The 2018 Major League Soccer season featured one of the best-attacking teams in league history. Scoring an absurd 70 league goals, Atlanta United tore through defences with a fast, hard-hitting attack. They tallied the second-most points ever in an MLS season (69), and ended up winning the 2018 MLS Cup in just the team’s second season in existence. Atlanta also broke records with the highest single-match attendance in an MLS match and averaged the highest attendance in an MLS season.
If there was a team that broke the ceiling of what was considered a ‘stereotypical MLS team’, it was Atlanta United.
Going into the club’s third season, there have been quite a few changes between lifting silverware back in December and now. Former manager Tata Martino left to become the manager of Mexico and was replaced by the equally-famed Frank de Boer. Talisman playmaker Miguel Almirón transferred to the northeast coast of England. How will these changes, along with other internal and external factors, affect Atlanta’s chances of defending the league title?
Potential lineup and style of play
Former Dutch national team defender Frank de Boer has had mixed results as a manager. After success coaching his former club Ajax, de Boer struggled to succeed at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace in short stints before being sacked. Nevertheless, he comes to MLS in high regard and is expected to continue Atlanta’s run as one of the best teams in the league.
It is well known that de Boer will start out deploying his team in a back-five formation. de Boer is transitioning Atlanta from the quick attacking method Martino utilised to a slower, more possession-based system. The backline personnel are mostly the same from last season with the exceptions of Robinson potentially starting and left-back Greg Garza leaving for FC Cincinnati.
The midfield is probably the biggest question mark heading into the new season. The outgoing transfer of Miguel Almirón is a big hole to fill, and rumours of Darlington Nagbe’s possible departure have been heard. In the front three, Ezequiel Barco and newcomer Pity Martínez, the two most expensive incoming transfers in MLS history, will flank Josef Martínez, the striker who scored the most goals in a single MLS season. Barco and Pity are capable of swapping sides of the pitch. Their cutback ability and inside forward play if switched would aid the midfield’s progression, especially now with only two midfielders in play.
Another key part of Atlanta’s roster is the depth at nearly every position. Julian Gressel, who rather surprisingly led the team in assists last season with 13, and new left-wing-back Brek Shea both have cover in Franco Escobar and the 17-year-old George Bello. Florentin Pogba, Paul’s older brother, was brought in to provide depth for the centre-backs. Jeff Larentowicz, Andrew Carleton, and Héctor Villalba can play multiple positions.
Even a number of other youth players – Chris Goslin, Lagos Kunga, Brandon Vazquez – could see ample playing time with de Boer stating he will rotate the squad thoroughly this season. This depth will be invaluable when other competitions come up in Atlanta’s schedule, including if they get past the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16.
Atlanta United’s modus operandi has been quick, attacking football. The club had a monstrous 65.8 xG in 2018, 4.9 more than the second-best team in that stat (New York Red Bulls), and the most by far since American Football Analysis began tracking the statistic in 2011.
Striker Josef Martínez broke the Major League Soccer record for the most goals in a single season with 31. Perhaps the most intriguing part of his goal-scoring accolades was that the Venezuelan’s xG – 29.23 on the season – nearly levelled with his actual goals. This means the goal pace he was scoring at wasn’t a fluke or a freak occurrence. That’s a scary thought for MLS defences everywhere.
In addition to the goals record, there are other records the 25-year-old shattered, perhaps most impressively the league hat trick record. In only his 42nd match in MLS, Martínez scored his record sixth hat trick. The two players who previously held the record – Stern John and Diego Serna – took 55 and 124 matches respectively to reach five hat tricks. There is little doubt Martínez is already one of the greatest attackers in MLS history.
Martínez and Atlanta have formed this remarkable assault through support from fast, technical wingers and midfielders. Often receiving the ball in the opponent’s final third, Martínez has very good offsides awareness, and this paired with his excellent ball control makes him difficult to defend on quick attacking transitions. Below is a classic example of an Atlanta attack from last season.
