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Tactical Analysis: Heinze’s defensive nuance and adjustments

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We wrap up an in-depth look at Atlanta United’s defensive setup under Gabriel Heinze by analyzing at the tweaks and adjustments.

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MLS: CF Montreal at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the final part of a series looking at Atlanta United’s defensive tactics under manager Gabriel Heinze. For all soccer nerds, this stuff is required reading, so if you missed it, catch up on Heinze’s defensive setup and principles and how he wants the team to mark and counterpress. Here, Will Lovern will go into some of the nuances and the way the team adapts in specific situations. Enjoy!

Adaptability in pressing

Heinze says he wants his players to be able to adjust to variety both week-to-week and within the game. The observable constants of the Heinze-press are to get pressure on the ball, use curved runs to eliminate passing options, man-mark, and have one extra man at the back (numerical superiority).

I have been interested to see how the manager intends to create that immediate pressure (while maintaining +1 at the back, thus losing one up front). In this piece, I’ll review the MLS season thus far to pick up on the patterns in the pressing system.

Against Orlando (0-0)

You can see the dynamic of “nearest the ball, go apply pressure” play out. Licha Lopez at times applied that pressure or other times filled in for others in their spots as they applied pressure. There are interchanges but still roles of pressure and then stopping nearest connections.

Licha rotates all the way back to cover Bello, 3 players press with commitment to always apply pressure to the ball. Forces an error.

This is a bit of what it looks like when a player is a bit winded, but note that if this is the case the other players won’t leave their mark in order to press. Instead, they maintain stopping the connections. They continue this, until everyone is set (Licha in a position to mark). You can see the organizational cues to press.

In order to adapt to the pressure, Orlando has added a third man to the backline. The nearest man pressures and those behind him stop the connections. Barco has 2 “marks”, he’s going to follow the mark that’s nearest the ball. Notice how Barco follows the player down the touch line (perhaps going in too hard, 1v1- here are tips for the kids in 1v1 defending)

You will notice a common problem. Accounting for the opposition’s extra man (technically 2 if you count the goalkeeper). If the opposition can quickly switch to the “free” CB or around with the GK it may allow free entry into the middle third, unless there are adaptations.

Against Chicago (3-1 Win)

ATLUTD was content to leave the ball with Kappelhof. It led to a variety of long balls from him (RCB who went 3/10 in the long ball and lost possession 13 times).

Against New England (2-1 loss)

This was not a great match in terms of the press. Some mitigating factors: Key players initially rested for this match in anticipation of the second leg against Philly. Some confusion in assignments and chemistry. Injuries during the match, tiredness late-on.

The most noticeable pattern was that New England elected to take balls from the keeper’s hands and stopped balls quickly, before Atlanta could find their shape or assignments. This led to easier exits from pressure. If they couldn’t play quickly they would elect to play long. Credit also to New England for the way they moved the ball around to find the spare player and made Atlanta work really hard in this match, especially in the first half.

After a corner kick, the goalkeeper plays quickly before Atlanta United can find their shape and organize their marks. (Despite the close up of Bruce you can see N.E. is effective)

This double-move on Lennon is an effective way to get behind the man-marks, if you have time and vision to accomplish it.

This is what happens when those man marks aren’t tight behind the immediate pressure. In this case, a holding midfielder is granted the time to turn and pick a pass. If the opposition are allowed to turn and play forward the dominoes begin to fall. (Nice leave and call from Bye and Gil too)

Holding mid is allowed time to turn and see down-field.

Another decent spell from Atlanta to close down the immediate passing options and get immediate pressure on the ball.

But not long after…

You can see the confusion among the front line about who should go where and when. New England finds the spare man easily enough. Gil has cleverly pulled Bello away from Bye. Bye is granted that time to turn and look forward. Sosa and Miles look to account for the striker so Walkes arrives, albeit late. Gil does Gil things and Sosa gets a yellow.

This time much more organized, and reading one another’s cues. Watch Moreno specifically and when he begins his sprint towards Farrell.

(I’ll spare you clips of long goal kicks or long balls over the top)

The keeper plays quickly over the press. Watch as New England consistently finds the spare man with time but also the way they consistently play the passes “safe-side” that is to say they pass the ball to the foot furthest away from pressure. Each pass also has a message about where to turn/pass/run. They’re top of the East for many reasons. (Granted ATLUTD is pretty tired at this point too).

Safe-side

Against Miami (1-1)

Barco’s injury may have necessitated a more routine press. This was accomplished by sending Marcelino-10- to pressure Shawcross (right center back) and Erik Lopez-11 was asked to sit equidistant between the Center Mid (Gregore) that Moreno leaves and the Right Back (Ulloa). Most of the build out went through Shawcross.

As Walkes was attempting to advance the ball, Sosa drops back. Walkes marks in the midfield. Moreno initiates pressure and continues when the pass goes to the keeper. Lennon is back in order to help with Pizzaro who has drifted to his side.

Moreno effectively has eliminated the opposition CM by adjusting his pressure. As they are attempting to press into the corner, Sosa “jumps” into the midfield line.

Miami’s makes an adjustment. Neville has instructed his center mid to play between Josef and Moreno. Leaving Hyndman with 2 marks. Goalkeeper plays this quickly. Moreno has to track back and foul-he gets a yellow. He later commits another foul from the same situation.

