The Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis got himself sent off by referee Chris Penso in the 6th minute of Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition job by Atlanta United. All five of the goals came after the early red card, and the sending off was a clear inflection point in the match that propelled the Five Stripes to a lopsided result. It doesn’t make the win any less emotionally gratifying for fans, but it does tinge the performance with a shroud of doubt regarding Atlanta’s tactical superiority.
And that’s a shame, because not only was it arguably the most fun version of Atlanta United we’ve seen this season, but it also coincided with a major tactical change by Frank de Boer, returning to a back three that he used to begin his tenure.
Frank de Boer told media in his post-match press conference: “I think you can say, of course the red card helps, always, but I think you also remember the Red Bulls game. We didn’t play at that moment like this so that’s a good step that we made. I think we also started very well against 11, first we had the chance with Josef (Martinez) and then another chance, and of course they had one good chance.”
Let’s unpack this quote and examine what Frank de Boer is talking about.
When Atlanta United’s lineup was released an hour prior to kickoff, surely few Atlanta United fans expected the shape to be the 4-3-3 in which it was originally depicted. The tactical switch was a defensive measure from De Boer, opting to guard against a potentially dangerous Houston front four with three center backs and three central midfielders. As it turned out, Wilmer Cabrera opted to rest star striker Mauro Manotas and left winger Rommel Quioto.
While Atlanta was tactically in protection mode, the team came out aggressive and on the front foot. Just seconds after kickoff, Brandon Vazquez’s pressure won a deflection that Julian Gressel intercepted, and he immediately played Josef Martínez in on goal.
Houston was eventually able to put together possession and build some attacks, and here we are able to more clearly see Atlanta’s defensive structure and the marking responsibilities of the back line. Gressel and Pereira dropped into the back line to make a line of five, allowing the central CB to mark the striker and the two wide CBs to cover for the wing backs — neither of which are natural defenders. (*De Boer quickly swapped his position with Robinson to allow the more athletic of the CBs to mark Elis, who played as a central forward instead of his customary right-sided role).
Here we see Julian Gressel staying back to mark Houston’s LW Tommy McNamara. The wide space in which Tomas Martínez is carrying the ball is covered by Nagbe shuttling over with Hyndman, a natural central midfielder, dropping in to cover the back side.
The efectiveness of the 3-5-2 wasn’t just apparent off the ball though. Atlanta had Houston outnumbered in this area during the buildup phase. Houston defended with “two banks of four,” using Elis and Martínez to mark four Atlanta United players (the three CBs + Larentowicz).
In reality, Martínez and Elis are not necessarily “marking,” but trying to squeeze the play to one side of the field so Houston could close down on Atlanta players near the touchline and limit danger in the middle of the park. It worked fine. But Atlanta capitalized when Houston chose to come out of their shell and press Atlanta’s back line.
On the whole, Atlanta’s back three gave the team a platform to be more aggressive tackling and closing down Houston players in midfield. While Gressel dropped to protect the flank when Atlanta defended its own penalty area, here he steps up to Dynamo left back Damarcus Beasley further afield. Brandon Vazquez again wins the ball for Atlanta in an area that allows them to break on goal.
Vazquez loses his footing on the ball, but you can’t help but wonder what this situation may have produced with someone like Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martínez on the ball. We also see a delicate passing combination between Josef Martínez and Emerson Hyndman. The new signing showed his class Wednesday night and he looks poised to break through into Frank de Boer’s best XI sooner rather than later.
“I love when people are knocking at the door and want to be involved in the team,” De Boer said of Hyndman after the game. “He’s certainly knocking.”
The performance wasn’t perfect though. At the end of the clip above, we can see Dion Pereira — a very young player that is not a natural wingback — and Jeff Larentowicz committing themselves high up the pitch. Houston is able to exploit Atlanta’s aggressiveness against them and nearly grab a goal themselves. Let’s pick it back up from exactly where we left it on this run of play.
What’s clear here is that De Boer’s team hadn’t had enough time in training to make such a tactical switch completely seamless. He and players told reporters after the match that they only prepared themselves in the shape for one, relatively brief training session. But the seeds of it had been sown much earlier in the season, and Atlanta showed that it has tactical flexibility under De Boer.
Atlanta United would not have won the game 5-0 if Houston didn’t go down to 10 men early in the match, but even discounting everything that happened in the 84 minutes that followed, the 3-5-2 gave the team a boost it desperately needed. Does that mean it’s 3-5-2 for the rest of the season? I doubt it. De Boer said after the game that he will return to the 4-3-3 if he thinks it suits the matchup and more injured players become available for selection. But now we know Atlanta has this in its tool belt, and it’s something that opposing managers will need to prepare for.