Gabriel Heinze’s Atlanta United in 2021 is expected to be a vastly different team tactically than the teams Frank De Boer and Stephen Glass fielded in 2019 and 2020. It will reflect their new manager as a younger, more athletic, more aggressive group that’s capable of executing in a style beloved by Atlanta United fans.
Most expect the team to open the season in a 4-3-3 attacking formation with an aggressive pressing system akin to Tata Martino’s 2017 Atlanta United team. Ahead of the 2019 season, DSS’s TiotalFootball broke down Atlanta United’s tactical identity under Tata Martino and how it evolved from a 4-3-3 to something of a hybrid 3-5-2. In its inaugural season, Atlanta United became renowned for its merciless “Peachtree Press” out of the 4-3-3 with players like Yamil Asad and Carlos Carmona acting as key elements of this tireless style of play. With the personnel swap of Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco for Carmona and Asad, a relentless team hellbent on overwhelming their opponent no matter the cost became a more methodical team with greater technical skills.
In an interview with Joe Patrick in 2018, Tata Martino shared some insights into the evolution of the 3-5-2, highlighting his team’s lack of possession in that formation.
“That’s the price we’re paying right now with the change in system that we made,” Martino said. “We’re still working on it, we’re still perfecting it, there’s still things to improve. We’d like to be farther up the field. I think in the [4-2-3-1], we’re 20 meters further up the field at all times and able to press the ball. So that’s something that we’re still working on improving.”
If Atlanta United were to begin the 2021 season with the 4-3-3, the one possible starting line-up looks something like the diagram below. Some alternative line-ups push Barco out to the left wing and insert Emerson Hyndman or Franco Ibarra as Marcelino Moreno’s partner in midfield.
If the club begins their season with a 4-3-3 pressing tactical identity, the team will likely continue to face the same bunker-and-counter opposition tactic that has plagued every manager to pace the Five Stripes sidelines. Most opposing coaches do not want Atlanta to run free on the pitch or have room to use their speed and athleticism, so opponents will embrace block-and-counter strategies to stretch out and frustrate Atlanta.
The best way for attacking teams like Atlanta United to break through bunker-and-counter sides is to use hybrid tactical approaches with versatile players capable of shifting positional identity and alignment mid-match to take advantage of overloads in parts of the pitch without sacrificing the ability to defend a counter.
To better understand how Atlanta United has used these formations in the past, let’s look at another of TiotalFootball’s tactical analyses with the breakdown of the 3-5-2 under Tata Martino vs that same formation under Frank De Boer.
The 3-5-2 is a formation of many flavors, shifting its pressing potential either further up or further down the field depending upon the placement of the fullbacks or wingbacks. De Boer’s 3-5-2 took on a more aggressive pressing identity than Tata’s version of the formation. While Tata was more aggressive in the 4-3-3, De Boer managed to overcome his aversion to losing control of the ball to create more opportunities to control the ball in the opponent’s side of the pitch. As TF astutely observes in his comparison of the 3-5-2 under both former managers:
There’s more pressure, disruption, and directness knocking around in the machine, and as a general rule, this is riskier for all involved.
In exchange for the risk Atlanta assumes as the games are more disjointed and choppier, Atlanta are enjoying an uptick in the number of their own possessions originating in their own half and enter their opponents’ final third (54% compared to 51% under Tata) as well as an uptick in the number and share of sequences that make it all the way to the penalty area (15.2 and 20% compared to 14.5 and 19% under Tata).
The numbers support what you may have noticed as of late, a team that is running and gunning quite wildly, with the center of the pitch often wide open (the recent game in Orlando comes to mind).
So what was the big change that allowed for this tactical metamorphosis? According to Joe Patrick, that catalyst was Miles Robinson. Miles Robinson is vital to Atlanta United’s success in a true 3-man backline as opposed to the often-5-man backline that manifested under Tata’s 3-5-2. An older back-3 of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, and Jeff Larentowicz became a far more athletic trio of LGP, Miles Robinson, and Franco Escobar under the Dutchman. Under Tata, the limitations of the defenders forced wingbacks to hang back to provide cover in what looked more like a back-5 than a back-3. Despite the brilliant game management, positioning, and admirable skill of Parkhurst and Larentowicz, a younger and faster defensive trio unlocked the potential of the 3-5-2 press.
