas to drive at the full back, which meant Barco spent most of the time filling the space in the middle. But de Boer clearly gives both wings freedom to fill in that space, as we see below.

This time, it’s Villalba drifting inside. And the presence of Gressel in the right half draws an an extra defender away from the center, allowing for an easier ball out of the back from Miles Robinson.

After the return of a healthy Pity, who likes to come central similar to Barco, one would expect the two will basically interchange freely in that spot. But when Tito pairs with Barco (or a healthy Pity), expect the Paraguayan international to mainly stay out wide, while one of the two Argentineans look to dominate in the middle. And of course, continue to keep an eye on how Julian Gressel interacts with the right winger, looking to connect and interchange passes and positions in attack.


Unfortunately for the Five Stripes, the treacherous conditions at Mapfre Stadium prevented us from really getting a good look at de Boer’s 4-3-3. But after seeing the team’s listless attack in past matches, the fact that Atlanta did create a few chances through their 4-3-3 is at least something to build on, despite the result.

Only time will tell whether Atlanta United can respond from their slow start, and whether it will be the 4-3-3 that sees them back up the table. But we did get an idea of what to expect from the formation last Saturday.