The best laid plans, as they say.
Atlanta United had one of the brightest plans coming out of the 2021 season. On paper, it seemed brilliant. Gonzalo Pineda was finally going to have time to develop his formation and play style to fit the likes of Luiz Araujo, Josef Martinez, Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan, Marcelino Moreno, Alan Franco, Santiago Sosa, an incoming Thiago Almada, and others.
Pineda clearly wanted to explore his ideal formation consisting of two center backs, two wing backs, and plenty of attacking power up front in a 4-2-3-1. The idea of fitting MAMA (Martinez, Araujo, Moreno, and Almada) on the pitch simultaneously was too enticing to pass up. 2021 had consisted of the gaffer entering midseason and doing his best to minimize any hefty changes to the team’s tactics, specifically the three center back shape that Atlanta had been utilizing for quite some time under Gabriel Heinze.
That formation, however, was hampered by the absence of Josef Martinez, leaving Marcelino Moreno and newcomer Luiz Araujo as the bulk of the attack. The threat from the wings was admittedly nonexistent, despite plenty of chances created by players like Brooks Lennon. The only way Atlanta seemed to score in that version of the back three was through the middle, and it was inconsistent at best. Regardless, the team scrounged their way into the playoffs and near the end of the 2021 season experimented with Pineda’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation via late game subs. It showed promise, at least in the sense that it was fairly exciting. The off-season seemed bright, with the likes of playmaker Thiago Almada set to arrive along with time for Pineda to place his mark on the squad.
What Went Wrong?
2022 arrived and Atlanta United rather quickly turned into Infirmary FC. Almost everyone in the aforementioned list of prime starting XI players have missed time due to either short-term or season-ending injuries. There’s been no consistency to build chemistry, and individual mistakes have been Atlanta’s figurative Achilles heel. At last count, 19 players on Atlanta’s squad have had to miss time because of injury, and the two-center back formation has been leaking goals in the most unfortunate ways. Of course, this is a tradeoff when a side loses a dedicated defender, but Atlanta has been paying dearly.
Pineda’s typical style consists of playing out of the back, from goal keeper to the front, while maintaining possession and pressing high to win the ball back when it’s lost. It’s a beautiful and effective style when implemented correctly. The inherent problem, though, is that it depends heavily on the chemistry amongst its players and doesn’t leave much room for mistakes. Because of the injuries, suspensions, and other issues, Atlanta has been quite literally unable to field a similar starting XI for the vast majority of the season, yet Pineda has stuck with mostly the same formation. See the problem?
On a recent away trip, Pineda finally reverted to a back three when he fielded this lineup against the New York Red Bulls:
Tonight's Starting XI vs. @NewYorkRedBulls #UniteAndConquer | #RBNYvATL pic.twitter.com/rMQFOesqvz— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) June 30, 2022
For the vast majority of the match, Atlanta was the better team. Two individual mistakes caused the entire match to crumble around them, but the signs were promising. Atlanta’s collective defense did well against the Red Bull’s press (again, minus the two glaring mistakes). Atlanta then played NYCFC where they switched back to the 4-2-3-1 and were able to scrounge out a 2-2 draw. Taking this as a sign of momentum, Atlanta then returned home and tried to do the same thing against Austin FC...and failed in spectacular fashion in their worst home loss in franchise history.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Josef Martinez and Gonzalo Pineda’s post-match comments have been well-documented at this point, but suffice to say no one in the club was happy. Pineda promised two things: fight from the players and the correct lineups to give the team the best shot at winning. The interesting comment here is the one about the “correct lineups.” The hallmark of any good coach is adaptation; Atlanta fans saw it in 2018 with Tata Martino when he (conveniently enough) switched to a back three after getting slaughtered in the opening match of the season. He made the best of what he had, and clearly Pineda’s ideas for the 4-2-3-1 haven’t worked because the personnel has been a revolving door. Remember, MAMA was integral to that formation.
Four nights after those comments, Pineda fielded this 5-back lineup at home against Real Salt Lake.
Your #ATLUTD Starting XI #ATLvRSL | #UniteAndConquer pic.twitter.com/dZYZ1bTNLn— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) July 13, 2022
The obvious addition here is Juanjo Purata, who supplemented the back line along with Alan Franco and George Campbell. This allowed wingbacks Caleb Wiley and Aiden McFadden more leeway to play forward as true wingers, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, the Five Stripes actually took advantage of the flanks.
Caleb Wiley vs RSL pic.twitter.com/wWVqO49v0p— Jack Stephen (@USMNTZ) July 14, 2022
And that’s just one side of the pitch. Meanwhile, Aiden McFadden was quite literally having a fit on the other side.
McFadden is in acres of space losing his freaking mind at no one playing him in— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) July 14, 2022
Any opposing team would be foolish to give Moreno or Almada space to work (Araujo either, though he was unavailable), so the young guys on the wing had space to keep everyone honest on defense. Then, take into account the tenacity of Marcelino Moreno finding himself everywhere on the field, Thiago Almada playing vertical from his defensive third all the way to the top of the box, and Rossetto and Sejdic helping orchestrate things in the midfield, and Atlanta looked fairly comfortable. The wings and midfield working in tandem created havoc for RSL’s defense, which Ronaldo Cisneros was able to exploit with his speed.
