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Three thoughts on Gonzalo Pineda’s tactical shift saving Atlanta United against FC Cincinnati

Did the Five Stripes find a new tactical wrinkle just in time?

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

Atlanta United concluded their 2021 regular season on Sunday with a come-from-behind 2-1 win away to FC Cincinnati. Gonzalo Pineda pulled all the right strings at half time to overcome the one-goal deficit as the Five Stripes clinched the fifth seed in the playoffs and will take on NYCFC. Here are a few thoughts on what could be a very revealing 90 minutes.

  • The great formation debate is back just in time for the postseason. After lining up in their usual 3-4-2-1 and netting a miserable first half performance against Cincy, Pineda switched it up at halftime and went all in on the 4-2-3-1 by taking out Anton Walkes in favor of Jake Mulraney. The move paid immediate dividends as the Five Stripes complete dominated the ball, all while looking much more comfortable, fluid, and dynamic. One particular highlight of the shift in tactics was the involvement and effectiveness of Josef Martinez. He simply looked like a different player in the 4-2-3-1 as the focal point. He helped the build-up play more by dropping deeper and linking with others all while offering a much-needed central target to play through. He and Barco combined for a brilliant chance before the goals began coming but the striker unfortunately scuffed his shot. Then, of course, there’s the goal he did score. There really aren’t many words other than “Goal of the Year” to do it justice. Nevertheless, the whole team, and Josef specifically, just looks much more natural in this formation.
  • Now comes the big question that Pineda has just under two weeks to answer. Is it time to switch to the 4-2-3-1 permanently or do you stick with the 3-4-2-1 that has looked very mediocre over the past several matches? Personally, I think the answer is clear after the Cincinnati match. The attackers just look much more in sync and dangerous in the 4-2-3-1. As much as you may want to believe the old “defense wins championships” moniker, the fact is, this team is only going to go as far as their high-priced and ultra-talented attackers take them. Getting them in the best spots to succeed should be the priority at this point.
  • Going to Yankee Stadium is going to be quite the challenge for Atlanta to open the playoffs. NYCFC are a very talented team, even if their results this season don’t exactly reflect that. Like Atlanta United they have the individual talent to defeat in team in the league with the likes of Taty Castellanos, who is your 2021 Golden Boot winner. While the faces have changed significantly since 2018, this club has proven it’s not impossible to go to Yankee Stadium and win in the playoffs. If they’re going to get it done again, it’s likely going to need to be another gritty performance.