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Talking Tactics: Julian Gressel was the linchpin behind Atlanta United’s tactical identity

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No player influenced Atlanta United’s tactics more than Gressel.

MLS: MLS Cup Playoffs-Round One-New England Revolution at ATLANTA United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

2017: A Starlet Realized

Atlanta United promised attractive and attacking football from day one. And before even playing a match in 2017, it seemed they were headed in the right direction. The Five Stripes hired legendary and experienced manager Tata Martino, before going on to sign a rash of exciting young South American attackers in Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba and Yamil Asad. And when the team played their inaugural match against New York Red Bulls on Mar. 6, 2017, Martino trotted out a team full of attacking players meant to control the game through possession, high pressing, and high tempo in attack. He opted for a conventional 4-3-3 lineup for match. The first starting lineup in club history included one surprise - rookie Julian Gressel began the match in the center of midfield.

As the early season wore on, the quality of Gressel’s performances in the middle decreased, and the first round draft pick predictably regressed to the mean in his first professional minutes. During a four game stretch spanning between April and May of 2017, Gressel failed to play more than 60 minutes in any match, as the team lost three of four.

Then, due to a mix of injuries and the emergence of Jeff Larentowicz (as we discussed at the time) in the center of midfield, Tata Martino sprang another Gressel-related surprise when the team visited Portland in May, starting the Providence alum on the right flank. The benefits were immediate, as Gressel scored Atlanta’s only goal in a 1-1 draw. He would go on to score another goal and assist three times in his next two matches at that position.

The eventual 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year would spend much of the remainder of the season playing out right. But his versatility remained a huge asset, as Martino was able to employ him in various spots throughout the midfield as a starter or off the bench. In the end, Gressel finished the season with five goals and nine assists.

2018: Potential Fulfilled

While Gressel’s 2017 was wholly impressive, 2018 cemented him as one of Atlanta’s most dangerous attacking players, and perhaps provided the extra push needed to turn a good team in 2017 into the MLS Cup winners the following season.

Gressel began the season in Houston playing as the highest center mid in a formation similar to what Martino opted for in the Five Stripes’ inaugural match one year previous. The result was one of Atlanta’s worst ever results, as the Dynamo torched the visitors en route to a 4-0 victory.

DC United came to town the following week, and Martino decided it was time to make some changes. The manager opted for a 3-5-2 formation, playing Gressel wide right like in 2017, but this time in a wing back position that included more box-to-box responsibilities. It would be in that position that Gressel excelled like never before. He created multiple chances on the wing against DC and checked in with an assist. We discussed the tactical switch at the time.

Martino would alternate between a 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 for the remainder of the season, and Gressel would finish the year as a fixture in those lineups, scoring four goals and notching twelve assists (three of those goals and nine assists from right wing or wing back). In the postseason, Martino went to the 3-5-2 (at many times a 5-3-2) system, using Gressel both on the right and in the middle, as Gressel showed off the versatility, attacking creativity, ability to play the final ball, and overall work rate that made Atlanta fans fall in love with him in the first place, playing a key role in Atlanta’s MLS Cup winning run.

2019: Enter, de Boer

After Martino left Atlanta after the 2018 season to take the Mexico National Team job, the Five Stripes opted for former Ajax, Inter Milan, and Crystal Palace manager, Frank de Boer, to take his place. The legendary Dutch ex-player came to Atlanta saying he wouldn’t change things too much from the highly successful Martino reign. Some of his players would publicly disagree with that stance by season’s end. In the end, the manager met his players halfway on his tactical philosophy. Gressel would again be at the center of a shift in philosophy.

The Dutchman preferred a slightly slower, possession-first style to Martino’s high pressure and tempo. And Atlanta struggled mightily with this change early on, consistently losing the ball in possession with bodies committed forward, later being exposed on the counter. He also preferred his “wingers” to play far more narrow than Martino, allowing Atlanta’s center midfielders to play a bit deeper to assist in the buildup.

As injuries, average results, and stale attacking play piled up, de Boer took a page out of Martino’s playbook, and switched to a variation of three at the back, with Gressel being employed in a wing back role. The results were instantaneous. Atlanta ran circles around the Dynamo in a 5-0 route, with Gressel scoring a goal, assisting on two more, and creating an astonishing eight chances.

Newfound success in attack saw de Boer show some flexibility, sticking with a back three and Gressel in a wing back/wide midfielder position. In the end, he found a way to merge some of Martino’s back three with his preferred style of play.

Gressel finished the season with 8 goals and 12 assists. Eight of those dimes and five of those goals came over his final 16 appearances, beginning with the big win (and tactical shift) over Houston. Gressel continued his success throughout the playoffs, being employed once as a wing back, once as a winger, and another as a wide midfielder over Atlanta’s postseason run to the conference finals, scoring twice and assisting once more.

2020: The Future

Now, Gressel is gone, as the Five Stripes sparked a huge surprise by trading him to DC United. The move leaves a gaping hole in the Atlanta attack. And with him gone, we may we may see a shift in tactical and attacking system.

If there’s one trend you may have noticed, it’s that we’ve already covered Gressel’s tactical impact extensively at Dirty South Soccer. And that’s no coincidence, as it was Gressel who inspired the tactical tweaks needed to inspire Atlanta to success in 2018 and 2019. After unlocking Gressel’s potential on the right wing, Tata Martino deployed him all over the field as he shifted between a back three and back four en route to MLS Cup. Then, de Boer may well have saved the season after moving Gressel to wing back in 2019.

Of course, just because Atlanta are headed into a new era isn’t all bad. The club are already on record saying they will be active in the transfer market, and now they have more money to invest from the trade. Also, this could make way for a breakout season for Tito Villalba or Pity Martinez, both of whom lost minutes in part due to Gressel.

Atlanta United were already entering the 2020 season with a ton of unanswered questions. But it’s the Gressel trade, and how Atlanta react, that might be the greatest uncertainty of all. Perhaps no other player other than Josef Martinez contributed more directly to Atlanta goals than Gressel. But most importantly, the team molded their attacking identity around him the last two seasons.

For Frank de Boer, the tactical direction he takes his team in without Gressel may well define his time in Atlanta. And the subsequent results may well define those who made the decision to make the trade, as well. Time will tell.