At this point, it's no secret that the Atlanta United of 2019 has not looked the same as 2018. A new manager, departure of talisman Miguel Almiron, and a slew of injuries have been a large cause of the struggles. But so has the lesser individual form of several players, in particular Julian Gressel.
Last season, Gressel lead the team with 14 assists, playing in nearly every position on the field throughout the season, and finding success from all of them. Gressel would excel at his usual center midfield spot, but also discovered incredible success playing as right wing back position after Tata Martino moved to a 3-5-2 formation. Later, he won an MLS Cup starting at center midfield in the same shape.
But this season, the German hasn’t looked the same player under Frank de Boer. A big part of that might be the change in manager. Under Martino’s fast tempo and vertical passing style, Gressel’s ability to play the final ball made him extraordinarily valuable. But in Frank de Boer’s slightly slower system that tries to methodically break down defense’s, Gressel’s weaknesses with touch and finesse passing are more exposed. Under the fast paced Martino, there was a high likelihood Gressel would be in position to play the final ball more often than not. But under de Boer's, it's a completely different story.
But when de Boer switched to a 3-5-2 and employed Gressel at wing back on Wednesday, we saw the old version of Gressel. But why? Simple - the change in shape and position afforded him time and space in wide areas. And Gressel reminded all of us just how valuable he can be when possessing in space and playing the final ball.
Whether it was out of necessity thanks to a banged up roster or a tactical shift in plans, de Boer opted for a 3-5-2 on Wednesday against Houston. And 90 minutes later, the Atlanta United of 2018 was fresh in fans' minds, as the team cruised to a 5-0 victory. The revival of sorts much in part surrounded the exploits of Gressel.
It was no coincidence Gressel was back in a familiar position - right wing back. And this position suits his strengths to a “T,” especially in attack. Serving as the only out-and-out wide player in the 3-5-2, the left and right wing back are consistently in space in wide areas. In a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 we've seen this year, the shape includes one striker and two wide attackers. But in a 352, the extra striker can force the back four to defend very narrowly. With two forwards instead of one, plus the usual three center midfielders, opponents often have to be very compact when defending to deal with the extra central attacker. This leaves the wingbacks in space for an incisive ball from wide, allowing Gressel to look for his prized final ball time, and time again.
Gressel creates his first chance of the match after just seconds.
After Alberth Elis was sent off for a red card. The Dynamo were forced to defend even more compactly, leaving Gressel (and Dion Pereira on the other side) in acres of space. Watch below how the presence of two strikers and an advanced Darlington Nagbe force left back DeMarcus Beasley and the Dynamo midfield to pinch in and deal with the overload through the middle, leaving Gressel in space.
Gressel's rust as a wingback shows in the above clips, as the final ball here isn’t the best. And for many teams parking the bus like Houston, allowing a lumped cross or pass into the box from out wide is not an especially bad result. But the visitors soon learn that most wing backs can’t play a final ball with the same quality as Julian Gressel.
But what if Beasley or a wide midfielder do come wide to prevent a good look at a cross? That’s where Gressel can show he’s much more than just a wing back, as he’s able to play the direct pass on the ground with pace that he enjoyed so often in Martino's system. Watch below how Beasley moves wide and leaves space for Gressel to pass into behind him, with a near-miss from Josef Martinez the final result.
As we see, Gressel has the ability to whip in a cross when left in space, or is able to play an incisive pass into the box should Houston concede space centrally and try and put him under pressure.
The Five Stripes were getting closer through Gressel. And it was only moments later when they opened the scoring.
Again, pulling Beasley away from Gressel is easy- as he is momentarily forced to stay with striker Brandon Vasquez while Martinez/Nagbe/Hyndman overload the Houston defense inside the box. Simply put, the Dynamo have no choice but to leave the German in space. And he does the rest with a perfect ball to Nagbe.
Gressel probably should have had a second assist before halftime. Watch below how once again, Nagbe draws Beasley into the middle, and Gressel picks out the final ball perfectly.
Fortunately, for Martinez, he would have another chance. Gressel would find him again, and this time the Venezuelan made no mistake.
This time, Gressel takes his space in a more central position. But the result is the same, as he floats a perfect final ball over the top to Martinez.
Houston, we have a problem.
A Perfect Role
We all know Julian Gressel excels with the final ball. And now we've seen how the right wing back position in a 3-5-2 affords him space and time to play that final ball over and over again, as the extra body through the middle often leaves teams with no choice but to defend narrow and leave Gressel in space out wide.
In the end, Gressel scored once, assisted twice, and created an astonishing nine chances. Clearly, the change in shape and positions worked wonders for him.
While some have called for de Boer to switch to a 3-5-2 permanently, the manager must decide if he wants to overhaul his shape to accommodate one player. But no matter what happens, the impact of Gressel at wing back is undeniable, and could at the very least provide de Boer with a critical ace up his sleeve going forward.