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Talking Tactics: Can Atlanta United’s Attack Find its Form?

We really hope so.

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

Shooting Blanks

Atlanta United’s inability to score goals and create chances in 2020 seems to have carried over into the 2021 season. The Five Stripes will be desperate to start banging in goals after finding the net just ten times in 11 matches.

The common thread between 2020 and much of the 2021 season has been the absence of Josef Martinez. After missing nearly all of last season with injury, The King took some time to work his way back into form this year while the team adapted to a new system under Gabriel Heinze. Things were starting to look up just as Martinez left for Copa America, with Atlanta’s main man beginning to look his old self, scoring twice in four matches before departing.

With Martinez gone, the attack wilted once again. Atlanta failed to score in either of their last two matches, and haven’t scored a goal in the run of play in three. Backup striker Cubo Torres, failed to find the net in three starts. And Atlanta’s attacking players failed to create enough in the crucial moments in the last third.

With Martinez back, the pressure is fully on Atlanta’s attack to find its form, and consequently the the back of the net.

Goals Needed

On the bright side, the Five Stripes showed an improved ability to provide service and create for the striker last weekend against New York Red Bulls. And one would hope that Martinez being back as the focal point of the attack would see some of that service turn to goals.

Just check out a few of Atlanta’s better pieces of play below, with Torres just missing out on the final touch.

To be fair to Torres, these are not easy chances. The Red Bulls defense is typically recovered behind the ball while Gabriel Heinze’s side possess, often for longer spells. But these are also chances we’ve seen Martinez get on the end of, and finish, time and time again throughout his career. Clearly, Atlanta need to create more. But if pieces of play like above are any indication, one can certainly expect more goals from Atlanta with an elite striker in Martinez getting on the end of this type of service into the box.

Lost In Transition

The “chances” we watched earlier for Torres were mostly against a more settled defense, making the window of opportunity very narrow for any striker. But Atlanta United’s play in transition (with more space to play in), also failed to find the net against Red Bulls or much at all this season, despite some good breaks last weekend. Let’s watch a few more chances below to get an idea.

The main theme appears to be the likes of Barco, Marcelino Moreno, Erik Lopez, Brooks Lennon or Jake Mulraney driving the team forward into dangerous spots. But the final ball or touch is lacking.

Atlanta were able to create some good situations in transition against Red Bulls. But as we saw, the end product was missing. The Five Stripes’ harmless attack has made opposition defense’s job easy, but Red Bulls and many other MLS teams this season have had another way of limiting Atlanta’s attackers should a chance to break be on the cards.

Given any smidgen of daylight for Atlanta’s attackers, the MO for the opposition has been to hack them down before the play can develop, and a dangerous situation can arise. The proof is in the pudding, as Atlanta are the most fouled team in MLS. And with the Five Stripes struggling to get production against a settled defense, or finding an end product in transition, the physical strategy we see above plays an even greater role than normal.

The Road Ahead

So, will the return of The King help matters? Surely, some of those half chances for Torres are real chances for a player like Martinez. You’d also expect that his return may somewhat nullify the constant fouling we’ve seen in past weeks, as Martinez’ brilliant hold up play provides another option to start the break. He also gives players a better chance of releasing the ball in transition earlier (before the foul comes) to him higher up the pitch, as we all know he has the ability to retain possession under pressure while the rest of the team moves forward into attack.

In sport, things are rarely as good, or bad, as they seem. The answer usually lies somewhere in between. And in this case, Atlanta’s struggles to find the net certainly are cause for concern, with better performances needed across the board. But on the other hand, the return of a player of Martinez’ caliber alone should make life easier on the rest of the attack. And on top of that, it’s not as if Atlanta aren’t creating anything going forward.

As we saw from the film, there are chances to be had for Atlanta United. But the question remains whether they will show the quality to convert those opportunities into goals. Only time will tell.