Atlanta’s adjustment: Moreno starts further back, behind one of the CMs and Erik Lopez moves higher up but still trying to be equidistant. Moreno now is pressing by “running through” his mark and makes sure he can block out CM option with his pressure. The cat and mouse game continues. Shawcross takes the extra time and space to play into the feet of Lewis (RW), who is initially beaten in the duel by Bello, then brain fog. Despite this, you can see how the system works and how adjustments change but the constants remain- pressure, eliminate options, win duels.

Atlanta United continued to let Shawcross play the ball into those duels (who went 3/6 on long balls compared to LGP going 3/4) . Trusting that the plus 1 and 1v1 duels behind the pressure would win the ball. But what happened when Miami attempted to play out from the other side?

This one occurs after a lost ball from a triangle, now the left side is overloaded. Josef pressures the ball and the goalkeeper who plays a ball behind LGP making it awkward to receive. Mulraney recognizes the moment and presses LGP - knowing that LGP is right footed and wouldn’t want to open up on his left, they shaded and then dared Miami to play there for most of the day. If not for a goal saving tackle from Chapman, 2-0 good guys.

Against Montreal (1-0 win)

This was the first time against a dedicated back three. Some learning on the day.

I saw two different presses. One with 2 and the other with 3

Front 2 accounts for extra CB and shifts side to side. Lots of energy expelled. Simple ways to find the extra man up front for Montreal.

Front 3, Moreno (11) moves into the front line to press. Hyndman (8) drops back to DM and Ibarra (10) plays murderball. (though they did interchange roles) As the ball moves side to side Ibarra moves to the side the ball is played. The aim was for the pressure to eliminate the CM behind the pressure. Either Wing drops in to cover the CM Ibarra must leave. The goal/idea is to eliminate the easiest passes. A long ball is more difficult to make, takes more time and is more difficult to receive. Montreal elected to go long on goal kicks, looking to win the second ball. (This will be a recurring theme.)

Against Seattle (1-1)

It benefitted Atlanta to go against a similar setup from the previous week. (3-4-1-2). I found the adjustments interesting. In the first half Seattle elected to go short with a goal kick to the central center back (6) and play from there. Seattle, in particular, had a rough time with Atlanta’s man-marking and pressure.

2 man front line, Josef applies pressure on 6 (Arreaga) and it’s bypassed with a chipped ball to the Right Center Back (Yeimar).

Adjustment 1: Similar Setup-notice how Hyndman man-marks Joao Paulo. Also note Josef’s pressure. Then the switch in marks from Hyndman when Moreno applies pressure to Yeimar (RCB) to cover that side. Hyndman applies pressure to the most immediate connection.

Here Seattle elects to play quickly to Yeimar on the right side. Moreno runs through his mark and gets pressure on the ball immediately. Josef eliminates the return ball to Arreaga.

Seattle center midfielders (Joao Paulo-8 and Kelyn Rowe-11) rotate. Moreno must follow Rowe, freeing the RCB with a quick first time ball. The commitment to pressure allows Atlanta to trap Seattle on the side and start a counter.

This time Joao Paulo (8) plays the ball to the right side, notice how Yeimar(4) is already cheating up. Santi Sosa reads the situation and cleans it up.

Adjustment 2: Hyndman (10) presses Seattle’s 6 (Arreaga) allowing Josef (9) and Lopez (7) to stay with the outside CBs. His “shadow pressure” is on Rowe. Arreaga must go long into those CB duels we’ve been discussing. Ibarra and Sosa have interchanged. Nice passing in the transition to attack. This leads to a decent chance for Atlanta.

Counter pressing turning into a press 45’- The counter press has the group in all kinds of places. Hyndman communicates to Lopez to take his mark and Hyndman applies pressure as he’s nearest the ball.

In the second half, Seattle often if not always elected to go long on goal kicks.

Atlanta shows a press of 3 (Moreno commits to the left side and Josef commits to center). Listen to Schmetzer’s comments about his team. Nice.

Christian Roldan said this later about the second half:

“Yeah it seemed we had trouble playing out of the back a little bit, they committed one more guy forward in the press. So we elected to play more direct. We couldn’t get any real second balls. Maintain possession and then in the final third we just weren’t sharp today. It’s really unfortunate to give up the PK but like I said them committing one more guy into the press, us not having the quality to play out of the back and essentially the final third pass as well.”

Atlanta United’s press gives teams problems. Though far from a finished product, this current form is adaptable, so once one problem is solved, they can create new ones through a variety of personnel. This adaptability in the press leads to them controlling the game and having much of the ball. It’s ability to rely on different players at different times also allows them to continue to present problems even late into games.

What did pressing look like at Velez under Heinze?

I think it’s pretty clear the effect the manager has had on his side thus far. Also that left-footed ball playing center backs are gold.

In summary of Heinze’s defensive tactics…

Perceived strengths:

  • Disrupts build up
  • Limits time and space for opposition
  • Forces lots of low chance long balls
  • Grants Atlanta lots of possession
  • Forces lots of errors.
  • The side seems very committed/“bought in” to the ideals
  • Adjustable set up to the opposition (need more games against different types of setups)

Perceived weaknesses:

  • Difficulty against double runs-checking in then away- may allow the opponent to go over the top and get behind due to its aggressive “touch tight” nature.
  • Difficulty against one-touch passing (though all systems have trouble with this).
  • Aerial balls on the wings
  • A lost duel or misread in the middle can lead to easy progression through mid-field.
  • Need to account for a center back who goes forward- Philly and Montreal both examples.
  • When opposition players place themselves between two marks the extra communication required can cause more time and space for opposition to play.