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Atlanta United are caught in a stylistic flux during playoff push

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Disconnected.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Although they gained a late 1-1 draw, Atlanta United put in one of their worst performances of the season against Inter Miami on Wednesday, and that’s saying something.

The Five Stripes came under a constant barrage of pressure from Diego Alonso’s men, with Inter firing 21 shots at Brad Guzan’s goal compared to just three at the other end.

Former Atlanta United man Brek Shea looked set to deliver a huge win for Miami in the final 10 minutes but Stephen Glass’ side struck back with their only shot on target through Jake Mulraney just moments later after some fine work from Jurgen Damm.

However, it doesn’t need an expert to tell you that without some heroic defending from Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes, some fine goalkeeping from Guzan and some wastefulness from the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Atlanta United would have left Florida empty-handed.

Without any of their Designated Players (Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno) on the pitch once again, Atlanta were always going to find it tough. However, it became apparent throughout the match that the 2018 MLS Cup champions were going to be their own worst enemies, thus bringing us to a problem in desperate need of solving.

Time and again on Wednesday, Atlanta insisted on playing out from the back. From goal-kicks, centre-backs were positioned inside Guzan’s box ready for a short pass, while players seemed reluctant to play more direct passes when in possession of the ball around their own 18-yard area.

The main issue right now, which is especially apparent with the current roster, is that Atlanta clearly lack the quality of personnel to enact this sort of style.

Strong in defence so he is, Robinson has always had question marks hanging over him when it comes to distribution, while the likes of Jeff Larentowicz and Eric Remedi in midfield lack the mobility to take the ball and turn in the way Darlington Nagbe used to.

Alonso clearly sensed this problem ahead of the match and instructed his team to press Atlanta high up the pitch.

The result was a Miami side which applied now fewer than 67 pressures in the final third (according to Fbref) on Wednesday — compared to 23 by Atlanta — while the Five Stripes routinely lost possession in the middle third, as can be seen in the “possession loss” graphic below from Whoscored.com.

An even bigger issue arose with the fact that, despite seeing little success with it, Atlanta routinely set up to play out, before either panicking and losing the ball or hoofing it long only to be gobbled up by the Miami defence. With the Five Stripes’ defence still sat deep inside their own half, there was a world of space in which the likes of Higuain, Lewis Morgan and Blaise Matuidi could attack.

Ironically, Atlanta’s goal arrived the only time Miami’s press became disorganised, with the defence not backing up the midfield and allowing space for Cubo Torres to drop off and combine with Damm. But make no mistake, you don’t always get that lucky.

Higuain had an off-night in front of goal and, in general, Inter Miami have struggled to both create and finish chances this season.

However, Atlanta’s possession problem reared its ugly head again on Sunday night during the first half of their 1-0 defeat to Toronto FC. Spirited though their performance was, the Five Stripes suffered from a huge disconnect between defence and midfield, with nobody dropping into the “number six” position to receive the ball from Robinson, Fernando Meza and Guzan.

TFC didn’t press quite as fiercely as Miami, allowing the Five Stripes to better play the ball around their backline, but they routinely blocked passing lanes into the midfield before engaging in their own half — the problem for Glass in the opening 45 minutes was a lack of midfielders brave enough to come and take the ball under pressure.

That’s a really worrying gap in the middle of Atlanta’s team heatmap from the Toronto game:

The only sign of improvement came when Moreno was introduced from the bench at half-time, giving Atlanta an option to take the ball box-to-box much quicker and with more authority. But to have their system effectively saved by one player is extremely worrying and leaves the side open to disaster down the line if Moreno suffers another injury.

Attractive football is always a must for any long-term manager but right now, Atlanta are limping. Fans wouldn’t begrudge Glass adjusting to a more direct style, for example, using Adam Jahn as a hold-up player to bring the likes of Jon Gallagher and, when they return to full fitness, Barco and Moreno into the game. Or even looking to use Jahn’s aerial ability to provide flick-ons for the pace of Damm and Brooks Lennon.

Right now, Atlanta are caught in a deadly flux between two styles, failing to make meaningful inroads with the ball and leaving themselves horribly exposed to counter-attacks once possession is turned over.

On the pile of problems which currently fills Glass’ in-tray — and it’s a big one, make no mistake — surely this sits among the top priority. He just needs to stick or twist.