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In Defense of Atlanta United’s new direction under Frank de Boer

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The jury is still out on Atlanta’s manager. But his philosophy is apparent.

Minnesota United FC v Atlanta United FC: Final - 2019 U.S. Open Cup Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

New Man in Town

When Frank de Boer took over for the departing Tata Martino in 2019, many felt the Dutchman was inserting himself into a perfect situation. The Five Stripes had set the league alight in their first two seasons, leading in goals scored both years and winning MLS Cup before Martino left for Mexico after the 2018 season.

Thanks to a wealth of talent and previous successes aplenty coming before his arrival, there was an expectation that de Boer would hit the ground running. But that didn’t happen. The Five Stripes opened up the season looking a shell of their former selves, starting off slowly, and suffering from inconsistency throughout a topsy turvy season that saw players publicly criticize the new manager, a decrease in goals scored, and an outcry from fans and pundits who had become accustomed to seeing the well oiled machine Martino built over his two years in charge.

Now, with many iconic players from the Martino era departed, a slew of new arrivals into the team, and further implementation of de Boer’s system, it’s clear that the Five Stripes are headed for a brave new world in 2020. And while the drastic changes from a previously successful period have shocked many fans and pundits, this writer believes much of that shock has given way to highly sensationalized criticisms regarding Atlanta’s new direction.

Sure, it’s completely explainable and understandable to criticize the Five Stripes for changing course after being so successful. This represents a confident and bold move, to say the very least. However, the idea that the team and organization are flying by the seat of their pants has become increasingly prevalent. Many of my friends and colleagues at DSS have criticized this “new way,” worrying that Atlanta don’t have an established culture, tactical identity, or clear philosophy or direction. All of these opinions completely miss the mark, ignoring the common traits among new signings, the common traits among those who departed, what de Boer wants to do tactically, and that 2019 would’ve likely been a tough season for any manager in Atlanta.

A Tougher Task than Advertised

So, why did the Five Stripes somewhat struggle for form in 2019? As often is the case, context is key.

For starters, Atlanta had hardly over a month of offseason to relax before coming back to transition to a new manager and style. Thanks to a quirky MLS Playoff schedule that has since been tweaked, Atlanta finished their MLS Cup winning season on Dec. 8, 2018. They returned to training camp in mid January to prepare for their first ever CONCACAF Champions League match, before beginning MLS play soon after. Even for the best of teams, this represented an extraordinary challenge. Unsurprisingly, multiple players struggled for sharpness and fitness as the team struggled to adapt to de Boer’s style of play over the first part of the season.

De Boer also had to deal with something his predecessor never had to worry about - no Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan established himself as an icon and MLS legend over his two seasons in Atlanta and was the catalyst for Martino’s team —with his pace, creativity, and work rate creating a box-to-box terror that influenced Atlanta more than any other player. Without question, Martino’s team was built around Almiron, perhaps even on both sides of the ball. And with him gone to the Premier League on a $27 million transfer, the team struggled to find another focal point early on.

Injuries also hit Atlanta hard. Of particular note was Ezequiel Barco, whose presence in the lineup was absolutely critical to De Boer’s system, which asks both “wingers” to drift into the middle, while the fullbacks or wingbacks fill the space out wide.

I’ve written extensively about de Boer’s tactics and philosophy since he came to Atlanta (although again, some would tell you there is no clear tactical onus under FdB). I won’t bother you all with another boring piece on de Boer’s tactics and philosophy, so please check out the video above if you want a quick refresher before moving on.

Indeed, it was little surprise that the team struggled to fill the void left by Almiron. Especially since Barco, perhaps the player who shared the most similar traits to the Paraguayan, would only start 14 of Atlanta United’s 37 games including the playoffs. In fact, he and new signing Pity Martinez only started together seven times, making it virtually impossible for Atlanta to play the way they wanted.

Even for Martino, the 2019 season would have been a challenge. The focal point of the attack left for Newcastle. The new focal point (Barco) missed the majority of the season. The short offseason gave way to a difficult start to the year. All of this, and more, before we even address the fact that the players and manager had to become accustomed to one another.

Indeed, there was still plenty of talent in 2019. But duplicating the successes of 2018 was always going to be a difficult task, no matter the manager.

An Underrated 2019

In the end, it wasn’t even all that bad.

