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Learning Heinze: Problems and possibilities at Atlanta United

Breaking down the film on Heinze’s tactics, where things are going wrong, and why it’s exciting as hell.

SOCCER: APR 27 CONCACAF Champions League - Philadelphia Union FC at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

**Editor’s Note: This post was written by a reader and Atlanta United fan Will Lovern. You can follow him on Twitter @Widalov.

In a Champions League tie against the Philadelphia Union where Atlanta United enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, they struggled to score. Many are asking for new players or proposing their own solutions to the current problems. Questions are raised about what ATLUTD actually is under Heinze — are they a slow build team like they were under Frank deBoer? Do they counter attack like they did with Tata Martino’s 3-5-2? Why is the ball going backwards so much? Where is that final ball? Who can be the No. 10? Why can’t they score from open play?

In this, I’m going to attempt to analyze a problem and then propose what I think Heinze will attempt to coach the players to fix them. I am not an expert on Heinze, so these are simply my observations based on similarities I see in his set-up and Bielsa’s at Leeds (mostly).

In my view, the essence of the problem is this: While Atlanta United can get down the field, they’re not exactly getting into very advantageous positions. It’s mostly down the lines — not getting the ball in the golden zones/half spaces in/around the 18-yard box. Passes from these areas account for roughly 60% of assists in the modern game. Getting in crosses is one thing, but getting into these zones increases that “final ball” probability.

But first, a brief explanation on triangles.

In the Heinze system, the outside back, wing, and a center midfielder create a triangle (see below). These players may interchange based on the opposition’s shape or based on rotations to advance the ball.

In the above, Santiago Sosa, in the 6 role, plays out a wide ball to Bello in the 3 role. (Aside; Sosa and Hyndman, in their switches of play, look to play the foot furthest forward. As this provides the quickest platform to go forward. Playing to the back foot means a player will need to take an extra touch to set himself up for the following picture or he will need to play backwards as the window has closed.) The other two points of the triangle are Lopez and Moreno, playing 11 and 10 roles, respectively.

From this picture, ATLUTD looks to build into the final third and specifically into the half-spaces. If it breaks down, it gets recycled through the back line or a long switch may occur from Sosa or another midfielder.

Rotation: In order to advance the ball, rotations occur. Rotations, essentially, are when players move in and out of spots on the field in order to find openings. Any of the three can rotate to receive in these spots. This is why people get confused when worrying about positions, they change. Rotations create space in that the opposition must communicate or move with the rotations and this creates time and space.

Looking for patterns: During any game there will be slight errors. The important thing in analysis is not to find individual errors, but instead find patterns that demonstrate the need to correct. My observations lead me to believe that the triangles on the flanks become too flat and thus need work.

The 2nd leg: errors and problems

Watch this clip and you can see Moreno literally point to Bello and Lopez to try and form a triangle. Moreno has dropped into the left back space, but I wince defining it as such. He’s simply the base of the three-man triangle. As you can see. Both Bello and Lopez are running into that same space. Lopez will then stop his run, seeing that Bello has run into the same space, and attempt to adjust.

After Bello receives, Lopez will then further progress down the line. Moreno stays where he is. Being too linear, it gets closed down and Bello ends up needing to recycle the ball with a center back. This sort of thing happened a lot. A ball down the line, leading to another ball down the line, all as Philly were attempting to push Atlanta down the line with their diamond congesting the middle of the park.

Here you can see Bello being the base of the triangle, Moreno and Lopez ahead of him. This one ends in a shot. Lots of space afforded to Bello, main reason for the quick switch from Sosa or Hyndman.

Same clip… Bello receives from Lopez here. This is right outside the 18. You can see that the two options to pass for the ball carrier (Lopez) has simply become a line. Imagine if Moreno were just 5 yards ahead, but still in a way that he could receive from Bello or Lopez? Bello is in that half space, it’s dangerous, he elects to shoot.

Another straight line. There are several ways to adjust it though…

  1. Moreno gets to the touch line and faces open to the field. Lopez shows on the other side of Bello’s pressuring defender
  2. Lopez gets down the line but has his chest open to the field.
  3. Moreno drops behind Bello’s pressuring defender stands on “half turn”

But in all scenarios, Moreno and Lopez need to move in coordination — not the same space — and in a way they can see one another and are ready as soon as the ball hits Bello’s foot. This is the speed of play dynamic that exhausts opposition.

Bello receiving, Moreno supporting, Lopez advanced. Bello is free. Bello plays down line here to Lopez... who plays back to Bello.

Bello then plays Moreno who switches the flank. I’d really like to see Bello take this mark on. Or Moreno receive and take player on or attempt to combine with Lopez. Numbers are even here so a switch doesn’t accomplish anything. In fact, Lennon loses the duel and Philly wins the ball.

Moreno receiving. Bello going down line, Lopez behind him, in a line. If you think about this from Moreno’s perspective Bello and Lopez are such a similar option they are essentially the same option. But Moreno still takes his mark on. Beats him, Bello stands still allowing the play to progress beyond him. Moreno then attempts a split ball to Lopez, who falls attempting to receive. But at least the take-on and the split are there. If Bello and Lopez can get into position earlier then the potential for interchange could lead this to being a successful attack.

