There aren’t many who thought Atlanta United’s second pick in the 2017 MLS Super Draft would start and play a major role in the first three games of their inaugural season. His involvement was initially assumed to be of a role player coming off the bench or a spot starter in the event of injury. Tata Martino and Julian Gressel didn’t seem satisfied with the label. If you need proof Martino has been more than impressed with Gressel’s skill set and play since preseason, go re-read a piece from last week explaining how 'Gresselmania' changed the head coach’s tactics heading into the season.
Gressel is dynamic, smart and a workhorse. Following the SuperDraft, the front office described him as the most pro-ready player in the pool. In order to beat out experienced veterans in Chris McCann and Jeff Larentowicz, he had to be just that, and maybe a little extra. In the first three games of the season, Gressel has gone from relatively unknown soccer prospect to an appreciated staple of Atlanta United’s midfield and overall attack. While his notoriety isn’t matched by overwhelming statistical evidence, his influence and impact on a game has propelled the German up the MLS Rookie of the Year list.
Three matches is an extremely small sample size, but if you can find the patterns in these three games, the threat Gressel presents becomes evident. It’s important to note McCann and Larentowicz are more than capable of being a threat and helping add to the attack. Simply put, Gressel has shown it over the first three games, and why try to fix something that isn’t broken? Let’s look at four specific plays Gressel made in two different games. The first is the second goal against Minnesota United:
Gressel is always looking to play the ball forward and quickly when he’s afforded the opportunity. He doesn’t seem hesitant to make those passes or runs. The clip shows Gressel receiving the ball and making a long pass through a bevy of defenders, meeting Almiron at the edge of his run. While simple enough on paper, it demonstrates his ability and intelligence to both recognize the opportunity and make that pass, which isn’t as easy in snow. If that pass is intercepted or doesn’t reach Almiron, it’s still a great idea, but it becomes a missed opportunity off the feet of Gressel rather than a goal started by Gressel. Rookies can sometimes fall into a "don't mess up" mentality. That’s not the case with Gressel. He’s daring, talented and has great vision.
Atlanta United’s 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire showed Gresselmania to be the real deal. He proved it in about the first 10 minutes.
A turnover in the midfield quickly leads to an attacking opportunity for Tito Villalba. Without the smart and immediate run Gressel provides Villalba on his right side, the own goal obviously never happens, and I doubt Villalba is able to get a shot off with so many defenders right on top of him. Gressel promptly starts his overlapping run before Villalba has even gathered the ball. Villalba pulls the defenders centrally, dumping the ball off to Gressel who ultimately creates the own goal. His attack-focus mentality and dynamic ability to be in the right spaces are exactly why Martino loves him some Gresselmania.
Then there’s the red card Gressel helped draw:
All Gresselmania. His defensive work on this play starts before the initial throw-in. He applies pressure on the pass to Juninho and then immediately steals the ball on the ensuing throw to Juninho. He comes from a position behind one of his own teammates, makes the steal and then makes a diagonal run in order to open up even more space for the through-ball pass to Josef Martinez. Martinez, who is already in perfect position over his defender, draws the red card. It won’t show up in the stats, but Gressel’s work-rate and soccer IQ on this play was the defining moment in this match. Gressel forced the Fire to change the entire game plan practically by himself. Not bad for a rookie.
In the 32nd minute against the Chicago Fire, Gressel had a much more defensive center-midfield moment in which he distributes and hangs back. After looking to play forward to no avail, Almiron plays back to Gressel who one-times a cross that meets Asad at the back-post. The effort isn’t met with celebration but it demonstrates the vision of the German rookie. He’s consistently creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates. He can play that more defensive-minded role while still being involved in the attack.
Gressel truly sets himself apart with his ability to become a fifth attacking option behind Josef Martinez, Almiron, Asad and Villalba. The rookie understands spacing and knows when to make runs.
In the 25th minute, Villalba finds Gressel at the end of a run into the box. Gressel does a great job of cutting in front and forcing a sliding tackle from his defender for a corner. The value of this mentality in addition to ability to make the run is what ultimately puts him ahead of McCann and Larentowicz. Gressel was asked to play forward at Providence and clearly, some of the skills learned in that time stuck with him.
In a system with fast and skilled attacking players, Gressel has the freedom to essentially be wherever the team needs him on the field. Open space in the midfield behind the ball? No problem. An overlapping run? No problem. A second run behind Josef Martinez? He can do that, too. That is the definition of a truly dynamic player and begins to illustrate why we’ve seen the rookie start consistently over McCann and Larentowicz. It’s the added value of Gressel’s mentality to get the ball forward and become involved in the attack that has made him such a cog early on.