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Talking Tactics: How can Gonzalo Pineda set up Atlanta United with the current injury crisis?

Atlanta United’s staff has some tactical decisions to make with the dearth of options on the back line.

SOCCER: MAY 28 MLS - Columbus Crew at Atlanta United Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Atlanta United received more bad injury news this week with the confirmation that fullback Ronald Hernandez will be out for most of the rest of the season with an injury to his right knee sustained in the team’s loss this past weekend against the Columbus Crew.

That injury is just one in a long lists that had coach Gonzalo Pineda has had to deal with so far this season. Early in the year, it was his attackers — Josef Matrinez, Luiz Araujo, Thiago Almada — all missing time for various reasons. Now, he’s got most of those heavy hitters back, but is missing almost his entire defense that he fielded in the team’s season-opening game against Sporting KC. The injured list now includes both of the two players he’d be most comfortable playing at left back — Hernandez and Andrew Gutman. The whole thing is an absolute mess.

What he’s left with is a team that is incredibly depleted at the back that is conceding soft goals, which negates a lot of the attacking advantage his talented and expensive team possesses. So what can be done to help solidify the team?

If there’s ever a time to work on a new team shape, it’s when you’ve got nearly three weeks to work between games. And I think Gonzalo Pineda will do just that and go back to a three-at-the-back system.

Now, let’s talk about the pros and cons of such a system, and then we can discuss in the comments.

Pros

  • While a back three is a substantial change, many of the players have experience in such a system last year. On top of that, the team plays in this kind of shape in possession anyway. (Click here for a more detailed analysis of Gonzalo Pineda’s system).
  • Adding a CB — in this case the big-bodied George Campbell — will help the team on set pieces on both ends. But obviously he will be a help defensively where this team needs someone who can win aerial duels on a consistent basis.
  • No matter if the left wingback who comes into the team is Caleb Wiley back from injury, Mikey Ambrose, or hell, even Ronaldo Cisneros, that player will need more cover than is usual. All three options would have their limitations (Wiley: inexperience, Ambrose: athleticism, Cisneros; he’s a striker) and an extra center back would help mask those deficiencies.
  • Speaking of needing cover, Alan Franco. His play on the ball remains excellent, but defensively he remains not so excellent. An extra body back should help, and he’s been at his best in his Atlanta United career as a right-sided CB.
  • While the shape may not be as fluid as is typical, there wouldn’t be a ton of change for the central midfielders or attackers in terms of their orientation and spacial relationships on the field.
  • It makes even more sense to do this for one game in which you’d be missing Thiago Almada.

Cons

  • It’s harder to press effectively out of a back three. This could affect Pineda’s preferred game model, making Atlanta a team that sees less of the ball and is more patient to win it back when possession is lost. This is an extremely important factor.
  • While Gonzalo Pineda took over a team playing in this kind of shape, we saw diminishing returns as the season progressed. Not to say it wouldn’t benefit this team to revert back to it (I think the team would see rewards), but there is a fear that the shape would leave the team too rigid and unable to disorganize opponents.
  • You’re basically using every center back on the roster in this lineup. I imagine we will see a player from the 2s — likely Noah Cobb — signed on a short-term agreement regardless. But there is that risk.

There’s a whole lot more to discuss, and later we’ll look at some of the personnel options available to Pineda at certain positions.