In fact, de Boer’s first season in the ATL is one most any MLS club would take with pleasure. The Five Stripes finished with a record of 18-12-4 and improved as the season continued, good for second in the East. More importantly, the team added to their trophy case, winning the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup.

Atlanta were looking their consistent best in the postseason before an incredibly unlucky Eastern Conference Final loss to Toronto, who managed a 2-1 victory despite amassing a paltry .1 xG, yet escaped with a win behind two bangers from distance, and all this before we mention Josef Martinez’ miss from the spot that would have put the hosts up 2-0 inside of ten minutes. Most every night, Atlanta’s wins that match with ease, setting up an MLS Cup at Mercedez Benz for the second straight season. One wonders if we’d be hearing the same dramatic criticisms had Nick de Leon simply not scored the goal of his life to send TFC to the final.

On top of the success on the pitch, de Boer showed some tactical flexibility and aptness, recognizing that his style of play wasn’t a complete fit for a roster that consisted mainly of Martino’s players, most of whom were used to a faster tempo of attack and slightly different shape. The Dutchman would make a crucial change in the middle of the season, switching to a back 3 and moving Julian Gressel to right wing back, all while still allowing his front three to move with complete freedom and try to find pockets of spaces in attack (he would rotate between a back 3 and 4 for the rest of the regular and postseason).

Although fans and pundits criticized Atlanta for employing a different style and struggling for certain periods adapting to the new manager, 2019 ended as a success.

De Boer Doubles Down

With a proper amount of time off and manager actually in place, the Atlanta brass decided to clean house this offseason. Without question, the reputations of many are on the line behind such bold moves. But the comings and goings speak volumes, and show a clear and defined new direction.

In short, the new signings show a plainly obvious reversion to de Boer’s style of play, rather than the compromised, Martino-hybrid tactics of 2019 (that isn’t to say de Boer won’t revert back again, should his team struggle). The Five Stripes signed several attacking fullbacks including Edgar Castillo, Jake Mulraney and Brooks Lennon, all of whom can get forward on offense, providing width when the wingers Barco and Pity inevitably drift into the middle in attack. Not to mention all of them can play in a back 3 or 4 system (de Boer employed both defensive systems in 2019).

Atlanta also replaced the departing Leandro Gonzalez Pirez with Fernando Meza, a defender different from LGP whose history and stats show us a player who completes passes quickly and efficiently out of the back to begin the build up, as opposed to LGP who loved to play direct balls out of the back which would at times kill the desired spells of possession de Boer wanted.

With Darlington Nagbe departing, Atlanta re-signed Emerson Hyndman and brought in Matheus Rossetto, two more players known for their good passing abilities and not giving the ball away in bad spots.

The sale of Tito Villalba also tells us to expect a purer form of de Boer ball this season. The speedy Villalba was most effective receiving the ball in space on the touchline, a role filled by the wingback and fullback in de Boer’s system rather, than an attacker. In the end, the Five Stripes decided that a nice transfer fee was worth it for a player that wasn’t a good fit for the team’s tactics.

Of course, the signings and departures have shocked many of us. But they all follow a clear pattern. Atlanta went and acquired versatile players who are good passers and impact the game in a box-to-box manner, absolute musts in de Boer’s possession style of play where players must be able to both hold the ball in attack, but also be prepared to recover defensively should they lose the ball with many players caught forward.

Different. Not Directionless.

To put it mildly, Atlanta United’s transition from Martino to de Boer was not the smoothest. And their approach to 2020 has been a bold one, as they’ve abandoned much of their identity under Martino and moved in a new direction.

But the Five Stripes aren’t a rudderless ship under de Boer. As mentioned earlier, the new additions show a clear commitment to possession football in either a back 3 or 4, with the front three being allowed almost complete freedom positionally, versatile and enthusiastic wing backs/full backs providing width, and good passers in center of midfield able to progress the ball methodically from defense into attack.

Certainly, critiquing a team for changing so much after being so successful is valid. But the inability of pundits, writers and fans (more understandable as we’re naturally attached to the nostalgia of Tata) to see this new direction has left me somewhat dumbfounded. Every single signing follows a clear trend, as does every departure other than Julian Gressel (who demanded a trade).

Will Atlanta’s new direction work? We’ll see. Will de Boer’s preferred tactics and philosophy bear fruit? Again, time will tell. But between de Boer’s apparent tactical preferences, as well as new additions and departures, there is a very clear direction and philosophy at Atlanta United. Perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.