Here Lopez receives with time, Bello advanced, Moreno coming to support. Lopez elects to recycle. But that’s got to be like 5 yards of space. Why not take him on? (First touch towards the defender kids puts him in his heels). One also wonders if Bello is aware of Moreno here.

What do you see here? This is actually Mulraney, who has drifted to the other side to try and find some success. He’s pointing to Bello asking him to get down the line, meanwhile Moreno takes off (you guessed it, further down the line). Josef has plugged into the CM space here to get some touches. Mulraney actually works this out really well, plays the ball into Bello’s feet, moves into the space Bello left (underlaps) but without options forward, Mulraney recycles.

In a Bielsa triangle, players need to be able to pass to either player on the first touch. Often when Bello/base player is set, Moreno and Lopez are still scanning for space or getting into position or are essentially the same option for Bello. This slows the game down, and makes it seem like the team is in need of an individual moment of magic. One can see why Lopez hasn’t been brought into the side before (Heinze later praised his effort), he’s still adapting to what’s being asked of him.

Why only the left side? A note on Hyndman

In this tie, Hyndman played a bit of a flex role (both legs). With the 4-1-2-1-2 he had to be a bit more of a defensive midfielder. He would cover Sosa in the event Sosa went marauding in to tackle the ball. And he would also drop between center backs at times. This often meant that the right side went without his presence in the rotation, or that Moreno/Lopez needed to drift over in order to provide it, or (more often) Lennon and Mulraney were asked to move without it.

So what is it supposed to look like? What’s it building toward?

The group is building towards something exciting called 3rd (and 4th) man running. If you’ve ever heard the phrase that soccer is “poetry in motion,” this may be what they are referring to. Bielsa uses this concept and calls it the future of football.

For an explanation of 3rd man running, check out this tweet and break down: Bielsa third man- training and visual explanation

You’ll notice the constant interchange of players. In the attack there is no stagnant player — everyone moves in and out of spaces, constantly attempting to unbalance the defense and attack open space. It’s gut busting, but worse to defend. It requires players comfortable in multiple roles.

1st leg: Building blocks

Here are some (more) successful clips from Atlanta United in the first leg against Philadelphia. You will notice that Barco’s presence is noticeable in these clips, and should better illustrate the quality he brings to the team.

Here, Moreno has come back with Barco and Bello ahead of him. Notice his intentions as he passes, he’s attempting to vacate and find new space. Though his pass is errant.

It’s early, but notice Bello’s overlap to occupy the space and allow Moreno to get inside. Bello is nearly into position when the ball hits Moreno’s foot. Barco scanning ahead of him.

This ultimately isn’t successful in the combination, but the spacing is decent and you’ll notice Barco’s first touch allows him to play either option and puts his mark on his heels. The defender is literally stuck and can’t force to either side.

This is where it gets really fun.

Notice a couple of things. Sosa and Co. are moving the opposition side to side and wearing them out, creating time and space. Then notice the rotation on the left side: Bello central, Moreno wide and Barco at the base. It gets a bit jumbled — Moreno and Barco on top of one another both trying to receive. Barco drives it forward to where? The half space. (Moreno isn’t as fast and can’t get into a spot to support.)

This is the money shot. It’s not perfect, but a lot of elements are there.

Base of the triangle is there. Options are moving as the ball is moving. Notice Moreno’s double move. He checks away and when it’s clear Barco will receive, he jumps back to support as soon as the ball hits Barco’s feet. Barco rewards this. Moreno’s first touch is forward and takes on the man. Bello then runs off the back shoulder into new space. All members of the triangle can see one another. Barco runs into the space Moreno creates (by dribbling into the Space Bello vacates.) Moreno rewards this. Barco receives and again takes first touch to commit defender.

(Again, all members’ shoulders are pointing to one another and they can play one another.) This leaves Moreno free. Who plays a first time pass into Josef but doesn’t sit and admire it, runs into pocket. Notice what zone we are in.

And Josef finds a way to release Moreno. Unfortunate not to finish.

The finished piece

Any coach will tell you there’s no such thing as a finished piece in football. But they are certainly progressing. As far as what the next progression may look like for ATLUTD? This is what it may start to look like Leeds playing from middle to final third. You know, when we find the next Raphinha (jkjk). More importantly, notice their body shape, positioning, interchange.

Summary of what to look for in these triangles.

  • Switches go to the furthest foot forward.
  • Body positioning: shoulders need to be open to majority of field, side on position, able to see both team mates
  • Spacing: form triangle allowing you to play either teammate in one touch if necessary/able. Move as the ball moves so that the options are available- this looks like speed of play and speed of thought- (did i mention players might be tired in 2nd leg?)
  • Take-on: when receiving, first touch should go at defender if dribbling to make you less predictable, when able.
  • Pass and move: constantly find new space, vacate current space to find a new one while maintaining your triangle. No pass admiring! Underlap/overlap/support
  • Create Space: double movements to lose your mark before the ball arrives at the base’s foot. Check-in/check out
  • Courage: play that split pass, take in the defender, make the extra run

By the end, the tactical setup may look a bit like this…

TLDR: I humbly propose that new players may help, but more, we must be patient and give time to develop this concept. If it takes hold, it will be breath-taking to watch.