Atlanta United prevailed 2-0 over one of their biggest Eastern conference foes on Sunday evening. Frank de Boer’s team left it extremely late, nicking two goals to snatch the full three points from a Wayne Rooney-less side. Here are a few thoughts on a fascinating tactical battle:
Chess Or Checkers?
It’s easy to walk away from this match and have the mindset of “Oh, just another boring Atlanta United performance” masked by two late goals. But, I’m not ready to go down that road quite yet. De Boer stuck with the 3-5-2 like the majority asked for. The one head-scratching decision was leaving Brandon Vazquez up top and to leave Pity Martinez on the bench for the second straight match. Many assumed Pity’s place on the bench against Houston was just for rest, but it appears to have been a conscious tactical decision.
The system didn’t sparkle like it did against Houston, as you’d expect playing against a better team and one not playing with 10 men for 85 minutes. Atlanta’s attack wasn’t high-flying or exciting, but it looked different from the norm we’ve seen under De Boer. The dominance felt dominant. The spread out formation allowed for better positioning and better ball retention and led to a ridiculous 71 percent possession. When D.C. did attack it was one and done with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar and Miles Robinson gobbling up every second ball or loose touch.
Ben Olsen had a gameplan and executed it to perfection, creating a handful of counter-attacking chances, much like how he befuddled Tata Martino early in 2017. Thankfully, those few chances weren’t converted and the Five Stripes lived to fight for the winner which they eventually got.
It’s fine to want your team to be exciting, but when a very good team makes a concerted effort to stay back and not come out of their shell, there’s not much you can do. This is where the Vazquez/Pity decision comes into play. Vazquez dropped deep a lot of the times but is obviously not the creative force that Pity is and it hindered the ideas going forward.
This was a pure tactical battle with one side happy to control the ball and the other happy to let them. Both sides executed their plans well and we saw a stalemate. It happens. I think we need to be a little more patient and see how this 3-5-2 system plays out over several games and with the ideal personnel available. I want to see how this does with Pity and/or Ezequiel Barco helping in the attack and with a naturally left-footed player (Hello, Bello) on the left flank.
I’m sure someone will say it’s easy to be this calm in hindsight after the team got the win, but I can promise you I was prepared to say the same things in the 80th minute when it looked destined to end 0-0. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap, as they say. Thankfully, the late goals came and everyone can be happy despite the less than exciting match.
This Is Pity
Everyone is happy to see Pity Martinez come into the match and be the hero. I couldn’t be happier for him after the rough start to his MLS career. But, did this performance really change anything? In my eyes, this is the exact Pity we’ve seen all season. In his 25 minutes, he spent 20 of them being a non-factor as the rest of the team pretty much was as well. He was involved in build-ups but it was nothing to spotlight. Then it clicked for him. He got on the end of Darlington Nagbe’s cross to head in the game-winner. Moments later came the bit of magic that Pity brings. A extraordinary clipped ball behind the D.C. back line for Josef to run onto and finish well for the insurance goal.
This is Pity Martinez. He can disappear for long stretches and then pull that magic rabbit out of his hat and leave you in awe. Perhaps its time for us and Frank de Boer to accept that’s just the type of player is. He’s not Miguel Almiron. He’s not going to consistently make things happen throughout the 90 minutes. But, when in position to make plays, he has the capability to produce a moment of pure brilliance.
Work rate is something Pity can control and as long as he’s working hard, he should be in the starting lineup. Other than that, it’s up to De Boer to put his skill set in the best position. If he’s a detriment defensively, find a spot for him where he won’t hurt the team. Perhaps the supporting striker/midfielder spot next to Josef will allow him more freedom to pull off that magic like he did in this one.
The Beginning Is The End
We’re one match away from the MLS All-Star Game and it feels like we’re just scratching the surface of the season and what Atlanta United can be. Up next is a visit to LA to take on the best team in the league. No matter the result of that match, this really feels like the beginning of Atlanta’s season. Ezequiel Barco is back even though he didn’t get used off the bench. George Bello is a few weeks away. Hopefully Tito Villalba isn’t far behind. Second in the East isn’t too shabby of a place to be with your full-strength lineup starting to become a possibility.
It’s been a topsy-turvy beginning to the Frank de Boer era but both he and the players have a good chance to salvage it all from now until September. The excuses need to be put to bed and for the real Atlanta United to reveal themselves.