This screenshot of Atlanta’s second goal exhibits what is a key element in this new shape. This goal came off a turnover when Moreno pressed RSL into a pass, allowing Rossetto to step forward and win the ball in a very dangerous area. What you don’t see in that screen, however, is Atlanta’s 3 center backs. Rossetto and Sejdic were able to play in the positions they were occupying because there was a natural comfort of knowing backup was available should the press go awry. Prior to this match, Rossetto, Sejdic, Ibarra, or even George Campbell have found themselves in terribly awkward positions when they’ve tried to do exactly what Rossetto did here, except in those situations they left the two center backs in the 4-2-3-1 high and dry.
Not only does the back three provide defensive stability, it allows the offense to press hard and widen the pitch into the attacking half. Every single RSL player minus their keeper is in that screenshot, and look at how much space Wiley still has on the bottom. While this goal was a product of the press, it shows how having the extra factor on the wings provides options in the attack. Wiley can play that high and wide knowing Campbell is behind him to cover.
Another of those attacking options is the ability for one of the three center backs to take the space offered to them and dribble into the opposing half. George Campbell especially loves doing this and did so twice Wednesday night, and both opportunities ended with him at the top of RSL’s penalty area. It’s yet another factor in the attack that can throw a defense into a tizzy because suddenly they have to figure out whether to stick with their mark (Moreno, Almada, Cisneros, Wiley, Sejdic, or Rossetto) and let this man walk the ball up the pitch or break off and potentially leave an attacking threat wide open. Campbell wasn’t the only one from the back line taking space, though; Franco and Purata both had moments where they exploited RSL’s lack of pressure.
Finally, one additional and underrated aspect of having the extra center back is that there is one extra tall player on the pitch winning aerial duels and headers. The final 5 minutes of the RSL match were a perfect example of this, as the Five Stripes weathered a storm of balls into the box by competing in the air. It’s no secret that Atlanta has conceded a multitude of goals this season via crosses and set pieces where the players don’t win the ball in the air, so having an extra aerial threat in Juanjo Purata proved vital to keeping the 2-1 victory. This also applies to attacking set pieces; Alan Franco very nearly scored an early goal on an Atlanta corner, as fellow defenders Campbell and Purata occupied an extra RSL player each.
What About the Press?
“That’s all well and good, but what about against a team that presses, unlike RSL?” asks a perfectly logical person. Let’s examine.
In this screenshot we see the moment Alan Franco received some pressure. Granted, this was not a high press by any means, but it was about the most RSL pressured the back line all evening. Franco initially looks to spray the ball out wide to Purata. Purata intelligently begins to step back to make the RSL player nearest the bottom of the screen make a decision to either pressure him or drop into the midfield to cover the passing lane. Meanwhile, George Campbell and Rocco Rios Novo are moving in space to give Franco options.
However, because of the aforementioned wing threat by Wiley and McFadden mixed with Moreno, Almada, and Cisneros giving the midfield and defense fits, Franco sees McFadden with space and does what any team should consider against a press: he plays over the top. One point here, Pineda does not necessarily like playing the long ball. Not only has this been discussed, but anyone watching his prior 4-2-3-1 formation will note the lack of passes over the midfield because he wants to play from the back and through the middle. We may never know if Pineda made a stylistic change before this match by telling his center backs to play the long ball if they saw the opportunity, but Franco definitely saw the opportunity and took advantage.
Credit to Franco for one of his admittedly great deep passes, as this entirely breaks the pressure and McFadden finds himself with quite a bit of space. He has Cisneros making a run into the box, as well, and a 2 v 3 isn’t bad odds while the defense is still scrambling. McFadden controls the ball well, works it just inside the box, looks up, and sees this:
Suddenly McFadden has passing options in the box, with Wiley completely unmarked approaching the far post. But it’s Thiago Almada who holds up a bit as RSL tries to prepare to defend in the box. This gives him ample space in his favorite shooting lane at the top of the box and McFadden finds him with a well-placed ball.
Because of his holdup, and RSL scrambling to prevent the likely low cross into the box, Almada has a ridiculous amount of time to wind up and put his laces through the ball from 18 yards out. He beat RSL’s keeper but couldn’t beat the far post as it banged off and back into play. It was mere inches from icing the game, and it all started from a simple long ball played over the top because the wings had space. The wings had space because they could be more threatening in the attack, and they could do this because they had less pressure to worry about defending.
When viewed in this light, the puzzle pieces seem to fall into place. The prime Atlanta 4-2-3-1 could potentially be dominating MLS if everyone had stayed healthy, but they didn’t. It happens; Atlanta has genuinely had terrible luck. But the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 can potentially take Atlanta’s weaknesses and mitigate them, while actually leaving a bit more unpredictability in the attack. While MAMA may not all be able to fit on the field simultaneously, the attack can still be incredibly potent with the added benefit of occasionally resting players like Moreno or Araujo who rarely get subbed off. The team has to work with the available resources, and the Five Stripes still have enough talent to put forth a collective team effort on both sides of the ball. It just may require sticking to a different formation. If it works, who cares?
Atlanta United is roughly at the halfway point of the season, and despite less than stellar results they’re not far out of the playoff picture. The jury will certainly be out for a while on whether this formation will work for the rest of the season if Pineda decides to stick with it, but one could be argue that Atlanta would be hard-pressed to do worse than they were prior.
The Five Stripes meet a newer version of Orlando this weekend, and at least one player in the locker room is looking to keep a legend alive. Atlanta desperately needs to string together some wins and a newfound fight and formation could be key in making that happen.
The best laid plans, as they say.