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Roll the Tape: A deep dive into Atlanta United’s defending in its 3-0 victory at Charlotte FC

The first clean sheet of the season, a look at the Five Stripes’ organized defensive structure and me freaking out about Total Football

Atlanta United FC v Charlotte FC Photo by Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Some will say it’s too early to say that Atlanta United’s recent results are an indication that the team is poised for a great 2023, but I think we’ve seen some promising signs throughout the first two matches the Five Stripes have played this season. Saturday’s convincing 3-0 road win against Charlotte FC was no different.

An away win, open-play goals from inside the box and a clean sheet were some of the positives from the match. Here, we’re going to take a closer look at the defending that laid the foundation for a commanding rivalry win.

We don’t have any goals conceded to analyze this week (yay), but Charlotte was still able to create a handful of chances that we can break down.

Big Chance - Charlotte FC 14’

This one starts from an Atlanta throw between the middle and defensive thirds.

Before you ask, no, I have no idea who Luiz Araújo (circled in purple) is waving at. What I do know is that he’s about to make a darting run to receive the throw-in.

Brooks Lennon throws the ball for Araújo who has his back to an incoming Shinyashiki (red arrow). Araújo tries to keep moving back to hopefully find someone open (blue arrow), but he has his pocket picked by Shinyashiki before he gets the chance. He suddenly has tons of space to run into (yellow circle) along Atlanta’s right flank.

Shinyashiki exploits the space, but Araújo and Lennon quickly catch up to and outnumber him against the touchline (underlined in red). Under pressure, Shinyashiki goes for the only out he truly has: passing backward to Kamil Jozwiak (blue arrow). Not only does this take the pressure off of him, but it also opens so many doors for Charlotte’s attack as the Polish international has much more space to find other options. In the middle of the field, Ashley Westwood and Karol Swiderski (circled in yellow) have loads of space in front of them to run into and potentially get shots off. Notice Juanjo Purata’s positioning in the box (circled in purple). He may not be marking anyone right now, but he has the important job of covering any runners into the box. Spoiler alert: he’s seriously going to bail Atlanta United out in just a second.

Jozwiak receives and starts to turn toward the goal (solid blue arrow) as Miles Robinson steps up to close him down (red arrow). Robinson, seeing that he won’t get to Jozwiak in time, decides to pump the brakes and hang back instead. Seeing the massive gap ahead of him, Westwood makes a run inside (yellow arrow). Swiderski also sees the chance and runs in behind Andrew Gutman to receive a cutback or back-post cross (dotted blue arrow).

The Polish designated player sees Westwood’s run (yellow arrow) and slips him a beautifully placed ball in behind the defense (blue arrow). In this frame, it looks like it’s all over. Surely Westwood just has to beat Brad Guzan to pull a goal back, right?

No! Atlanta United is saved by Juanjo Purata (circled in purple) who gets in front of Westwood and holds him off long enough for Robinson and Franco Ibarra to get back (red arrows). The Mexican defender doesn’t give Westwood the space to get his shot away and forces him to continue toward the end line (blue arrow).

Purata stays with the former Burnley midfielder, who backheels it (solid blue arrow) into the path of Shinyashiki (dotted blue arrow) as Ibarra and Robinson arrive on the scene to cut him off. Notice Swiderski (circled in purple) is all alone in front of an essentially empty net. If the ball gets to him at any point in the next five seconds, it’s almost certainly a Charlotte goal...

... but Atlanta’s defenders cover well...

... and never give Shinyashiki the space or time to send the ball to Swiderski...

... until finally...

... they force a turnover and get the ball away from the danger area. Even more impressive is the fact that they were able to keep their cool and hold off Charlotte’s attackers without giving away a penalty.


  • Come on guys, be careful on your throw-ins. You shouldn’t just be giving the ball away that easily. If someone’s making a run to receive it, throw it into the space in front of them so that they can keep running with it. Don’t throw it straight at them, that’s just begging for a defender to come up from behind and snatch it like Shinyashiki did here.
  • The defenders have to be more aware of players that are waiting at the back post. In this play, Swiderski was wide open for a deadly pass for at least five seconds. Sure, Gutman may have been close to him, but if Swiderski receives in that spot, it’s ending up in the back of the net. Fortunately, the defenders on the other side were able to keep the passing lane blocked, but there needs to be greater awareness of the threat that players pose in that position.
  • I will give credit to the team for getting back quickly and closing the opposition down as quickly as possible. You could see that everyone knew their roles: it was clear whose job it was to go up and press and whose it was to stay back and cover. We’ve talked about this before in another analysis, so it’s good to see some improvement in this area.

Effective Marking - Atlanta United 37’

This chance didn’t get a chance to develop. The team’s defensive structure and superb marking prevented Charlotte from creating legitimate danger.

Here we see Westwood carry the ball up toward the far touchline under pressure by Miguel Berry. Right now, all of Atlanta’s midfielders are clumped together in the center, so the experienced Englishman seizes the chance to send a progressive pass to Enzo Copetti (blue arrow). Seeing the play develop, Atlanta’s players know they have to get into their defensive positions. These five players are going to essentially create a straight line across the pitch to cover as much ground as they can (red arrows). Their traditional 4-2-3-1 now shifts to a 4-1-4-1 mid block, making it much harder for Charlotte to break them down.

Whoa, there’s a lot going on in this frame, so let’s break it down bit by bit. First of all, I drew some red lines and numbers to help you more easily identify what I meant by a 4-1-4-1. The backline of 4 is spread out with both fullbacks covering the two center forwards and the fullbacks out wide locking down the wingers.

