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Learning Heinze: Analyzing defensive setup and personnel

Continuing our series of analysis of Gabriel Heinze’s tactics, we look at the manager’s approach to defensive setup.

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

In the first part of this series I attempted to explain a bit about what is going on with Heinze’s tactics in respect to having the ball. That piece can be found here.

In this piece I look for how Heinze sets up defensively. This might be a bit more technical, but I think it’s interesting enough to explore, or maybe you can even be the guy at the watch party who can point out a thing or two there.

Defensive setups

Tata Martino initially set up his side to press from a 4-2-3-1 shape in order to win the ball high (y’all remember the peachtree press) but later changed into a bit more of a mid (meaning the highest line of defenders initiate contact around the middle of the field) to low (meaning engagement starts within own half) block to take advantage of the pacy Almiron on the counter and win in the MLS playoffs.

The question for all setups is: How will teams be active and/or reactive? Teams can set up defensively to…

-Win the ball in advantageous places (like Red Bulls’ high press chaos, press traps, etc)

-Limit opposition spaces and players (see catenaccio, mid blocks- which the majority of MLS sides use)

In his own words:

Let’s listen to what Heinze said during his time at Velez Sarfield in reference to how he sets up

“...I always talk about position in relation to that of the opponent, and the positioning of my team for one single reason: because I want the ball as quickly as possible, and what I have to do is go and get it, not wait for it. And so the positioning varies.” -Gabriel Heinze

The motivation is clear: I want the ball. Fast. I’m not waiting. So, I’ll set us up in relation to how they set up. The constants of such a pressing style are near immediate pressure on the ball and man-orientation all over the field, like other Bielsa style coaches; including Almeyda at San Jose (who are doing pretty well right now). 1v1s take on huge importance but also application of constant pressure on the ball.

Heinze’s Setup

“And for me, one of the things that I like, or that I work on, is that the positioning of my team varies in any moment of the game, or in any situation. To switch if you will, between one system or another. I call it positioning, and that the team suffers the least possible.” -Heinze continued...

Unlike other defensive systems, Heinze sets his side up man for man (man-orientation). You aren’t going to see 4-4-2 blocks, or 3-5-2 shifting to 5-4-1 or other forms of zonal defending, which aim to limit space in dangerous areas through lines and groups. I sense that he sees defending differently— my theory is that it’s about limiting connections and free players. He will position his players to limit time and space but considering the player first. The shape or positioning is adjusted to the opponent.

Take a look at the below graphic from @gabochini (a great follow) from the match against the Philadelphia Union… is this a 3-3-3-1 for Atlanta in red?

Now look below at this setup in the matches against Miami/New England/Orlando.

Plus 1 (numerical superiority)

Heinze, like most aspects of his management, is adamant about this. Sosa, who did play some minutes at CB at River Plate, is a great foil for this flexible set up. One wonders what would happen without him.

The back line looks to always have 1 more player than the opposition. It is important to note that there may be changes amongst the 4/5/6 aka Miles/Walkes/Sosa or Franco among who will mark and who will be the extra man. However there looks to be always an extra man at the back (against New England the extra man seemed to be Walkes, against Miami- Sosa. Against Orlando- it varied). The “plus one” system provides cover in case a 1v1 is lost, but also allows for runners to be picked up in case man-marks ahead of the back line are lost. Additionally, in isolated situations the additional man can go and become the second covering defender or become an outlet pass in the transition to attack.


Miami leaves 2 high, Atlanta leaves 3.

New England-

Walkes as the free man.


Sosa will shift to right center back, the one touch pass from Mueller (RW) puts a lot of pressure on Bello to track.

Bello and Moreno are beaten by a clever one touch pass behind by Nani, but plus 1 at the back means all players are covered, Moreno tracks back hard to regain the plus 1. (One touch passes are a weapon against any system, but especially this one.)


Look at this graphic again.

Philly sets up in a 4-1-2-1-2. If you were like me, you would have expected to see Ronald Hernandez replace Brooks Lennon in the side, or even Jack Gurr. But Ibarra comes in... here’s why:

Matchups under Heinze are based on characteristics of players, not necessarily formations. We can, perhaps, expect to see “players out of position” because of how they match up against the opposition.

So, who was the actual “right back” for the match? Try not to think about it that way. Instead, see that Ibarra was matched up against Flach. Flach is a defensive midfielder, so matching him up with another in Ibarra was successful (in the first half). Bedoya likes to get wider, so matching him with Bello also works.

In the second leg, things changed. Lennon returned, and Damm was hurt. Flach moved from that right side to defensive midfield to fill in for the suspended Jose Martinez. Philly’s Monteiro (normally a 10) moved to the left side of the diamond and Fontana came into the side as the 10. Lennon marked Montero- presumably as a good matchup for a pace. Again, not based on a position, but a match up.

We’ll leave it there for now, but we’ll have more coming soon on the marking responsibilities of the team, and how Heinze’s end goal is to have “chaotic control” when his is not in possession of the ball.