Tactical Preview: Atlanta United

Cann's Corner: Atlanta can score, Philly must bury chances

It is no secret that Atlanta United is a behemoth in attack. Tata Martino’s team overflows with technical, mobile, and energetic players up front, and they support that strength with the coach’s tactical nous guiding an array of of mercurial defensive talent.

But after opening the season with seven wins in their first nine matches, the Five Stripes have only collected four points in their last four. The Union will look to extend Atlanta’s rough patch by controlling the ball as much as possible, setting up well for transition defense, and igniting their speedsters’ boosters up the wings when the home side sends their wingbacks forward.  

Transition trouble

Perhaps the greatest superpower Atlanta possesses is their ability to turn ordinary turnovers into sudden, immediate, and dire threats. The addition of Darlington Nagbe in the offseason gives Martino one of the best shuttlers in Major League Soccer, and Nagbe has learned to interact well with Julian Gressel up the right. Although Nagbe struggles to produce in the final third, his work in buildup play is often exceptional, drawing in multiple players then releasing Gressel to curl in delicious crosses for Josef Martinez to eat off a platter.

And even when they do not play through Nagbe, Atlanta has the ability to counter with breathtaking speed by playing through Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan attacker has added a more diverse array of movements to his game, utilizing his speed with the ball to run across formations horizontally and pull defenses into uncomfortable shapes.

His superb left foot can hit both inside and outside curling throughballs with ease, and Martinez makes very early, deep runs to prevent centerbacks from closing down the team’s key creator in midfield.

Finally, there is the most expensive transfer in MLS, Ezequiel Barco. The midfielder/second striker plays on the left, and combines well with Almiron to overwhelm a defense and leave Martinez with space to attack.

In other words, Atlanta United is not just a great transition team, they are a number of great transition teams squished together into a single opponent. Philadelphia needs to limit their turnovers just inside their own attacking half. In those moments, they are creating space for their offense but exposed defensively against Atlanta’s speed. Haris Medunjanin and Ale Bedoya will need to have their heads on swivels to contain the home side’s breakouts.

Martinez at the tip

After shutting out Bradley Wright-Phillips, Philadelphia’s young defense now faces a quicker version of BWP, albeit one lacking the hold-up play contributions. Josef Martinez strikes an angry figure on the pitch, and he channels that emotion into his play, executing lightning quick movements that can split even experienced defensive pairings.

Additionally, Martinez is surprisingly elite in the air due to his leaping ability and nose for space between defenders. Instead of using height (of which he has little), he uses space to act as an aerial threat, often catching a defense napping.

Martinez’s emotional play means he’s always on edge, and it’s possible to get in his head by leaning on him early and often. With Mark McKenzie looking ready to play on Saturday, the Union have the athleticism to handle Martinez if they can limit his calculated movements by dialing up the anger. This means bumping, grinding, and (outside the box, please!) even a bit of grabbing.

Respond in kind

Atlanta’s vaunted attack carries risk: Quickly advancing wingbacks can leave a narrow central defensive trio exposed. This is where the Union’s top end speed on the wings can be dangerous. Some combination of Michael Parkhurst, Miles Robinson, and Chris McCann are likely to join Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in back, and Philadelphia will have opportunities to isolate them if they can quickly drop the ball into wide areas before the home side’s wingbacks recover. Teams that can do this then find success dinking crosses into the box against Atlanta’s undersized defense.

Speaking of that size, 6 of the 17 goals scored on Atlanta this season have come off of set pieces and throw-ins. Although Philly has yet to finish a set piece this year, they will have a big size advantage in Atlanta and will need to get on the end of the quality service Borek Dockal and Medunjanin can provide.

Dockal days of summer

The Union’s Czech playmaker has strengths that could be on put to good use against Atlanta. He’s been finding space against even the compact Red Bulls defense, and the Five Stripes will leave far larger gaps than their New York rivals for the top spot in the east. Dockal will likely play a mental game of chess with holding midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, looking to move into gaps that the big redhead leaves behind when he steps out of the center to cover the large swath of territory deemed his responsibility in Atlanta’s system.

Facing Atlanta is always a challenging proposition. The big spenders of MLS are loaded with so much attacking talent that Tito Villalba can be left out of the side without a second thought. Handling Martino’s team is an exercise in extended concentration as much as anything else, and it will be difficult for a Union side on the back end of three games in eight days.

Still, Philly has leaned heavily on their defense all season, and their young back line has already scaled heights many would have deemed unimaginable when the year began.

One thing is certain: When the Union get their chances, they will need to finish them. And that has been a sore spot thus far this year.

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