Big Match. Big Decisions.
Attack-minded Atlanta United were unfortunate to enter their biggest match of season to date missing two key offensive options. Without talisman Ezequiel Barco and goal machine Josef Martinez at his disposal, and a trip to Eastern Conference leaders NYCFC in the cards, Atlanta manager Frank de Boer faced a simple, yet difficult tactical decision. Should he alter his aggressive, often eye-catching style of play to a more pragmatic, defensive setup to make up for the loss of Martinez and Barco? Or should he stick with the attacking, aggressive, and fluid 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid formation and tactics of the past few months?
In the end, De Boer stuck to his guns, placing his faith in his players, as Atlanta entered Yankee Stadium looking to attack and press from the outset. 45 minutes later, they were trailing 3-0 after having been played off the pitch by the hosts.
New Faces. Same System
Barco had already been missing for several weeks. But the additional loss of Martinez saw de Boer turn to Brandon Vazquez in the No. 9 position. Pity Martinez remained in a playmaking role seeing him drift from right-to-left as an inverted winger. Emerson Hyndman continued in Barco’s spot, playing underneath the striker and drifting to his left, forming a front three with Vazquez playing striker, and Hyndman/Pity flanking him. Darlington Nagbe and Eric Remedi sit behind Hyndman, with Nagbe the more attacking of the two holding mids. And then there was a big change at both wing back positions, which saw Franco Escobar move from center back to the right, and Tito Villalba, normally an attacking wing or fill-in striker, a surprise start on the left.
We see this setup from the average positions below from the match. Notice how Villalba (No. 15) and Escobar (No. 2) are both spending most of their time in the opposition half, with Tito playing nearly as high as Vazquez (No. 19).
If this all looks/sounds familiar, it should, as it’s more or less how Atlanta United have set up for some time. For context, let’s compare to the previous match against San Jose.
Of course there are contextual differences, as the Quakes were down to ten men. But the attacking onus is the same - play Pity (his circle is conjoined with Josef’s) and Hyndman inverted in attack, and press with the wing backs in Meram (No. 14) and Gressel (No. 24).
Quite clearly, de Boer went for a business as usual approach at Yankee Stadium. Watch below as Atlanta confirm their desired shape before taking the kickoff. Wing backs Escobar and Villalba move high and wide to the half line, showing an aggressive mindset down the flanks, while Pity, Hyndman, and Vazquez all sit more narrow to form the front three, and Remedi adopts a slightly deeper center midfield spot from Nagbe, and the usual back three forming the defense.
45 Minutes to Forget
NYCFC showed their quality during the first half, leaving little doubt as to the result by halftime. The hosts sliced through the visitors high press, exposing the attacking nature of Villalba and Escobar and passing straight through the Atlanta midfield.
The Five Stripes actually had a decent start to the match, with Villalba and Pity coming up short on half chances. But the warning signs were there from a very early period. Watch below how NYCFC easily beat the Atlanta press and once it’s broken, it’s off to the races with Atlanta’s defense left in tough positions.
Now, let’s take a look at how Atlanta are exposed when in attacking positions. Check out the team’s positioning below on the aforementioned Pity early chance.
Only Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are back in traditional defensive positions with the rest of the team pushed forward, and even the two Atlanta defenders are marked up man-on-man should NYCFC find a way to win the ball, break Atlanta’s press, and attack into space. This isn’t an abnormal set up from the visitors, but it is an exceedingly aggressive approach.
Atlanta managed to escape the early danger and were creating some decent moments of their own. But it wasn’t long after when the floodgates opened. Watch this beautiful play from NYCFC en route to a beautiful first goal from Mitrita.
It’s no coincidence that goalscorer Mitrita drifts out to his left and receives the ball in the space left by the pressing Escobar, before slicing inside, beating Pirez, and smashing home a beautiful finish. Interestingly, at the tail end of the play, we see that Atlanta’s left is also completely exposed with Villalba caught high up the pitch, as Valentín Castellanos is wide open on the bottom of the screen when Mitrita strikes the ball towards goal.
Villalba loses the ball initially, although not in a seemingly dangerous position. But when you consider that an attacking Atlanta side had already bombed forward, as we see below, it explains how the hosts were able to get into a dangerous attacking position so quickly. Check out Atlanta’s aggressive positioning after Tito turns the ball over - both wing backs are caught forward, as are the entire front three and Nagbe.
Then, after bypassing the press and running past Nagbe, we see it’s 4v4 to goal for NYCFC from midfield.
NYCFC completely exposed Atlanta on the second goal, toying with them as they play the ball all the way back to their goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who breaks the Atlanta press with one pass, and it’s 2-0 moments later.
Much like the first goal, the key play in the NYCFC attack (Johnson’s press breaking pass) would likely be an afterthought against a more conservative opponent. Instead, NYCFC draw Atlanta out as they move the ball back to Johnson, before he breaks Atlanta’s press to spring NYCFC into attack. Once again, as we see below, NYCFC go from the ball in their own half to a dangerous 4v4 with six Atlanta players caught out moments later.
Finally, let’s take a look at NYCFC absolutely in their element late in the half, completing a multitude of passes around Atlanta’s “resistance,” before getting in behind to win a penalty. With Atlanta gain unable to break up their possession out of the back, NYCFC find the space in midfield and in an instant, they’re behind the defense.
Hindsight is 20/20
While de Boer’s tactical set up clearly didn’t work in New York, his decision to stick with his preferred system despite being shorthanded is not uncommon. It’s easy to look back now and say he made the wrong decision, but travelling to the Eastern Conference leaders needing three points without Martinez and Barco left the gaffer between a rock and hard place. In the end, he put faith in his players, and saw it backfire through a slew of poor individual performances and NYCFC exposing Atlanta’s high press and aggressive wing backs.
As Atlanta get back to full strength behind the impending return of Barco, and reportedly the eventual return of Martinez, de Boer will be eager to have the right 11 available to play the system he desires. In the meantime, the Dutchman must decide whether to stay the course, or make alterations to his tactics with Martinez and/or Barco on the sidelines.