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Analyzing Atlanta United’s 3-5-2 formation in 2019 vs. 2018

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Using data to compare Frank de Boer’s new formation to the same under Tata Martino

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I solicited questions from twitter in the hopes of having a handful of interesting queries to research during the break. Ultimately, I was won over by a singular topic that showed up in a couple of different tweets. This post is the story of that curiosity. First, thanks BT and ChrisJonesATL for the inspiration. I haven’t forgotten about the rest of you. Onwards.

I gather that Chris and BT’s interest in de Boer’s style vs Martino’s are centered not in the earlier part of the season, and the differences between the Dutchman’s philosophy and what we’ve witnessed the two years prior, but a particular fascination with the fact that ever since Josef Martinez was seen screaming at the bench after scoring a goal in Seattle, the team has lined up like the team used to line up... back before Tata left.

To start, I should mention that the 2018 “Tata Martino style” was also difficult to articulate as it flexed from 4-3-3 high press to the more subdued but still disruptive 3-5-2. For the purpose of answering BT and Chris here, let’s focus in on comparing Tata’s 2018 3-5-2 to the 3-5-2 we are witnessing at the moment. To do this, we should look at some data, and we’ll start with defensive pressure.

For the above comparison I used data from the July 17 Houston match to the most recent Aug 31 Philadelphia match (throwing out minutes where either team had a man advantage to define the 2019 3-5-2 under de Boer, giving us 7 matches to work with. Similarly, I looked back through 2018 and picked out all of the 3-5-2 matches (Tata’s team spent roughly half its time in the 3-5-2 in the regular season), again excluding all events occurring when a team had a man advantage. The results are a bit surprising and while not determinative, should not be ignored when we think about BT and Chris’ questions.

Atlanta United in the 3-5-2 setup under de Boer presses more vigorously than both Frank’s 4-3-3/3-4-3 teams and also Tata Martino’s 3-5-2 from 2018. On the one hand, this makes me think that FdB is the one doing the adapting as of late, and not the other way around. When a coach who values “control” and discourages unnecessary pressing suddenly watches on at his team wide-open pressing like a New York club, you would think he has perhaps relaxed his religion around play-style just a bit. On the other hand, Tata Martino is on record last year as stating his grievances with the 3-5-2, particularly the issue of not being able to press as effectively as his team could out of the 4-3-3.

“That’s the price we’re paying right now with the change in system that we made,” Martino said last April when discussing his team’s lack of possession playing in a 3-5-2. “We’re still working on it, we’re still perfecting it, there’s still things to improve. We’d like to be farther up the field. I think in the [4-2-3-1], we’re 20 meters further up the field at all times and able to press the ball. So that’s something that we’re still working on improving.”

And here’s Frank holding down a back three while releasing the hounds to such an extent that they look like Red Bulls without the ball and NYCFC with it. See below.

As unlikely as it is that what we’re seeing is a full-on Frank creation so to speak, it is also very much not the same restrained 3-5-2 we are all familiar with from Tata’s days, so we can’t close the door to the idea that this is some beautiful alchemy — that perhaps the “lock on” (transitional awareness) upon which so much of the team’s training focus rested in the earlier parts of the season has merged with the players’ outspoken and earnest desires to go all out — to disrupt their opponents buildups at every opportunity and to attack with zeal leaving their own back line exposed in 1v1 transition situations should things go awry in a way that has produced a very high pressure total picture.

When I dig into the possession data, the first thing that I see is that possession in general is just moderately choppier. The result is both Atlanta and its opponents have a higher count of total possessions after the switch to Frank’s 3-5-2 as compared to Tata’s 3-5-2. Further, each possession (both Atlanta’s and its opponents’) is shorter by comparison after the switch. There’s more pressure, disruption, and directness knocking around in the machine, and as a general rule, this is riskier for all involved.

But Atlanta appears to be doing a decent job at managing the risk. The average MLS team allows 52% of its opponents’ possessions to advance to the attacking third, with league-leading Red Bulls allowing this sort of progress only 46% of the time (and Colorado and Vancouver allowing such progressions 58% of the time). Atlanta playing the 3-5-2 are allowing this sort of progress 48% of the time, which compares favorably to the 50% allowed earlier in the season and the 52% allowed under Tata’s 3-5-2.

In exchange for the risk Atlanta assumes as the games are more disjointed and choppier, Atlanta are enjoying an uptick in the number of their own possessions originating in their own half and enter their opponents’ final third (54% compared to 51% under Tata) as well as an uptick in the number and share of sequences that make it all the way to the penalty area (15.2 and 20% compared to 14.5 and 19% under Tata).

The numbers support what you may have noticed as of late, a team that is running and gunning quite wildly, with the center of the pitch often wide open (the recent game in Orlando comes to mind). So the original questions posed by BT and Chris remain important and not fully resolved:

Has Frank de Boer flexed brilliantly, marrying the well-drilled transitional defensive tactics he has brought over from Europe with the anarchy of a high pressure 3-5-2, resulting in a ferocious beast to stand alone apart from any single individual’s past legacies at the club or otherwise?

Or, is he tied up and locked in Josef Martinez’ pool house?

(All statistics used in this article are courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.)