The first “1” is Ibarra, the center defensive midfielder (also called a number six), whose job it is to sort of bridge the back line to the midfield line. Let’s say Copetti chooses to pass to either Jozwiak or Shinyashiki (circled in purple). Either of them would have to receive the ball with their back toward the goal and would instantly be put under pressure from behind by one of the center backs while Ibarra runs over to overwhelm the attacker (dotted red arrows).

Copetti can’t do this in this frame because of how his body is oriented, but let’s just say he passes to Brandt Bronico (circled in yellow) on the far touchline. He would immediately be closed down by Brooks Lennon and Araújo. Remember last week when we talked about the touchline being a defender’s best friend? Well, that applies here. Bronico would be trapped between the defenders and the touchline, which would likely result in a turnover.

Let’s continue by talking about the midfield line of four. We see the wingers, Araújo and Caleb Wiley, dropping back and tucking in to keep in line with Sejdic and Almada in the center. This sort of shape is very good for blocking the passing lanes in between the lines and for covering as much of the width of the field in the defensive third as possible. Remember, Atlanta is in the lead by two goals at this point, so there’s no need for them to press high and expend their energy. The onus is on Charlotte now, so Atlanta can sit in its defensive structure and let the opposition wear itself out trying to find a way through.

What if Copetti passes back to Derrick Jones or Westwood? That’s where the final “1” comes in. Miguel Berry as the lone striker has the job of pressuring them if they get the ball (dotted blue arrows). Look at both Jones and Westwood in this frame. If either of them get the ball, they’ll receive with their backs toward Berry, a pressing trigger that the Spaniard would pick up and act on. Sejdic or Almada could then step up to mark the one who doesn’t have the ball and the attacker would be out of options.

So what does Copetti actually end up doing? He sends a long switch of play (solid blue arrow) over to Swiderski whose waiting just a few yards ahead of the yellow arrow.

Swiderski has it, but won’t be able to turn and face the box because Gutman is pressuring him from behind (solid red arrow). He can’t lay it off for Nathan Byrne because Wiley would immediately close him down (yellow arrow). He also can’t get a ball in front of Jones’ run (dotted blue arrow) because Almada would be with him all the way (dotted red arrow) and likely recover the ball. The Polish international decides to just pass it back for Adilson Malanda (solid blue arrow)...

... who passes it right back to Swiderski due to the pressure from Berry (blue arrow). Keep an eye on Jones and Almada (circled in purple), they’re going to come into play in just a second.

Jones makes a run into the space on Atlanta’s exposed left side (dotted blue arrow) closely guarded by Almada (dotted red arrow). Swiderski now has the space to play him in, so he sends the ball into the space in front of Jones (solid blue arrow). Now, it’s just a race between Jones and Almada...

... which the Argentine wins to put a stop to the attack.


  • The discipline for the team to know they have to shift into that 4-1-4-1 when not in possession doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s instilled, refined and practiced on the training ground each and every day. This is an example of what Gonzalo Pineda’s defensive tactics look like when they are executed properly. And it isn’t just the formation change, but the positional rotations, the pressing triggers and everyone knowing who their man is all come down to the coaching staff’s hard work drilling this into the players. Clearly, they’re doing something right in training and it’s paying off.
  • The speed of the team’s reorganization from being mostly clumped in midfield to taking up their positions is key to all of this. They didn’t give Charlotte much time to think with the ball, and therefore were able to stop them from advancing too deep into their territory. If the team can keep this up, they might prove to be one of the better defenses in the league.
  • Have I told you how valuable touchlines are to defenders? Because they really are.

Total Football - Atlanta United 90’

“In my teams, the striker is the first defender and the goalie is the first attacker.” - Johan Cruyff

This play is rather short, but it demonstrates one of the core concepts of Total Football: everyone attacks and everyone defends. In this case, we’re obviously more focused on the defending side of things.

This play started with Charlotte recovering the ball in their defensive third. Here, Malanda sends a ball into space (blue arrow) for Bronico to carry forward (yellow arrow). Look at Giorgos Giakoumakis (circled in purple). He’s Atlanta United’s striker - in other words he is the focal point for the attacks and his main job is the be up front and score goals. Hold onto that thought for a second.

Bronico continues onward and passes the ball forward to Jozwiak off-screen (blue arrow). Look at Giakoumakis now (purple arrow). He’s still running back to defend.

Jozwiak carries the ball forward a bit before playing the ball into the space (solid blue arrow) on Atlanta’s right side that Copetti is running into (dotted blue arrow). Meanwhile, Giakoumakis (circled in purple) is still hustling back to defend. He’s almost as far back as Santiago Sosa and Ibarra.

Copetti, under pressure by Sosa, lays the ball off for Bronico to attempt a cross (blue arrow). With Sosa running past him with Copetti, surely Bronico has loads of space and time for a cross, right? See where Giakoumakis (circled in purple) is? Good. Because what happens next is just awesome.

Giakoumakis SLIDES IN TO BLOCK A CROSS in the defensive third. A striker coming all the way back to defend. Why am I making such a big deal about this? Because this is the type of striker that Pineda has been needing for his system to work. Not only does Giakoumakis pressure up top, but he also comes back to assume a crucial defensive role when necessary. Modern soccer is all about creating numbers advantages and players being flexible enough to play outside of their position at times.


  • Giorgos Giakoumakis is awesome.
  • Gonzalo Pineda finally has the striker his system has been missing. One that can run around, press high, drop back to defend and still be lethal in front of goal. We still haven’t seen that last part, but it’s surely coming sooner rather than later.
  • Giorgos Giakoumakis is awesome.

That’s all for the defensive analysis this week. Stay tuned for another post later this week where we’ll be diving into the attacking from this game. And as always, let me know what you think of this analysis in the comments below!