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Red Bulls took advantage of Atlanta United’s glaring weaknesses, what needs to change?

Spoiler alert: This was not a great game at all

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York Red Bulls John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Oooooof. Atlanta United traveled up to New Jersey for a matchup against one team that consistently plagues them in the regular season: the New York Red Bulls.

It did not end well.

The team’s run of form lately has seen them scrounge out some victories, or at least a point - either by late game heroics or late game gaffs - but that simply wasn’t good enough against the high-pressing, aggressive Red Bulls. Atlanta’s long unbeaten streak was ended abruptly in New Jersey with nary a whimper.

The match truly was a tale of two opposing styles of play. Every team knows what they’re getting when they play against RBNY, and alternatively, everyone understands the possession-based, build from the back style that Atlanta United brings to the table.

Here’s the caveat about Atlanta United’s tactics and style of play: the best teams in the world work - almost obsessively - to play the cleanest, prettiest style of football imaginable as the ball is passed up the pitch, delightfully skipping lines and tricking pressing teams into giving just an inch of space to exploit. When one player either isn’t comfortable on the ball, has a bad day on the ball, or a mixture of both, the result is a system where movements look frantic and uncontrolled. Against a team like Red Bulls, that result is massively exaggerated because those teams give the opposition absolutely no space to operate. Therefore, the passing, receiving, and movements must be near perfect.

As it stands, Atlanta United’s passing, reception, and movements are nowhere near perfect. Sure, the team has shown flashes of it against teams they can spread thin or when they have time on the ball, but against teams like Red Bulls they struggle mightily. Don’t forget, Philly is just around the corner, and they’re much more disciplined.

Most of Atlanta’s midfield isn’t consistently able to break lines to throw off the press, either because they’re too frantic on the ball or because the subsequent movement off the ball isn’t enough to create space. This forces Thiago Almada to have to drop way back to simply see the ball, which limits his effectiveness, and he then tries to take on multiple defenders in an attempt to progress upfield. It also clogs the wings because the play becomes too familiar and predictable: stifle the defensive and central midfielders for Atlanta and force the ball to move out wide where they can easily be double or triple teamed with their back to the touch line. The ultimate result is the striker never receiving the ball; if he does, it’s in suboptimal locations. Or the ball just ends up being turned over in the worst locations and Atlanta gets punished.

So, how is this fixed?

The easy resolution here - on paper, at least - is a better midfield. The summer transfer window is coming, and it’s been obvious for quite some time that Atlanta needs a more comfortable and possessive starting number 8. Amar Sejdic is a great option for certain matches, or as a sub, but this team needs a true holding midfielder with the ability to control the ball and make line-breaking passes forward. Franco Ibarra has been a solid destroyer number six, but his passing and control hasn’t been great. Santiago Sosa can’t seem to stay healthy, and when he’s on the pitch, he just doesn’t seem to fit with the style. Matheus Rossetto hasn’t provided the dynamic movements and bulldog ball possession needed. Ozzie Alonso, to his credit, is outstanding, but he’s coming off an incredibly tough injury and is the perfect guy to compliment the rest of the midfield, not play 90 minutes week after week. It’s also too early to rely on the younger talent like Jay Fortune and Nick Firmino, though hopefully they continue to develop into the future midfield the team needs.

The second option requires pragmatic tactical changes when the team is playing against a team they know is going to disrupt their play style. The Five Stripes get punished when the ball is turned over in the aforementioned manner, so perhaps a three center back option stifles the inability to drop back and quickly defend. It also provides the width the team really wants while - in theory - allowing Almada to truly orchestrate the entire midfield without having to drop so deep. Giakoumakis is going to keep a backline honest, which then opens up further space for Almada and the wingers to operate.

This isn’t necessarily calling for a wholesale change in style or tactics, it’s just hoping for a willingness to throw a wrench in the other team’s plans - a plan B - when the football isn’t as good as it needs to be. And it hasn’t been recently. To Pineda’s credit, he made some significant changes to two strikers near the end of the Red Bulls match, but by that point Atlanta United was chasing the game. It’s tough to analyze how that formation would work based on the few minutes it was shown.

Ultimately, the team isn’t playing crisp and disciplined enough to execute the style Pineda wants. The silly mistakes, the bad passes, and the heavy touches are eating the team alive. If it isn’t fixed soon, the Five Stripes will soon be looking up from below the water line and gasping for breath to stay in a playoff spot, because the schedule isn’t getting any easier.

Atlanta United Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda

On if Red Bulls did anything differently tonight and why the team struggled

“No. I think different moments of the game. I felt that until their first goal we were executing well the game plan, disrupting them, creating a good chance with Caleb. A lot of fouls in that part of the game. We were breaking lines, foul, breaking lines, foul. So that’s why we couldn’t progress the ball a little bit forward in those first 20 minutes of the game. Then the goal comes out of a massive distraction and a throw-in. Then obviously, it carries over, we couldn’t really get back to executing the game plan in the same way. Another goal comes at the end of the first half from an individual mistake in the build up and then suddenly in a game that probably you were executing very decently the game plan, you are losing so you are up the hill trying to chase the game. And I felt that they were better in the important moments, the transition moments. The transition moments against those types of teams, physical, direct, they are always willing to do the effort, press, counter press, to cover for each other, they are all fast and strong, you have to be better on the ball. You have to be much better. Connect better passes, not too much dribbling but connecting better passes to progress the ball forward. And even though today we had more possession than them we were not progressing the best possible way. At the beginning of the second half, we were having a little spell of better actions, a couple final third movements, a couple chances in the middle of the second half when Machop Chol entered the game. But then at the end a couple of individual mistakes on the third and fourth goal so a 4-0 that is very painful for us.”

On Thiago Almada not being as impactful as he was earlier in the season

“I will address individually the mistakes that we made tonight but not publicly. I don’t think it’s about one player struggling or having a bad form, I think actually that going to the other part of the world in a very tight return here is something that I admire from the three of them: Abram, Thiago and Giakoumakis. But overall, Thiago has been very good but any issues I might have with some individuals I will address individually.”

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan

Pineda commented that Red Bulls didn’t do anything the team didn’t expect and the result coming down to not being good with the ball. Do you agree with that?

“Yeah. I’ve always said goals change games and you switch off, ball’s in the back of the net. Second one before the half, you know, you never want to concede right before the end of the first half and then the third and fourth obviously, deflections and what not but at that point we’re chasing the game and trying to get back into it.”

On the best way to bounce back from this against Philadelphia on Sunday

“We’ve got to move on. It’s not easy. You’ve got to be strong mentally and we’ve got to have a good week and move on to the Philadelphia game.”

On the team switching off and what is not clicking in those moments

“I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s too easy for a guy to run off our shoulder and get into the corner of the six, unopposed. When we’re defending we need to be stronger, tighter, more resilient. It’s too easy for teams in terms of the opportunities that they get and the chances that we end up giving away. We’re going to get punished every day when we give away the chances that we give away. We need to stick together and roll our sleeves up and have a good week and get ready for the Philadelphia game.”