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Tactical Analysis: Atlanta United’s marking and counterpressing under Heinze

We look further into how Atlanta United manager Gabriel Heinze wants his teams to defend.

SOCCER: MAY 15 MLS - CF Montreal at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As you may remember from the last post when we discussed how Atlanta United manager Gabriel Heinze sets up his team’s defensively, he is:

-Looking to win the ball as soon as possible,

-Looking for +1 at the back in order to adjust for errors ahead. (also means have -1 at the front)

-Using a man mark system ahead of the back line.

-Assigns his personnel based on matchups.

Let’s dive deeper into this man-orientation.

Man Marking

Heinze uses man-for-man marking through the middle. But note that these marks may interchange depending on who needs to apply pressure on the ball. The purpose is to limit the nearest options for any player on the ball.

Take a look -1 at the front.

(The RW mark is just out of frame above.) The player pressing affords time for those around to find their marks. The idea is to curve the angle of the press to eliminate an option or it’s an easy escape from pressure.

There’s the plus 1 at the back.

In these man-for-man setups, each player looks to:

  • Recognize If they’re the player nearest ball: apply pressure- it’s a win if it gets the player on the ball to put their head down.
  • if a teammate is out of position (after a lost duel for example) delay until the teammate can return. Don’t rush into a 1v2 in the middle or defensive third.
  • In the final third, make curving runs of pressure in order to eliminate options by standing in the way of the pass.
  • Stand goal-side of their marks (positional superiority), not always feasible.
  • Look to be able to physically touch their mark by the opposition’s first touch (“touch tight”)
  • Prevent mark from turning upfield
All Stats Aren’t We

Here’s what it looked like in Orlando

Barco tracks a mark all the way back to the 18 recognizing the outlet.

Sosa is the plus 1. Lennon sees a potential overload on his side, and calls for Mulraney to come back. Lennon recognizing he’s in a 1v2 doesn’t apply immediate pressure but delays (he sits in the passing lane until he can isolate either option). You’ll also notice the little hesitation at the end from Lennon before the shot, the interchanges have made it difficult for Lennon to realize he’s the closest and needs to apply pressure. This highlights a weakness as well, by playing in the space between two marks you can create confusion or time as communication is needed.

Against New England

Notice how this forces the play all the way back to the goalkeeper. Plus 1 is there, man to man is goal side, they are preventing marks from turning, they are touch tight but not too aggressive.

But 1v1 opportunities are then lost — in this case one aerial duel with Lennon, and one with Franco allowing a ball in. Lennon has a delayed reaction as the duel and ends up on the wrong side of the mark.

This highlights a particularity of man marking, if one 1v1 breaks down it can start to feel like a domino train falling.

This clip can serve us to better understand who presses and when: notice Hyndman starts to go but recognizes Torres already moving, so he scans for the nearest mark.

Center back aerial duels

Often a solution to the man mark is an attempt to bypass the midfield completely by playing long balls. This is why Miles has been immense but also may be why Heinze seems to have had a list of desired center backs to bring in. With all that’s going on in front of them, there’s a lot of responsibility to win duels (aerial & ground) and outpace attackers in this system. Not simply numerical superiority (the plus one dynamic) but qualitative superiority (meaning better at these duels).

The first goal in this game comes after a string of broken set pieces with loads of confusion about who is marking who and where. Damm allows Gil to get positional superiority because he can’t track the flight of the ball or make a play on it. Sosa and Torres and Walkes all mark the first run. Erik Lopez doesn’t stay with his mark. Loads of breakdowns. But it highlights an obvious weakness of the group- balls in the air that aren’t centre back duels.

Moments in transition

The light switch moments where a team goes from attack to defense and vice versa are transitional. These highlight the importance of a player’s ability 1v1. Whether winning, or losing duels, players must move as a group and cover one another’s responsibilities. How does Heinze’s system which creates overloads and allows for players to interchange, quickly reorganize in order to defend?

It’s about recognizing where you are in relation to your teammates. The player nearest the ball is tasked with pressure, that pressure creates time for those behind who are tasked to quickly eliminate options by man-marking.

Should a player get beaten, they must show the commitment to regroup and mark another connection. Should a player be outnumbered, they must Delay until they get help. Additionally, all members of the team must stay connected to marks if they aren’t necessarily involved in the immediate play. Commitment near and far from the ball.

In the above, Lennon initially wins a duel, but then loses the ball, being the closest to winning it again, he continues to pressure the ball. Mulraney and Hyndman transition to different spots in order to facilitate this.

This occurs after Mulraney has missed a shot opportunity (try to not freak out), Brek Shea (LB) is now without a mark as Mulraney is out of position. The group is numbers down. You’ll notice how Hyndman plays this. He delays- meaning he sets in space and attempts to limit options but isn’t running to win the ball until he gets help, which comes from Lennon- who won’t allow a turn and then later Mulraney gets back into mark. From there the ball is won.

Lennon tracks Nani throughout the play until there’s a moment to reorganize. Dead balls can allow the group to reset to their marks, or communicate who will be filling in for whom.

Here Atlanta loses the ball attempting a long switch. You’ll see that Sosa comes forward but Gil is able to avoid him. Behind this Franco is marking and Walkes is free. Sosa stays with Gil. Watch this clip again but only watch Damm. He checks for his mark 3 times in order to ensure he prevents a final ball.

A note on Sosa’s role: the “líbero”

The benefit of the free man is to ensure that someone is always paying attention before the transition. In the event something up the field has broken down and the other team seeks to attack quickly, the libero is tasked with quickly organizing or going to the dangerous spot.

Sosa, especially, plays this role (though at times you’ll see him tasked with marking the opposition No. 10. I think this may change when Franco is fully fit and adjusted). You’ll see him end up on either wing and in the middle. He’s also bitten two DPs pretty hard with fair tackles. As the outside triangles are rotating and getting higher up the pitch to create overloads Sosa often observes the dangers created and closes down the outside spaces quickly to prevent counters alongside either centerback. If a centerback is called into a duel Sosa often will drop into the backline in a 2nd defender/cover manner- that is to say he will play off the back shoulder of the pressuring centerback to provide him cover and/or clean up the play. Not to mention he’s immense in 1v1s himself. Lastly, when playing against 1 striker, you may see him “jump” into the midfield line to allow a CM to press the ball. His role requires a lot of thinking.


Closes down to provide support, wins the ball.

No DP is safe. Honestly Tata put in a restraining order against Pochettino for less.

Fills in the gaps and prevents dangerous cross.

New England

Franco is called into a 1v1 and sosa fills in to a cover role. But notice how he stands in line with Walkes in order to make a consistent offside line. And checks his shoulders. I love it.

Watch Sosa read the play and then pounce denying an entry ball to Gil. (Granted Gil will have his fair share of moments winning the mental game over Sosa too).

And who could forget this duel v Montreal

In summary:

  • This press is a man-oriented system that also looks to get immediate pressure on the ball.
  • Maintaining plus 1 at the back. Minus 1 in the front
  • Importance of aerial duels with CBs
  • Must recognize whether they are the nearest man and pressure or aim to return to man mark.
  • Use curved runs to eliminate an option when tasked with pressure.

In transition:

  • Show awareness to read the game quickly when your teammate loses 1v1 duels.- knowing when to pressure or delay (when outnumbered)
  • must show commitment to get back when you lose your duel
  • Must move as a group to eliminate options alongside the pressure.
  • Sosa the libero - the free man, unique role to snuff out the play as well as provide coverage.