“A lot of time we play one-against-one in the back and you have to have guys who win the duels and have speed. He has both. He’s crucial,” De Boer told media about Robinson. “That’s key for the system that we play. I think that’s also why he’s been selected for the national team, because those key moments when he will step in.”
Franco Escobar echoed his manager’s admiration for the young centerback.
“It gives you security because he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s good in the air,” Escobar said of Robinson. “So if you lose the ball, you know he’s going to win you a little bit of time to recover and track back.
“Same thing goes for [Leandro] when he gets forward. We know we have Miles there providing more security and it’s good for the whole team to have that.”
While Gabriel Heinze’s Atlanta United in 2021 will not have a lot of the players who made these earlier iterations of the 3-5-2 work, the club will have an intriguing blend of young players, South American veterans familiar with the Bielsa style of play, and hybrid tweener players from the previous team who can manifest the strengths of previous teams while also addressing the weaknesses. Most importantly, Heinze will still have Miles Robinson.
Miles Robinson seems uniquely suited to that formation, especially when paired with a dynamic ball-handling partner like Gonzalez Pirez. Due to health issues across the entire defensive player pool, fans never got a chance to see what could have been with Fernando Meza and Miles Robinson, but the product on the pitch was enough for the front office to move on. With the acquisition of Lautaro Giannetti seemingly on the horizon, Robinson has his new dynamic partner and seems set to have Anton Walkes slot in as the right-sided hybrid defender. With the healthy and dominant defensive cover of this new back-3, the club’s wingbacks are free to bomb forward up the flanks.
The midfield must maintain numerical superiority, so the 3-4-3 would not be an ideal option. Last year, the 3-4-3 stretched the team thin and made them susceptible to counters. Atlanta United could feature a malleable mixture of 3-4-2-1, 3-5-2, or 3-4-1-2 that can all easily shift into a 4-3-3 with the right wingback becoming the right forward to press or attack. When holding a lead or when needing to absorb tremendous pressure on the defense, the wingbacks can drop flat along the backline to occupy a temporarily traditional fullback role.
Brooks Lennon is the best fit for that role at the moment, and the best option to temporarily cover for that in-game possession switch would be a hybrid defender like Anton Walkes being able to shift over from the right centerback spot to cover a more traditional right-back fullback defensive responsibility.
In this Bielsa-inspired system, Sosa would be dropping into our new 2-man backline between Robinson and Giannetti to create a new defensive trio. This trio can cycle the ball up through the midfield to either Moreno or the wingbacks with one of the centerbacks offering an extra option as the ball advances up the field. Ibarra would be tasked with the Carmona role as a roving destroyer and the occasional line-breaking run or pass to split the opposing defenders.
If your front three is a center forward and 2 attacking midfielders, those midfielders can shift left with one moving centrally behind the center forward and the other moving out to the advanced left side of the field. Right now, that group is probably Josef Martinez, Barco, and Moreno with Barco and Moreno shifting left as Lennon shifts to his advanced spot on the right. If that front triangle features two forwards and a midfielder in a 3-5-2, then Martinez, Eric Lopez, and Moreno would fit best with similar patterns of movement but with Lopez staying tighter to the box to leave more room for George Bello to overlap and deliver three or four options for his crosses.
In addition to being a dynamic tactical identity within the flow of the match, the team can quickly and seamlessly shift tactics with just one or two substitutions. For example, if Heinze wants to commit to the 4-3-3 and ram the game down his opponent’s throat, a simple switch of Jurgen Damm for Anton Walkes could completely alter the momentum of the match. If the game is on the line and Heinze decides to bunker and counter with a 5-man back, he can swap Lennon for Ronald Hernandez and Barco for Emerson Hyndman to make a 5-4-1. The key is flexibility.
With all of that said, the club will probably just trot out a 4-3-3 on opening day and that will be that.