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Talking Tactics: How Atlanta United’s midfield setup lead to Josef Martinez’ first goal of 2021

Sometimes little things make a big difference.

Atlanta United v Inter Miami CF Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Mixed Results in Miami

Atlanta United emerged from Miami with a 1-1 draw last weekend in a match that summed up much of the season so far, with the Five Stripes controlling the ball and looking dangerous at times, with their opponents creating chances on the counter.

The response to the draw has been justifiably mixed, but by far the biggest positive was a goal for Josef Martinez, who finally found the back of the net for the first time in more than a year. It was the usual class from the Venezuelan, who turned on a dime in the box and struck the ball with his “weaker” left foot into the far corner.

Martinez’ class was by far the most valuable part of the goal. But a slight tactical tweak from Atlanta’s manager, Gabriel Heinze, played an unquestioned role in the build up.

Hyndman and Moreno in Midfield

After a disappointing loss in New England that saw Atlanta struggle with their intricate buildout patterns, Gabriel Heinze tweaked the positioning of midfielders Marcelinho Moreno and Emerson Hyndman to try and give a slightly different look against Miami, having Hyndman play as the slightly deeper of the two and covering the central and right side of the pitch, while he gave Moreno a bit more freedom to stay forward and find pockets of space to start the counter, mostly covering the left half of the field. We see this from the average player positions from the last two matches. (Hyndman No. 20, Moreno No. 10)

First, against New England. (note: Moreno started this match from the left, with Franco Ibarra (No. 14) in the middle)

And now, Miami.

Clearly, there is a change in the midfield system, with Moreno playing in a far higher and more free position than Ibarra or Hyndman did against New England. Meanwhile, Hyndman saw his role change, with the American spending much of his time in the right half to assist with the buildup, or looking to combine with his teammates in the right half in attack. This midfield setup is generally more aggressive than what we saw in Foxborough. Also, Moreno plays slightly higher up than Hyndman, with Hyndman shouldering more of the defensive responsibility.

We see an early example below. Hyndman drops in on the right to assist the buildout (which fails), and then is clearly assigned the deeper defensive responsibility between he and Moreno. (also see: Santiago Sosa ending Blaise Matuidi)

Here’s another example as Hyndman rushes back defensively from the right, while Moreno provides the outlet to get out and counter in the left half.

Hyndman stuck to the right into the attack, as well. Below, watch him hovering around the right to form a triangle with Brooks Lennon and Jake Mulraney (The importance of said triangles discussed here last week by Will Lovern), helping to switch the ball to the left.

The Goal

Sunday’s match hopefully marked the return of The King, as Josef Martinez scored his first goal in over a year in brilliant fashion. But the lead up to the goal saw Heinze’s tactical principles, combined with the distinct roles assigned to Moreno and Hyndman in midfield, set up Martinez’ show of brilliance.

As we’ve discussed in the past, Heinze gives his players freedom to interchange (switch positions), to unbalance and confuse defenses. Let’s take a look at the beginning of the buildup to Martinez’ strike.

Watch the beginning seconds of the clip where Moreno (in the left half, per usual) and Erik Lopez (who played primarily on the left) change positions after Lopez drops the ball to Bello. Miami right back Victor Ulloa instinctively tracks Lopez into the middle at first (we also see Moreno put his hand up around this time, as he anticipates he will come open), leaving the space for Moreno to fill in out wide.

The attack appears to be lost after Lopez’ fail dribble, but Hyndman, trailing down the right half of the pitch, is there to maintain possession and support the attack. And then...

Considering the two clips in their summation, Martinez’ opportunity to score was no accident. The chance was made by the tweaks Heinze made to his midfield (Hyndman slightly more withdrawn and covering the right half, Moreno slightly more advanced covering the left half) combined with the gaffers’ steadfast principles of interchanging positions.

Small Tweaks. Same Philosophy

One aspect of Heinze as a manager that’s becoming evident is a fierce devotion to his style of play, which seeks to stamp control on matches by building out of the back and controlling the tempo. We also now recognize his insistence on constant fluidity of team shape, a principle that got the ball rolling Atlanta’s only goal in Miami. But he’s also shown a clear willingness to make positional tweaks regarding the spaces players cover, and we saw that against Inter Miami.

In all, the story of the day was certainly Martinez’s goal. But Heinze’s slight change to the midfield certainly had a hand in the big moment.