Similar Stories. Different Narratives.
In November of 2018, with Atlanta United in the midst of their legendary MLS Cup run, former player Bobby Boswell gave us a fascinating insight into his time at the club under then-manager Tata Martino. The defender revealed how it was Martino’s frequent and high intensity training sessions that lead to much of the team’s on-field success.
The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas also linked Martino’s high volume of training to a slew of muscle injuries in 2018, including two to talismanic playmaker Miguel Almiron at nearly the exact same time over his two seasons in Atlanta.
At the time, these revelations were celebrated as an example of Martino’s work ethic, and how that transferred over to an extremely successful, aggressive and high tempo side.
Flash forward to 2021 and the firing of Gabriel Heinze, a manager with similar influences to Martino. Even before the Five Stripes kicked a ball this season, we read about how upon arrival at his previous club in Argentina at Velez, Heinze worked his players to the bone, forcing them to stay at the club facility for all of preseason, scheduling two-a-day trainings, banning video games and ping pong. And indeed, Heinze implemented similar restrictions this preseason, with Atlanta players staying in a hotel close to the training ground and going through those same two-a-days.
Much like under Martino, injuries followed. And after Heinze’s firing last weekend, a similar story to Martino’s time in Atlanta was revealed.
Just learned from a person with knowledge of situation that #MLSPA filed a grievance with the league on behalf of #ATLUTD players because of multiple infractions related to the team's training schedules. #MLS— Doug Roberson (@DougRobersonAJC) July 18, 2021
And later came a far more unsavory one.
Not only did ex-Atlanta United coach Gabriel Heinze deny players CBA-mandated days off, he limited the amount of water they could drink during preseason practices, forcing the club’s medical staff to intervene, multiple sources told @FOXSports: https://t.co/CHfm8wPPgy— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) July 19, 2021
Certainly, I prefer to believe that Martino wasn’t one to go so far as to limit his players’ water breaks during training. But either way, both managers’ handling of the team’s workload was controversial. And it wasn’t until five months after Heinze’s controversial preseason that he was fired after results on the pitch waned and a somewhat public battle with Josef Martinez boiled to the surface.
In the end, what mattered above all was that Tata won. Heinze didn’t (for reasons he surely contributed to). But were these changing results simply because of the manager? Considering the similar tendencies of each, and drastically different results, it’s hard to make that argument.
A Players Game
The reality is, of course, that Martino had far better players than Heinze. When Josef Martinez went down with an injury in 2017, goals came from elsewhere as Tito Villalba and others picked up the slack. Even when the legendary Almiron missed time in ‘17 and ‘18, ATL UTD were still able to get results behind the likes of a solid center midfield with Julian Gressel often moving from the right into the middle or Ezequiel Barco taking up some of the playmaking duties. One season, the team had so many injured left backs that center midfielder Chris McCann moved into the spot, and was serviceable. Darlington Nagbe missed two months in ATL UTD’s cup-winning season but the team were able to keep things afloat without him. In fact, the team had the sort of depth that when Barco missed time for injury and suspension 2018, he actually lost his starting spot and never got it back.
Flash forward to present and we saw how when Barco missed time or Emerson Hyndman with an ACL tear, the replacements ranged from an unproven Franco Ibarra, underwhelming performances from Marcelino Moreno, Mo Adams, or an inexperienced Tyler Wolff. And with Josef out, we saw the likes of Cubo Torres (0), Erik Lopez (1), Moreno (3) and Machop Chol (0) combine for four goals all season long.
Two managers. Many similarities. So, what made the difference? Well, from the outside, it would appear that Martino (who in his own right is 100 percent a word class manager) simply had better players, and won accordingly. Thus we view his time in Atlanta through a different lens to Heinze’s, even though the two clearly shared many of the same tactical styles.
Winning In Spite of the Manager
At this point, the tumultuous tenure of Frank de Boer has been well-documented. After a ho-hum start to the 2019 season, the players revolted publicly about his tactics being overly cautious and pragmatic, a departure of Martino’s non-stop aggressive setups.
After the initial drama, the team recovered towards the end of the year. De Boer made some compromises tactically, mixing some of the principles that were successful under Martino with his own. And in the end, Atlanta were a Nick de Leon screamer (F you, Nick de Leon) and Martinez missed penalty from hosting MLS Cup for a second consecutive year.
But in 2020, with the same manager, the Front Office gutted Atlanta’s roster, replacing proven assets like Villalba, Gressel, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and Darlington Nagbe with relatively unknown players.
Predictably, 2020 was a complete disaster, with Martinez’ ACL injury early on sealing the deal. De Boer was fired in July after a disastrous performance at MLS is Back where the club failed to register a single goal.
Later, after his firing, we learned that de Boer’s training sessions and coaching “lacked detail.” Players were confused by his tactics. The ship was sinking. And certainly, interim manager Stephen Glass was unable to stop that from happening, as a subpar roster limped to the finish and missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
And yet, how different things may have been had Atlanta hosted that MLS Cup in 2019, a final they missed due to no fault of the manager, and mostly to plain bad luck, with TFC scoring two goals on three shots and 0.1 xG in that Eastern Conference Final.
We remember de Boer for the bad times. Bad times that coincided with the gutting of the roster and a slew of questionable personnel decisions. But in 2019, with all of his managerial faults still present and dissension within the ranks, de Boer won a US Open Cup and had his team painfully close to an MLS Cup, as well. Regardless of how we see his ability as a manager, de Boer was extremely successful with a good roster, and not-so-much when that roster was depleted.
Perception is Reality
The trend here is clear. Managers no matter how “good” or “bad” are judged on results. And for the most part, those results are wholly dependent on the players at the manager’s disposal. Frank de Boer lead Atlanta to a wildly successful season his first year. Then he was fired after the roster was heavily changed in 2020, and subsequently struggled on the pitch. Gabriel Heinze and Tata Martino share many of the same principles, yet we view them entirely differently. Why? Again - because of results. Results which are directly linked to the players at their disposal.
In my opinion, while fans and media love to pin teams’ success about managers, that success can often have little to do with them, especially at the highest levels where players have already learned and worked hard enough to reach the top. We see that clearly in the extreme variances in results between and within the careers of Atlanta’s three managers. Perhaps, Tata Martino wouldn’t have fared much better than Heinze with the 2021 roster. And maybe, Heinze would’ve also won a cup with the likes of Almiron, Martinez, Nagbe, Gonzalez Pirez, and so much more.
Of course, this isn’t to say managers at the highest levels hold no importance or influence. They most certainly do. But in the end, it is not managers who primarily determine the success of teams at the professional levels. It is more so whether the players at the manager’s disposal are capable and willing to do what he or she wants. And even then, they can still win in spite of them, as we saw in Atlanta in 2019.
So, did Gabriel Heinze “deserve” to get fired? Did the Front Office make the right decision? Perhaps. But is he the reason that Atlanta United have gone from one of the league’s best teams to one of its worst in a matter of seasons? No. And until the various forces responsible for that demise get their act together, it won’t matter much who is managing the team.