A Tumultuous 2019
Frank de Boer’s first season as manager of Atlanta United has been one of ups and downs. And this is no different on the tactical side of things, where fans, pundits and even players criticized the Dutchman for what they saw as a more rigid and slow style of play, representing a direct split with the Atlanta United that won an MLS Cup after just two seasons of existence under Tata Martino.
De Boer began the season in a 3-4-3, before moving to a 4-3-3 and even a 4-4-2, all the while asking his team often to look to slow play down, possessing the ball while the team shape moves forward as one. The results were mixed, at best. Although Atlanta would tally up one of the best overall possession numbers of any team in the league, their attack looked stale for much of the season, struggling to create chances while displaying a lack of fluidity and penetration going forward.
In order to reinvigorate a clearly underachieving attack, de Boer took a note from the 2018 playbook, and reverted back to a 3-5-2 last month - the same shape that helped Atlanta lift the MLS Cup last year. The team responded with a 5-0 victory over Houston Dynamo. And with the return of the talismanic Ezequiel Barco to the fold in recent weeks, Atlanta began to truly look like the force we’ve come to expect on offense.
A healthy Barco, an in-form Pity Martinez, and the return to 3-5-2 are certainly a big reason for Atlanta’s recent revival. But it’s important to note that the Five Stripes’ recent successes are more than a mere re-introduction of Martino’s 2018 system. In fact, de Boer appears to have successfully mixed some of his core principles with the chaotic and unpredictable vertical attack of Atlanta’s personnel in the 3-5-2.
Let’s take a closer look.
Same Shape, Small Differences
We documented de Boer’s switch to the 3-5-2 last month, and how the change perhaps signaled a return to the shape Tata Martino employed to win MLS Cup in 2018. But with more time to watch the formation in action, the Dutchman has stuck to his guns on several matters, especially in attack.
Last year, we discussed how Martino’s 3-5-2 gave Atlanta United’s attacking players much more positional freedom, as the “second striker” could drift freely underneath Josef Martinez, depending on their attacking preferences. Early on, that player was Tito Villalba, who preferred to drift to his right. Other times it was Ezequiel Barco, whose technical ability and passing ability saw him drift freely to either side of the pitch. And of course, the formation was at it’s very best with Miguel Almiron, whose pace made him an easy outlet to ignite the counter. He preferred to drift to his left, leaving a dangerous right wing back in Julian Gressel or Franco Escobar in acres of space as defenses keyed in on the Paraguayan.
Below, we see Atlanta’s average positions from last December’s MLS Cup Final.
Looking above, we Atlanta’s average shape from the final. Almiron (No. 10) sits behind Martinez (No. 7), while center midfield Julian Gressel (No. 24) moved forward whenever possible alongside Almiron (who no doubt enjoyed even more positional freedom with Gressel close by to cover him).
While de Boer’s players have enjoyed more freedom in the 3-5-2 we see above, the most recent iteration of the shape has shown a bit more structure in the attack than the aforementioned version of 2018. The key being that in attack, second striker Pity and center attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco morph into inverted wingers, with the shape transitioning into the 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 shapes employed by de Boer earlier this season. We went over FdB’s 4-3-3 and 3-4-3’s earlier in the season.
We see evidence of this by checking out the average positions of the de facto “front three” from the weekend’s match.
Barco (No. 8) and Pity (No. 10) flank Josef Martinez as the aforementioned inverted wingers, or more specifically, inside forwards - that is, “wide players” who tend to play more narrow and cut inside from wider areas. This should sound familiar, as it’s more or less how de Boer wanted to use his wingers when he trotted out variations of 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 earlier in the season.
For reference, we see that the three are in a very similar attacking shape way back in early May, the last time we saw all three play in a 4-3-3 shape. Again, look at how Barco and Pity are both playing inverted on either side of Martinez, but playing extremely narrow.
The trend is clear - de Boer wants to play Pity and Barco inverted in a front three, and in more narrow positions, creating a dangerous combination for the opposition down the spine of their defense and mifield, while also opening up space out wide for the fullbacks or wing backs. And he’s stuck to his guns on this attacking principle, despite the other obvious adjustments surrounding a tactical pivot to a 3-5-2.
We saw the tactic firing on all cylinders against NYCFC.
First, let’s take a look at Barco and Pity’s actions from the kickoff, as both drift to either side of Martinez.
It was only moments later where the front three’s movement lead to an early chance for Martinez. Watch below how Barco slices inside from the left, while Pity plays extremely narrow next to Martinez, drawing outside back Ronald Matarrita (No. 22) with him. The result is Gressel in space. And we covered how Gressel’s special ability to serve balls from wide areas is a dangerous attacking weapon last month.
But the front three still have plenty of freedom, and aren’t constricted to those narrow spaces. Watch how Pity drifts inside to outside as the shape springs Gressel yet again, and he puts up a beautiful ball to the onrushing Martinez for the opening goal.
We also see that with the ball opposite of his side, Barco is allowed to drift into the middle and play more central, and he trails the cross. Again, this is not new, as we saw from previous matches in the season - de Boer has always wanted this from his wide players.
The shape of the front three also could prove a vital link between de Boer’s possession-based game and Atlanta’s pacy attacking personnel. Watch this play below, as Barco takes the ball on the left and is able to successfully slow the play down while the rest of the team moves forward, before springing Justin Meram down the left to create another chance for Martinez.
While the 3-5-2 may win plaudits for it’s danger on attacks of the counter and direct nature, turning the front two into a front three allows Atlanta United to slow the play down, when needed, and posses as de Boer always wanted. Against NYCFC, they won 58% of the possession against NYCFC and 55-45% against LA Galaxy two weeks ago. So far, those are the only two matches where Pity and Barco have both been healthy an employed in a 3-5-2 shape.
A Little Old, a Little New
Without question, Atlanta United’s recent successes have a lot to do with the reversion to the preferred 3-5-2 shape of 2018. But the tactic isn’t a complete mirror image of last season’s. De Boer prefers a more structured path forward in the last third, which leads to an attacking look with Barco and Pity forming a front three around Martinez, rather than the front two of a free role Almiron (or someone else) underneath Martinez that we saw last year.
If the Five Stripes can successfully marry the free-flowing, frenetic attack of the 3-5-2, and mix it with a little of de Boer’s attacking structure, they will certainly be back to the extremely dangerous attacking team we’ve come to expect, and perhaps a little even more versatile going forward than past seasons.
We certainly still need more time to see if this “new” Atlanta United 3-5-2 can reach the heights of last year, but if the early returns are any indication, it appears that the Five Stripes have what it takes to compete for silverware once again.