Despite two recent poor results in a scoreless home draw against FC Cincinnati and a 2-1 loss on the road to Inter Miami last weekend, it’s clear that Gonzalo Pineda’s Atlanta United is starting to create more chances with more consistency as the team settles into his tactical system.
With star Brazilian winger Luiz Araujo regaining fitness in recent weeks and looking poised to finally return to the starting lineup this weekend against Montreal, how does he fit in with the tactical system Gonzalo Pineda has developed in recent weeks?
First, we’ll look at the way the team has played in the attack as of late. Then we’ll figure out how Araujo can be worked in alongside Marcelino Moreno and Thiago Almada. It’s not always the easiest thing for a manager in MLS to work in three out-and-out attacking midfielders who all want to be on the ball in and around the box.
Build up shape and roles
While we often refer to Pineda’s recent lineups as a 4-2-3-1 (or some variation) by virtue of the fact that the team is playing with two traditional center backs and one striker, the team attacks with a back 3. Let’s run down some of the key characteristics:
- There are two flanking players who’s purpose is to maintain width and stretch the opponent as wide as possible. This is of paramount importance. So far this season, it has consisted of a traditional winger on one side and a fullback on the other, largely for personnel reasons.
- Three at the back, consisting of the two central defenders and one tucked in fullback. When Ronald Hernandez plays, he has occupied this role with Lennon ahead of him and Gutman high on the right. When Lennon is the RB, Gutman is tucked and Lennon is high (though Gutman naturally gets more involved higher up the pitch).
- Marcelino Moreno and Thiago Almada playing as dual No. 10s underneath the striker, not dissimilar from the way Frank de Boer deployed Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez to play beneath Josef Martinez in 2019 (with the obvious caveat that the players themselves are characteristically different from that 2019 team).
- Two central midfielders who serve as passing stations. Their role is to position themselves as outlets for the back three to find, then to turn and transition the ball into the attacking phase.
Here’s how it looked against Inter Miami last weekend:
It’s not obvious where Araujo fits in this shape. We know his preferred position is coming inside on his preferred left foot from the right, but Atlanta’s “winger” the last several games has been its right back Brooks Lennon, and Lennon’s role is to hug the right side. That’s not the role Araujo will have. Ideally, you’d still like Lennon to serve the same responsibility he’s done prior, and could potentially be even more effective if he’s overlapping a dangerous player like Araujo.
Just looking at the XI listed above, it seems obvious that Caleb Wiley would be the player who comes out of the side. So the question is how Pineda can make this personnel work.
You can start to see the issue here. If you remove Wiley, who then fills Wiley’s responsibility of maintaining width on the left side? We know that Marcelino Moreno is not suited to that role, nor would you want a player like him — or Thiago Almada for that matter — to be so disconnected from the action areas in and around the box.
Pineda has the perfect player in this team that allows for a neat solution to this problem in the form of Santiago Sosa. Sosa is perfectly equipped to drop deeper into the back three when needed to give the team its preferred buildup structure.
As you can see, the lone central midfielder will need to be excellent. It’s imperative that this player not lose the ball cheaply, and tactically the player needs great spatial awareness to recognize the ideal positions to take up and make himself an outlet. A healthy Emerson Hyndman might be a player who could do the job. Matheus Rossetto is another interesting option, but would he be willing/able to turn on the ball and find a progressive pass?
All of this will be a lot more fluid in reality than it looks on these diagrams. Players move around the pitch based on their best intuition, and things rarely play out as cleanly as they might look here. This may not even be how Pineda decides to transition the team at all! But hopefully this post can start a discussion about how Moreno, Almada, and Araujo can all play together while keeping the positive aspects of Atlanta United’s recent play rolling into the weekend and beyond.