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The tactical lesson we’re not talking about from Atlanta United’s draw vs. Montreal

Atlanta United changed shape and personnel against Montreal and it didn’t go well. What can be learned?

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

Atlanta United’s 3-3 draw against Montreal last week was marked by a number of features: a mental collapse, an inexplicable red card and, of course, an extraordinary and unlikely comeback thanks to two spectacular goals from Brooks Lennon and Thiago Almada.

But what’s been less discussed — perhaps as a reason for Montreal’s dominance for much of the game and especially the first half — was the tactical change made by Gonzalo Pineda to alter the team shape with Marcelino Moreno coming into the starting lineup for the first time this season.

Let’s unpack exactly what Pineda’s dilemma was coming into the match, what happened, and what we might expect in the coming month or two as the team’s best players return to form and fitness.


I’m not going to spend too much time talking about Moreno individually, but he is central to the change we saw Gonzalo Pineda make in the team that changed the shape from the 4-3-3 they played with in the team’s first three matches to the 4-2-3-1 used against Montreal. Here’s how the teams looked:

4-3-3 vs. Sporting Kansas City
4-2-3-1 vs. Montreal CF

As one can see, not only did Moreno come into the team, but in an effort to help him get into his most effective positions in the attack as the team’s primary creative supplier for Josef Martinez, Pineda pushed him forward into a clear attacking band ahead of two central midfielders. Whether LW is a proper position for Moreno is a separate conversation to be had, and perhaps next week we can dive into the peculiar case that is Marcelino Moreno and how he can best fit in with the talents Atlanta United has amassed on the roster. But this conversation is going to center around how this new shape hurt Atlanta against Montreal and how its dysfunction may have resulted in a team looking “switched off” while Montreal scored three straight goals in a 14-minute stretch.

4-3-3

One of the striking features of Pineda’s 4-3-3 used against SKC was how “Christmas tree” it looked, particularly when the team was out of possession. Amar Sejdic and Mattheus Rossetto flanked Ozzie Alonso (as opposed to playing as a duo slightly in front of him) and when SKC progressed the ball up the flanks, it was the wide midfielders Sejdic and Rossetto who were tasked with shuttling out to the wide spaces to support their respective fullbacks. Take this freeze frame from the 19th minute vs. SKC as an example.

Ronald Hernandez is marking his opposing winger, but the midfield line has shifted to the right to stop SKC’s advance (in this particular moment, Alonso and Rossetto had swapped positions). In a more traditional setup with wingers (like we’ll see with the 4-2-3-1) Atlanta’s winger Luiz Araujo would mark his opposing fullback up and down the flank. But when SKC’s fullback passes to the defensive midfielder seconds later, it’s Araujo who is in position to immediately apply pressure in a central area.

The sequence rewards the team with its first goal of the season. Here it is in motion.

This includes an errant pass and poor decision by the SKC midfielder who gives the ball away, but it’s also striking just how good of a position Atlanta was in to capitalize on the mistake thanks to the shape and tactics. Beacuse Araujo had come inside to pressure the ball, he was in position to combine with Josef Martinez in the attack when the ball turned over.

4-2-3-1

In the new aforementioned team shape, things went awry. After the game, Brad Guzan told 92.9 The Game’s Jason Longshore and Mike Conti that the team was erring in shifting too far to the ball side of the field, leaving the backside fullback exposed if the play was switched. Here, we see a perfect example of that in the build-up to Montreal’s second goal.

Can you guess where the ball is going from here? From this position, Ismael Kone plays an immediate switch (requiring great vision and technique, I’d add) to find Montreal’s player in the center circle. Maybe an even better play would be to get the ball to the player at the bottom of the frame on the flank. But basically any quick escape from this position — where Atlanta players are overly congested on one side of the field — is going to cause problems. Kone then intelligently realizes he can sprint straight to the box, knowing his opponents attention is going to be centered on recovering their position to the other side of the field. The cross into the box finds him and he scores.

Ozzie Alonso took the brunt of the heat for this goal being scored as if it was an individual error. No doubt, he would say he should’ve done more to prevent Kone’s advance, and a certain percentage of the time Alonso will indeed thwart Kone in this spot. But the pivotal point of this play is at the freeze frame posted initially. Atlanta is disorganized defensively with an unnecessary amount of players around the ball and not enough structure.

Here is more or less what it looks like on a diagram. This is not to say a team shouldn’t squeeze down when it can pin a team on the flank, but simply that there’s a balance that was out of whack in this instance.

But I want to focus in on Moreno again, because it’s important to understand why the 4-2-3-1 with Moreno on the wing hurt Atlanta in this game. Moreno is actually slightly behind the play here forcing more from his teammates Tyler Wolff and Alonso to move into position to close down the ball. With only two central midfielders, this creates a strain to cover all the required spaces, and clearly Kone found where the weakness was — behind Rossetto. When playing with two midfielders, this is the risk you take.

Maybe an even better example of Atlanta’s disorganization with Moreno on the wing came via the third goal — again, one identified primarily as an individual error committed by Miles Robinson giving away a soft penalty. Like Alonso, could Robinson have dealt better with Kone? Yes. Was the call itself questionable? Also yes. But the crux of why the play materialized into the penalty and consequential goal happened well before the referee pointed to the spot.

Here is Atlanta defending. Gutman was forced to track his mark out of his left back zone, so Alonso fills that gap and is forced to defend the ball in the LB position. That’s fine, this is a normal responsibility in this shape. Atlanta is actually fine here, so long as Moreno is on the back of Montreal supporting player on the flank (right edge of the frame). As long as Moreno is tracking back to be able to apply pressure to that player if he receives the ball, all is good.

Except Moreno still hasn’t entered the picture. The ball does indeed go back to the supporting player, so Gutman is then forced to apply the pressure. Again, we see Kone react intelligently, recognizing that Atlanta United’s ball-side midfielder is momentarily at LB marking a forward, and the LB is out pressuring the ball. This is a simple 3v2 for Montreal leading to an incisive pass into the PAZ (primary assist zone).

It’s worth noting that Moreno is clearly still building up his fitness and given that we are in the 41st minute during this passage of play, he was certainly feeling the fatigue at this point only moments before halftime.

The point of all of this isn’t that the team shouldn’t play in a 4-2-3-1, that Moreno shouldn’t necessarily play on the wing, or that Moreno is hurting the team in general. The point of this post is that there were definite tactical elements at play for the team’s dreadful performance in the first half — that it wasn’t only a case of Atlanta United “switching off” during the game.

Looking ahead

On the tactical front, things will get even more interesting in the coming weeks, and difficult decisions will have to be made. Not only have we started to see the emergence of Almada with his goal and overall good play vs Montreal in a half of action, but Luiz Araujo is also expected to come back into the team in April and players like Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra will also start to play a bigger role. How will these available options affect Pineda’s selection and tactics? I’d be a fool to try to guess...

But I will tell you what I prefer! I’d like to see more of the 4-3-3 used against SKC, Colorado and Charlotte, but I’d like to see it with Moreno playing on the left midfield role.

In this spot, he can use his physicality on the ball to bully past opponents similar to how we’ve seen Darlington Nagbe do so in the past. But when the team is out of possession, his responsibility should be to play with Gutman and make sure that those two are controlling any opposing advances up the wing. Almada can obviously contribute here, but he’ll also find himself drifting into central areas (like Araujo in the opening example) where he can perhaps pick up second balls and help spark attacks.

This would require some coaching and wouldn’t be an overnight trick that turns Moreno into a perfect midfielder. But over time, I believe that this is the best long term path for Moreno himself and for the team.