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Breaking down Gonzalo Pineda’s selection dilemma as Atlanta United enters MLS Cup Playoffs

A trip to Yankee Stadium throws a wrinkle Atlanta United’s tactical plan.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at CF Montreal Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

After Atlanta United came back from a one-goal deficit against FC Cincinnati on Decision Day with a dominant second half performance, it seemed like a consensus was forming about what the team’s shape and personnel should look like going forward.

After struggling to create chances in what has become the team’s standard 3-4-3 setup, Pineda made a tactical switch to a 4-2-3-1 that lead to Atlanta looking like the protagonists that overloaded the opposition in the attacking third. Here’s a look at the two shapes after Jake Mulraney was introduced in the second half for Anton Walkes:

First Half (normal starters in parenthesis)
Second Half

Truth is, it wasn’t just an isolated poor half against Cincinnati that had Atlanta United fans frustrated with the performance of the team. That half came off of one of the most excruciating attacking performances in recent memory — despite the team gaining a hugely important point on the road in a 0-0 draw against New York Red Bulls just days earlier. In fact, Atlanta United has not, on the whole, been creating tons of chances in its last five games in the back three. Here are the xG totals for those games:

  • 0.81 xG vs. NYCFC (home)
  • 1.16 xG vs. Miami (home)
  • 2.60 xG vs Toronto (home)
  • 0.09 xG at Red Bulls
  • 0.31 xG at Cincinnati (1st half only)

That is... not great. And the only one of these five matches that looks appealing is against a Toronto team that had nothing to play for (and a game in which Atlanta still only scored once and did not secure all three points.)

But the good news is that once Pineda made the switch in the second half to the back four, Atlanta United racked up 2.00 xG in just a single half. It was reminiscent of another time Pineda had made such a switch — back on September 18th at home in a 3-2 win against D.C. United where the team compiled 2.83 xG in the second half (vs. 0.64 in the first half.)

After that game against D.C. I asked Gonzalo Pineda about this exact conundrum — if he had an idea of what his preferred shape and personnel would be given the talent at his disposal. Here’s his answer in full:

“Welcome to my world, because that is always in the back of my mind; what is the best shape for the team that includes the best players in the best positions. Honestly, I am working on that. I cannot tell you now. I told everyone at the very beginning that I wanted to be more consistent in the lineups and formations to give them more stability, so I have to reflect on that because we are rotating a little bit here and there, but it is working, and we have to manage the fitness levels for everyone and keep the intensity on the field. But also, at times, I think that we can be a fluid team that can go from a back five with two center midfielders and one, to a diamond in the middle, which is how we tried to start today with just Josef [Martinez] up front, sometimes a 5-2-1-2 like we tried last week. I think we have a fluid team that can work out of different tactical shapes, and again, the tactical shape does not matter. It is about the principles, the style, and the characteristics of the players that make a team be successful or not. So, I am not really concerned about that, but I am concerned about finding the right spots every game for my players so they can perform at a high level. That is all I am concerned about.”

Before moving forward I want to address one admittedly tedious point. I disagree with the phrase “the tactical shape does not matter,” and I’d guarantee you Pineda himself was just saying that to underscore that the team’s playing philosophy comes first. Which is true. But if “philosophy” defines a team’s style of play, “shape” or “tactics” define the specific ways in which to exploit the opponent. So shape does indeed matter.

But in the context of all the data points described so far, there’s one critical piece of this team that’s been absent.

Where does Marcelino Moreno fit?

One of the true difference makers for Atlanta United on any given day is its dynamic Argentine midfielder Marcelino Moreno. He’s been dealing with a foot injury that has caused him to miss time in the last five matches, but he is expected to be available for selection when Atlanta United heads to New York.

Realistically, there are only two options for Pineda if he decides to include Moreno in his Starting XI. The first would be to insert Moreno for Matheus Rossetto (or Franco Ibarra if Santiago Sosa is unavailable) in the back three shape the team has been operating in recently. I don’t think this is a prudent move, but it’s one we’ve seen Pineda use previously — sometimes with success and sometimes not.

Alternatively, Moreno could come into the team in the place of Anton Walkes. Walkes has been one of the teams more consistent performers even stretching back to the dismal 2020 season. But managers of talented teams often have “champagne problems” (as coined by Tata Martino) of having to remove one talented, high-performing player for another. In this case, Moreno would play somewhere in the attacking band of three midfielders with the team in a back 4. Assuming all players are available, here’s what Pineda is likely looking at:

Personally, my concern with the back three option in this scenario is that Moreno is, at heart, an attacking player who is going to want to push forward and create in the final third. This tendency leaves Santiago Sosa as a lone midfielder, which can be absolutely disastrous in a place like Yankee Stadium.

Yankee Stadium Considerations

There is no away trip in MLS or even in all of American professional sports quite like going to Yankee stadium. Gonzalo Pineda referred to the feeling of playing there as “twisted” due to the disorientation one feels with the awkward way in which the pitch sits inside a baseball ground. And if that isn’t tricky enough, then you have the obvious: that the pitch itself is extremely narrow and requires specific tactical planning. So much so, in fact, that Pineda revealed last week that the team is training on practice fields painted to its exact dimensions.

When Sam Jones and myself talked with Jeff Larentowicz last week on Five Stripe Final for podcast patrons (shameless plug: listen to the full hour here) he noted how Tata Martino’s teams learned to play there — from getting shredded apart in his first trip to earning a crucial win in the team’s opening salvo of its MLS Cup run in 2018.

When that team won in Yankee Stadium, it played an un-Tata-like rigid 5-3-2 where the attacking movements were conservative both in their aggression and frequency. So if the first 900 words of this post convinced you that going to a back four is assured, [Lee Corso voice] NOT so fast my friend.

Ultimately, all of this analysis point to nothing concrete and a myriad of possibilities. Multiple team shapes and selections are on the table and valid for Pineda to pick from — which could even include leaving a player of Moreno’s caliber as a bench option to come on with fresh legs if needed. But the decisions Pineda takes will be crucial in helping give the players a tactical advantage in a game where they’ll need all the help they can get.