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Atlanta United’s Failures Aren’t Solely on Frank de Boer

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The manager is gone. But questions remain about those who chose to hire him.

Atlanta United FC v Columbus Crew SC - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Dec. 9, 2018

On Dec. 8, 2018, Atlanta United won MLS Cup. On Dec. 9, beloved manager Tata Martino departed Atlanta, heading south to take over the Mexican National Team. “El Tata” had lead the Five Stripes to glory after just two years of existence. And without question, he left big shoes to fill for the new manager. That man turned out to be Frank de Boer, whose tumultuous reign ended yesterday after three losses, and zero goals, at the MLS is Back Tournament.

Martino’s departure one day after winning MLS Cup signified a change in manager. And that manager’s failings are being discussed at length today. But the trade of reliable left-sided defender Greg Garza on Dec. 9, 2018, also embodied a huge shift on the personnel side, as the club would lose much of its core over the coming years.

At the time of the Garza trade, the move may have appeared a shrewd piece of business. Atlanta would be able to reinvest that money. And considering the Five Stripes’ brass enjoyed a can’t-miss first two seasons that saw them bring in the likes of Miguel Almirón, Josef Martinez, Darlington Nagbe, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Carlos Carmona, Yamil Asad, Julian Gressel, Miles Robinson, and more, it was fair enough to trust that dealing Garza was for the best.

But then, the club signed oft-criticized Brek Shea to replace Garza. And after Shea struggled for form and eventually succumbed to a knee injury in July, the club finished the season with journeyman Mikey Ambrose and 18-year old George Bello as the two left backs on the roster. In the end, de Boer opted for neither, and played Justin Meram, an attacking player, or Florentin Pogba, a natural center back, on the left side of defense, often using them as wing backs.

The move from Martino to de Boer represented a change of culture in Atlanta. But the departure of Garza was perhaps just as symbolic, as the club’s failed search for a replacement would become a theme across the squad.

Indeed, Frank de Boer is gone. But the people who hired him, and then doubled down on him and his system after a rocky start, are now left to clean up the mess. And they still have many questions to answer.

The de Boer Era

De Boer’s time in Atlanta won’t be viewed fondly. And why should it? The Dutchman rubbed many players the wrong way, and insisted on a possession-based style of play that was extraordinarily demanding from a physical and mental standpoint and was never executed consistently on the pitch.

The team “won two trophies,” as we hear often. That is factually true, and those trophies can’t be taken away. But here’s what’s also factually true: One of the trophies was won by winning a single game against a Club America team that was finishing its preseason and had yet to start its Liga MX Clausura campaign. The other was a U.S. Open Cup run in which the team defeated the Charleston Battery (USL), Columbus Crew (finished 10th in the Eastern Conference), Saint Louis FC (USL), Orlando City (finished 11th in the Eastern Conference) and a home match against Minnesota United (finished 4th in Western Conference).

Despite the warning signs, the club backed and retained de Boer after a promising end-of season run that was backed by silverware previously mentioned. But then, they went a step further, overhauling the roster and ditching a slew of familiar faces in favor of others who would better fit the Dutchman’s system.

In 2020, Atlanta’s personnel department clearly committed to the system that FdB preferred, and failed, to implement at the beginning of 2019. In February, yours truly wrote that while many found Atlanta’s philosophy to be directionless, that direction was actually quite defined, and the question was more so whether it was the right one, as Atlanta’s Front Office committed to de Boer’s style by bringing in players who fit his system tactically.

First, they signed several attacking full backs just to play in de Boer’s shape and style, which requires his wide defenders to bomb forward and provide width in attack — players like Brooks Lennon, Edgar Castillo, and Jake Mulraney represented such. Atlanta also looked for increased production from young George Bello, another player that fits the mold of an attacking full back or wing back.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Nashville SC
Signings like that of Brooks Lennon indicated that Atlanta United wanted more speed on the flanks.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle, Atlanta lost a crucial piece in Darlington Nagbe, a key cog for the team’s ability to retain possession in a system that insisted Atlanta control the ball and tempo of matches. Atlanta replaced Nagbe with two players of similar profiles in Emerson Hyndman and Matheus Rosseto, both box-to-box mids known for efficient passing (NO I AM NOT SAYING EITHER ARE AS GOOD AS NAGBE I’VE WATCHED THE GAMES).

