It is hard to maintain the optimism had before the disappointing result against Toronto, but Atlanta United fans should rejoice in the fact that the team’s post-season destiny still lies in their own hands. There were some minor tweaks on Saturday to how we have seen the Five Stripes play earlier in the season, and even earlier in Gonzalo Pineda’s tenure.
Here, let’s run through some of those adjustments, and look ahead to how that might shake out against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday — a team also in need of a result to keep playoff hopes alive.
1. Moreno and Barco’s positional flexibility
Pineda has showed he enjoys formations that do not emphasize winning the midfield. Instead, he prefers transitional dominance down the wings and multiple creative outlets in the final third. Some of the drawbacks of this style were exposed during the game against Toronto; most notably of which was the reliance on a single central forward. Because Josef Martinez was not his usual self, he slowed the attacking pace ultimately killing what normally is Pineda’s main scoring method.
Something that was slightly different than normal was the positional license handed to both Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco. Moreno lined up in the no. 10 spot — effectively leaving Matheus Rossetto as the lone man in the midfield for Atlanta — and Barco lined up as the inverted winger in the left side in a 3-4-3.
However, during much of the first half, the two players started patterns of play from the other’s position. And then in order to confuse the defense, they would cross their runs toward their “designated spot.”
Here, look at Barco and Moreno’s compared positioning. Barco is the square and Moreno is the circle.
They utilized the organic swap much less in the second half which — in part — helped make Atlanta’s attack so uninspired late in the game.
2. Diverse attacking changes
We’ve established that Pineda does not shy away from making attacking changes. And it’s a breath of fresh air in matches where Atlanta’s losing. But on Saturday Pineda pulled out a swap that we haven’t really seen before. In the lone change, Jake Mulraney come on for Moreno, initially giving off the impression that he’d slide into Barco or Luiz Araujo’s spot out wide and one of them would operate centrally the rest of the match.
Instead, Mulraney’s change was like-for-like. And positionally, Mulraney played a more rigid style in the no. 10 than Moreno, but he did find himself near Martinez more often. Ultimately, Pineda got what he wanted out of the change: someone to gamble in the 18-yard-box alongside Martinez, but Rossetto was far too tired to step in on transition when his midfield partner was so far disjointed.
Here, look at how deep Moreno is when he first touches the ball.
Here, notice how Mulraney is the furthest man forward when he receives the ball.
In terms of field spacing, the Red Bulls will do the exact opposite thing to Atlanta. In their formation — head coach Gerhard Struber has recently preferred a 3-4-3 and often moves that into a 4-4-2 mid-match — New York will congest the middle of the field as much as possible, and instead let the fullbacks operate with lone autonomy on the width.
Here, look at how narrow New York’s front three are, and how isolated right back Kyle Duncan is during a counter attack.
The wingers play more like second strikers off of a main forward, and they rely on direct play. The Red Bulls have completed the third fewest switches in MLS this season, while Atlanta has completed the third most. This highlights the difference in approaches to passive play.
Either team can win on the day, and these styles complement each other well, but both teams struggled this weekend to create momentum in the final third. New York fell back on a 90+1’ winner against Montreal all while logging eight shots in the opposing 18-yard box.
It’s best to hope for a match where Atlanta’s wide players expose New York’s isolated wingbacks and the Five Stripes dominate creative production, but you should probably expect a frustrating match where Atlanta has to consolidate its midfield and move the ball much slower than we have seen recently.