Even with Almirón’s transfer away from the club, there are reasons to believe the attack could be almost as good as it was in 2018. There are multiple reports of Argentine phenom Ezequiel Barco’s massive growth in preseason camp. The 19-year-old fashioned four goals and three assists last season and could become the top distributor for the club, alongside another fellow Albiceleste.
After the departure of Almirón, Atlanta needed to find a new creator in attack. Using the 2018 MLS Cup title and Almirón’s European move itself as influence, Atlanta found such a player in the Argentinian Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez.
Pity Martínez is at his best when on the ball. He keeps the ball close to his feet on the dribble and has a sound passing ability. Playing primarily on the left wing but also able to play centrally or on the right, Pity welcomes pressure from the opponent and uses it to create space for his teammates or for himself.
The electric attacker creates 1v1s to exploit through this skill. Pity is also an adept goal-scorer, and takes both free kicks and penalties.
The Huracán youth product scored a notable 29 goals and assisted 26 in four seasons at River Plate, involved in goals in the Argentine Superliga, the Copa Libertadores, Recopa Sudamericana (CONMEBOL’s Super Cup), and the FIFA Club World Cup. The 25-year-old has won the Recopa Sudamericana and the prestigious Copa Libertadores twice each, including scoring the match-winning goal in the 2018 Final. He was later awarded the Rey del Fútbol de América; the best player in South America.
Pity will indeed be replacing the creative role of Almirón at Atlanta, but he will be doing so in a different position than the Paraguayan sensation. He will look to take advantage of opponents likely down the left half-space, connecting with Josef Martínez and Barco often. As the most expensive transfer arrival in MLS history, Pity Martínez will play a massive part in Atlanta’s 2019 season.
Concerns in defence and progression
De Boer’s possession-based style brings up two concerns. If we do see a downturn in Atlanta’s success in 2019, it will prospectively be a result of a defensive or ball-progression issue. On a team with such heavy possession, the back line often gets comfortable sitting further up the pitch. This forward positioning of the back line leaves swathes of empty space behind them for counter-attacks. This was evident in Atlanta’s 3-1 loss in the CONCACAF Champions League Thursday night.
Due to this, de Boer may prefer the full-backs restrain from pushing forward, something they often did under Martino.
Another issue with de Boer’s switch in player positioning is in the deeper midfield. While Martino would often use a three-man midfield, de Boer seems to prefer only two men covering similar ground. This is dangerous for two reasons. Two men covering such amounts of space would again leave more space for opponents to manipulate. On the other side of the ball, this would likely make it more difficult to progress the ball forward to the front three, especially against a press, and especially if the full-backs were limited in their instruction to aid in the transitional build-up.
These massive leaks in the defence demand a pause to reflect on whether or not de Boer’s possession-based, back-five system is what’s best for this team. Atlanta only had a 39.0 xGA last season, but the change in organisation and structure could become a major concern.
From Tata to de Boer
The adjustments from Tata Martino to Frank de Boer will have mixed outcomes. Martino played a nearly-immeasurable part in Atlanta’s rise – he was the reason Almirón joined the team back at the end of 2016. The two managers have very different tactical styles and come from two very different backgrounds. The transitional period between both styles of play and styles of management will have to be quick if Atlanta want to maintain the high level of quality it has become known for.
Over the past two seasons, Atlanta United have led the growth of the MLS from a “retirement league” label to a developmental league, a stepping stone, and debatably, a destination. This doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. Josef Martínez has repeatedly stated he will stay in Atlanta as long as Atlanta wants him. The exhilarating atmosphere in Mercedes-Benz Stadium at the 2018 MLS Cup was arguably the most passionate crowd seen in MLS history.
Early signs point to this being a more complicated season than the first two for The Five Stripes, but if there’s a team that can overshadow its defensive errors with a lethal attack and win even more accolades, it would be none other than Atlanta United.
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