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Three thoughts from Atlanta United’s impressive 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union

The best win of the year?

SOCCER: JUL 02 MLS - Atlanta United FC vs Philadelphia Union Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The best performance of the season

Atlanta United’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union Sunday was hugely important for a number of reasons: the team was coming off of a dour 4-0 defeat, it’s about to play twice more in consecutive games on the road, and pride was at stake with some of the comments Jim Curtin had made months earlier about the club.

But it wasn’t just plenty of stakes on the game, there’s that pesky problem of dealing with a team as fine-tuned and talented as Philadelphia. Because of the team’s unusual 4-4-2 diamond shape and the problems that presents (we’ll get into that next), it required a specific set of tactical game-planning for which equal praise should be heaped on Gonzalo Pineda and his technical staff for thinking up and the players for implementing on the field. The result is even more impressive if you consider that Giorgos Giakoumakis was only available for the first half hour before departing with a hamstring strain.

The team has had bigger wins and scored more goals this season, whether that’s a 3-0 road win over Charlotte or a 5-1 no-doubter at home against Portland. But Philadelphia is among the toughest outs this league has to offer, and hopefully the win is a confidence builder for everyone that they can carry with them into the coming games.

How Pineda nailed the tactics

The reason why Philadelphia gives teams so many problems is because of how Jim Curtin crowds out midfield with four players. That’s how the success starts (though very few teams in the world play this way regularly for reasons related to both personnel and the fact that it is quite a nuanced system, despite me dumbing it down to “four guys in the middle”). So in Atlanta’s typical setup shown below, you can start to see the problems.

The team is outnumbered 4-3 in midfield AND the team is 1v1 on the back line. Now, if you have some great midfielders and Miles Robinson on the back line. You can be good enough without the ball that you’ll take the tradeoff where you can overload the flanks and cause your own problems in the attack. But without a great midfield and with Miles Robinson at the Gold Cup (where he was back in the starting lineup last night), Pineda and his staff came up with the correct adjustment to the team shape to allow them to better compete and be solidly organized.

Pineda noted, the staff and at least some of the players are familiar with this tactical concept, having played in a back 3 under Pineda in 2021 after he took the reins from Gabriel Heinze. Here, the team matches the midfield 4 with Almada and Chol helping to close down the flanking Philadelphia CMs, and you solidify at the back with the extra CB against Philly’s two strikers.

Keep in mind — almost all of these tactical changes are made to make the team better defensively. Once the team is in possession, they play with the same fluid, attacking intent they always try to do, This setup helped bait Philadelphia to throw more bodies forward and Atlanta able to effectively counter attack with Almada finding the “outlet” passes and then playing players like Chol, GG/Berry, and Wiley/Lennon through on goal.

Again, it was a well-conceived setup that was just as effectively executed by the players.

Give Brooks Lennon his due

The haters won’t like this, but Brooks Lennon must be given some respect. He is having the best year of his career to date, having tallied 9 goal contributions (2 goals, 7 assists) through 20 games. And that would be 20 games in which he has played from start to finish each time — that’s right, he’s never been subbed off this season despite playing one of the most physically taxing positions. Sunday, he was a menace racing up and down the flank wand was duly rewarded with a goal.

There’s a weird wedge in the relationship between many fans and Lennon that is no fault of the player, but that of Carlos Bocanegra who decided after 2019 to trade the team’s then RW/RWB/RB Julian Gressel, who has only gone on to continue to be one of the best at his position in the league. That’s a shame, but it’s not Lennon’s fault, and he deserves credit for turning himself into a better player during his time in Atlanta (and he’s still young at just 25... four years younger than Gressel, for scale).

Gonzalo Pineda talked about his development after the game, saying that Lennon spends extra time with members of Pineda’s coaching staff studying opposing wingers and working on how he can be more reliable defensively. Lennon himself told me that it’s all in service of a larger goal:

“My main goal is to be with the [United States men’s] National Team, and I am not there. So what do I have to do to get there? Improve in all areas of my game so that they give me an opportunity and a chance. I am working every single day, both on and off the field, trying to improve myself by watching film and going over my weaknesses to try to improve those so that I can be in that squad.

“I haven’t heard anything from them as of right now. Obviously, very disappointed to not make the Gold Cup roster, but what can I do? I have to focus on myself now and do as well as I can at Atlanta United, keep my head down, keep working hard every single day to improve, and try to be the best all-around player that I can be so that Gregg [Berhalter] and his staff give me an opportunity.”