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De’s Nuggets: Atlanta United’s Midseason Checkup

Frank de Boer is in for his bi-annual checkup

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Sporting Kansas City Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The blogger will see you now, Mr. de Boer. We’re now six months into Frank de Boer’s managing tenure, the point at which he’s said on multiple occasions Atlanta United would become comfortable in his playing style:

“Normally, I always say after six months, you see things that you think, ‘Yeah, these are things we discussed, this is what I want to see from my team.’” – FdB, Chicago Fire, 6/1/2019

De Boer never reached this point at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, so it must feel nice for him to have time to put his stamp on a team and see the fruits of his success with the Five Stripes.

After a tough start in which the team hovered toward the bottom of the table (thankfully #DeBoerOut is on the outs), Atlanta is now in a strong position at the international break.

They currently sit fourth in the East with 26 points on 15 matches, with a match in hand to conference leaders Philadelphia Union, who have 28 points. Atlanta’s 1.73 points per match puts them fourth in MLS. They’ve only scored 19 goals this season, putting them at the bottom half of MLS, but they have one of the league’s strongest defenses. A center back combo of LGP and perennial national team snub Miles Robinson has only allowed 11 goals, the lowest tally in MLS, and 2 fewer than LAFC.

The team’s vitals support a much different narrative than the two teams under Tata Martino. Putting aside the fact the Five Stripes became a dominant defensive team in their MLS Cup run, analysts like to simplify and say the team’s no longer an offensive juggernaut thanks in large part to Miguel Almiron’s exit. It’s hard not to look at the many 1-0 or 2-0 score lines and disagree.

But looking a bit deeper, what exactly is the vision FdB has instituted, and how does it differ from Tata’s? I thought I’d look to FdB’s own words to gain a bit of insight. (After all, this column is all about closely examining De’s nuggets … of wisdom.)

In a great piece in Yahoo Sports, FdB summed it all up for us:

“I, of course, studied how we played [before his arrival] and I think we can still improve. We’re trying to control the game more than last season.”

Control. It’s something FdB applies to all phases of Atlanta’s game. When the Five Stripes have the ball, control means maintaining possession and dictating the pace of play. In defense, control means getting into a solid shape immediately after losing the ball. And in transition, control means being smart about when and where to press, as well as limiting the damage from any silly mistakes.

He’s emphasized this throughout the season:

“Tonight, for the first hour of the match we had good control. That was very pleasing to see.”

– FdB, Minnesota United FC, 5/29/2019

“The first half you’ll see they started a little bit better but afterwards we controlled, we had the better chances.”

– FdB, Real Salt Lake, 5/24/2019

“I think we started off a little bit sloppy. With passes lacking concentration, but after 20 minutes we took the control a little bit.”

– FdB, Vancouver Whitecaps, 5/15/2019

“I still believe that you can do a lot of harm against opponents when you play 3-4-3. You have to not be sloppy with the ball because, then, it’s a really dangerous system. I still believe in it but afterwards we couldn’t find our free man and we changed it to 4-4-2 and from that moment on we had more control. We created more.”

– FdB, Philadelphia Union, 3/17/2019

Looking beyond the larger emphasis on taking hold of a match, defense has been the main area of focus for De Boer.

“The attack was very good last year. But we thought we could get much better at defending. So that’s what we were heavily focused on in practice. But they didn’t enjoy all that defending.” (Yahoo)

He’s emphasized remaining compact over the more out-and-out pressing style Tata preferred at times.

“… I think we played really compact when we needed to be. We weren’t running around like crazy and trying to press. We chose the right moments when to be compact. I think that we did a good job with the defensive part tonight.” – FdB, Toronto, 5/8/2019

And one of De Boer’s bugaboos is when a player takes a risk that turns into a transition opportunity for the opponent.

“Don’t step in or don’t gamble you know. If you gamble, gamble defensively. If you attack offensively and you miss, it is a big risk. It’s very important that we don’t allow these kind of goals.” – FdB, FC Dallas, 4/20/2019

On the attacking front, we’ve heard de Boer emphasize three areas of focus. First, he wants his players to use possession and quick side-to-side passing to create channels for runners to exploit. Second, he’s shifted Josef into more of a hold up striker role, with the attack running through him rather than to him. Despite a slow start, the King seems to have returned to form in recent weeks.

Third, De Boer wants his fullbacks push forward and create crosses from the wings. Obviously, it’s helped to have Franco Escobar back in the lineup to execute this vision.

“For us it’s very important that [Escobar’s] there, because modern fullbacks have to have depth kind of qualities, go up-and-down. Making plays and crosses, but also going back defensively. He did it all today.” – FdB, Vancouver, 5/15/2019

“Franco had a great performance, great game. Against a team who wants to drop deep, you have to have wingbacks or fullbacks who support the attack. He is the modern type of fullback that can go up and down for 90 minutes.” – FdB, Minnesota, 5/29/2019

Finally, FdB likes to say his plan relies on flashes of brilliance from playmakers like like Zeke Barco and Pity Martinez to create chances for Josef to finish. We’ve seen Barco do this all year, and Pity is starting to do the same lately.

“The individual quality has to make a difference in 1-v-1 situations. Then, we have an advantage up front. I remember from (Pep) Guardiola that he says from the back we have one man more. When somebody comes to me, I play to the other free man. In the end, it comes to somebody who can make a difference. When we are in the second or third phase, we have to have somebody with the skills to make an excellent pass.”

– FdB, Colorado Rapids, 4/27/2019

When FdB says “control,” he’s not talking about the team doing exactly what he wants, when he wants, no matter the situation. He’s not that authoritarian. Rather, he’s urging his players to manage the match from start to finish, with as few mistakes as possible.

One passage in particular from the Yahoo story made me feel like Atlanta United is in a healthy place under De Boer’s leadership. It’s the one where FdB isn’t the authoritarian 4-3-3 dictator we feared. It turns out he’s a whole lot more flexible. From Leander’s piece:

Another adjustment: recreativo. To South Americans, of which United has seven, almost all of them key players, the last practice before a game should be loose and relaxing. They usually play a pickup game that’s more about goofing off and lightening the mood than gaining sharpness.

“I hate it,” de Boer says with his signature candor. “But they love it. So what matters more?”

He leaves them be. He’s learned to accept that he can’t control everything. That in some cultures, teams practice in a different way than what he’d grown up with at Ajax, where everything is serious and tightly regimented all the time.

So you have to accept that and try to reach them in other ways,” de Boer says. “I’ve had to adjust to that.”

Six months in, it seems like FdB has adjusted quite well to his new surroundings, despite not being in control of everything.