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Talking Tactics: The Debut of Gabriel Heinze at Atlanta United

What we learned about Atlanta United’s new manager.

Atlanta United FC

A New Day

Gabriel Heinze’s got his Atlanta United career off to a winning start, with his team grinding out a 1-0 win in an exceedingly CONCACAF-y match in Costa Rica against Alajuelense.

In the end, we certainly saw Heinze’s very creative, and at times innovative, method of attack. But after an untimely red card turned the match on its head, we witnessed a more pragmatic Heinze, who was able to strike an effective mix of defense and attack.

Building from the Back

Like other managers, Heinze wants to build from the back (passing out of defense). And as many have already mentioned, Santiago Sosa’s role was absolutely essential to doing such. The defensive midfielder tucked in between Anton Walkes and Miles Robinson to help push the team forward.

However, it’s not just Sosa, but also also the players in front of him, who make the system click. Watch below how Sosa is able to drive forward with center midfielders Franco Ibarra and Emerson Hyndman drawing defenders away from him, enabling him time to find the pass to Bello that initiates the attack.

Now, watch below as things get really interesting. Ibarra slides all the way right from his center midfield to spot to fill in for right back Brooks Lennon on the near touchline, who makes a darting run forward, distracting the defense and allowing another positive ball to Lisandro to set the table for the attack.

Below, we see both center midfielders filling the wide spaces in the same sequence. First, it’s Hyndman moving to the left flank, opening up space for Bello to dribble inside. And then, as the ball moves to the right, we see Ibarra occupying a defender out wide, allowing Robinson space to carry forward and spot an all-too-familiar ball to Lisandro.

Lennon’s freedom from the right back position was certainly a theme for the evening. Already, we’ve seen him occupy atypical spaces in attack for a right back, getting into more central positions. At times, he even drifted to the opposite half undetected.

And finally, Lennon would also take up the positioning of a traditional attacking right back, getting into space high and wide. The man was everywhere.

Half 2: The Square

As the first half wore on, the visitors were seemingly gaining a stranglehold on the match. But Guzan’s red card changed everything. Heinze responded by instructing his team to drop deeper and play more conservatively, but left open the possibility for attack, as well.

“We maintained a [defensive] line of three or five,” Heinze said.

And in midfield the team “formed a square with the two midfielders [Ibarra and Hyndman), Lisandro Lopez and Ezequiel Barco,” Heinze said. “We wanted to protect the middle and I wasn’t worried about the wings.”

In short, Heinze wanted his team to drop in and get compact defensively, especially in midfield, but still provided plenty of outlet to attack by leaving two up front rather than one. He also allowed his fullbacks flexibility to get forward, resulting in a “line of three or five,” (depending on the positioning of the fullbacks) as the manager described.

We see him communicating such to Lopez below, calling for the compact box of four in front of the back line in defense, with the front two opening out wider, when necessary.

Heinze’s square or box in midfield is evident below, as Ibarra and Hyndman sit back in front of the defense, while Lopez and Barco occupy the space in front of them, marking the wide areas, when needed.

Heinze’s shape provided defensive solidity. But the shape also worked as intended in attack. Atlanta even still tried to build from the back when they could, just with more defined positioning from the defense and midfielders.

Moments later, we saw the plan come circle.

Playing in more withdrawn positions than the first half, Hyndman and Ibarra are able to slow down the initial Alajuelense attack. With two forwards in front of them, and Bello allowed to bomb down the left as if the match was still 11v11, Atlanta are able to win the decisive penalty of the match. (YES I KNOW IT HIT THE GUY IN THE FACE I DO NOT CARE)

Atlanta remained in their shape after Josef Martinez entered.

George Campbell subbed on late, and Atlanta went into a true back five with Bello and Lennon more withdrawn. But Heinze’s midfield square remained, with the two up top keeping the Five Stripes at least somewhat dangerous.

A Big Night for Heinze

Needless to say, we learned a lot about Atlanta’s new manager. In the first half, we saw what we can expect from Atlanta going forward, as they looked to to play on the front foot through a de facto back three, with all sorts of movement in front of them opening up spaces to pass into.

After the red, Heinze showed flexibility, instructing his team to focus on defense after going down a man, while not abandoning their attacking impetus altogether. In the end, Heinze struck the perfect balance, and his tactical adjustment was a big reason for Atlanta getting the away victory.