In the back, Atlanta sold Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and promptly replaced him with Fernando Meza. Gonzalez Pirez, an iconic figure in Atlanta, was known for his fearlessness and risk-taking both with and without the ball. He also spoke out publicly against De Boer’s methods. Meza however, was a better fit for de Boer, known for his quick and simple passing game and efficient defensive work.

Atlanta also sold Tito Villalba over the offseason, another club legend who was one of the club’s best attackers before an injury-laden 2019 where he struggled for form. But the winger was a more direct player who excelled out wide behind his pace, a position we haven’t often seen in FdB’s tactics, where he expects his attackers to play more narrowly and combine together. And thus, the Five Stripes decided to cash in on him.

In all, Atlanta’s Front Office sent a clear message last offseason with its moves: We back Frank de Boer and his way of playing, despite some questioning both.

Subtraction by Addition

Regardless of de Boer’s many failings as manager in Atlanta, other decision-makers at the club haven’t covered themselves in glory, either. As discussed, they purposefully overhauled the squad to accommodate de Boer. Yet despite their efforts, Atlanta entered 2020 with a seemingly weaker roster than 2019.

Nagbe’s eventual departure was something the club had prepared for, with him asking to be traded in the 2019 preseason, before playing out the year in sparkling form. But even with so much time to settle on a contingency plan, the club opted to stick with Hyndman, who to his credit has been a solid player during his time in Atlanta. But then there’s Rossetto, who barely played at MLS is Back. The jury is still out on these players in Atlanta, but the drop off from Nagbe’s production has been glaringly obvious this season, with the Five Stripes having clear problems breaking the opposition’s press (as we discussed in the “Film Room” series HERE and HERE) or create chances after going scoreless in all three group matches.

Atlanta United never figured out how to play effectively without midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Meantime, Julian Gressel’s departure in February was an obvious blow. But knowing that his contract situation was an issue, the club would have known his leaving was a real possibility. And who was expected to replace the German’s eight goals and 12 assists from 2019? Hyndman and Rossetto were never ones to put up these types of numbers at his spot in the center of midfield, and Lennon at right wing back wasn’t going to replace that production in Gressel’s other typical position either. Was the plan to place all of that pressure on a hopefully-healthy Ezequiel Barco, a hopefully-better second season from Pity Martinez, and of course, the now-injured Josef Martinez?

Meanwhile, as we watched Atlanta fail to score a single goal in MLS is Back (the only team to accomplish such a dubious feat), the decision to sell super sub Villalba looks even worse. And in the end, Atlanta could only seal a loan deal for Manuel Castro, an unheralded wide player who had fallen out of favor at his current club, to fill Villalba’s shoes.

Meza’s performances in place of Pirez have yielded poor results. The Argentine played well at times, but made too many individual errors at MLS is Back that stuck out. And while the defense has looked to be Atlanta’s most settled positional unit, the commitment to attack-minded wing backs has proved costly, as they were caught high up the pitch on a multitude of occasions, resulting in the opposition counter attacking into the space left vacant, as we saw for the winning goal for New York Red Bulls in the first group match.

Whether it be in the midfield, attack, or defense, we can now say that the Atlanta Front Office’s plan to support their manager with the right personnel was a failure.

It’s Not That Bad

As Atlanta United embark on the next step after their recent failure under de Boer, it’s important to note that the club aren’t exactly in the doldrums of MLS. And Josef Martinez’ loss was likely always going to make 2020 a difficult year anyway.

Despite the doom and gloom, there are some positives for the future. Bello has shown flashes and looks to have broken into the first team, Barco and Pity are still a dangerous attacking duo, with the former having immense sell-on value. At the back, the defense conceded less than 1 xG in two of their three group stage matches. And hopefully, with the manager gone, the players can get a breath of fresh air and enjoy their football a bit more in attack.

MLS is a fickle league, with teams moving up and down the table at a rapid pace. And with the resources and talent at its disposal, there’s no reason that Atlanta United can’t be back near the top of MLS, and soon. However, if the front office brass swing and miss again, as they mostly have since the departures of Garza and Martino in December of 2018, they may find themselves fearing the same fate as Frank de Boer.