What Are They All About? Atlanta United
Vintage MLS. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire drew on the road against DC United. The 3-3 thriller had everything that a neutral onlooker could ask for. Both sides showed flashes of brilliance with Chicago looking like Barcelona at times in possession and DC countering with moves reminiscent of mid 2000s Real Madrid. However, both sides also had moments where they looked like a pub team or a local park district U-9 side. Overall, the draw was a fair result as DC stayed atop the East while Chicago dragged themselves into the playoff picture. Everyone involved in the encounter will look to move on from the bizarre midweek happenings as they prepare for another full slate on Saturday. Chicago will head to Atlanta to take on the reigning MLS Champions (5:00 CT on UniMas).
Atlanta had their own thrilling Wednesday clash as they thumped Minnesota 3-0 at home, a result which ended a two-match losing streak. After a shaky start under new head coach Frank de Boer, Atlanta have reverted to type as they are just three points from taking the top spot in the conference with the luxury of two matches in hand. They look much different than they did under Tata Martino—we’ll get to that—but they are a formidable force nonetheless and Chicago will need to tread carefully against their tactically sound hosts. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide: W-L-L-W-W
Previous Result: A 3-0 home victory over Minnesota United FC.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Guzan; Escobar, Robinson, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst; Nagbe, Remedi; Pity, Gressel, Pereira; Martinez
Strengths: Despite the departures of Miguel Almiron and Greg Garza, this Atlanta side has arguably improved on paper through the additions of South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez, flashy youngster Dion Pereira, versatile MLS veteran Brek Shea, and a settled Ezequiel Barco. Tactical astuteness has become the mode of operation for de Boer’s charges and they look a well-oiled machine. Let’s see where they might succeed on Saturday.
The Plan is Coming (Back) Together: Major success on and off the field has quickly become the norm for the City Among the Hills after an expansion year that set the gold standard for how MLS franchises want to adopt to the league. Young DPs that can be sold at a profit, sell-out crowds, returning American heroes, an overwhelming presence in their market, and, oh yeah, an MLS Cup in their sophomore campaign. Although the Five Stripes hit a bit of a road bump early on in the season, going winless in their first four and getting ousted from CONCACAF Champions League, the project is back on track.
Frank de Boer was always going to have a difficult time adjusting not only to a new league but also a very different micro-culture within that league. The South American heavy squad was extensively reliant on an explosive style that utilized Miguel Almiron’s counter-attack ability and chemistry with Josef Martinez as the catalyst for success. That type of unpredictability and freedom was never going to work this season, and not just because Almiron was transferred to Newcastle. Coming up through the Ajax academy, spending a majority of his playing career there and in Barcelona, and then coaching Ajax at the youth and senior levels for a decade mean that he has a certain tactical coding fused into his DNA. Two-way players, maximum effort in pressing when not in possession, controlling possession, high passing completion percentages, extensive levels of fitness, and a rigidity in formation are just the beginning of his expectations.
They certainly aren’t as pretty to watch as last season’s side, but with Pity Martinez and/or Ezquiel Barco functioning as classic Enganches (when both are in the squad Barco has been utilized more centrally while Pity drifts in and out from the flank) and a preferred midfield trio of Nagbe, Larentowicz, and Remedi functioning as a defensive spine in front of a back four, the Five Stripes are efficient in many of the aforementioned categories. Did we mention that Josef Martinez has eight goals and two assists on the season so far? Yeah, there’s that too…
Early calls for de Boer’s dismissal now look beyond silly as the Dutchmen has implemented his preferred style while also showing he is not afraid to grow and take advice by allowing his more creative players more, albeit controlled, freedom. If he is given continuous support this Atlanta side will thrive long into the future.
Calm, Cool, Consistent: For all of the tinkering that this Atlanta side has undergone, they have continued to put up remarkable numbers defensively. Although on the surface they have switched to a back four—consisting of Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and Michael Parkhurst—they function as a pseudo back three in transition with Parkhurst tucking inside and staying back while Escobar is given the freedom to push forward via overlapping runs. This stability, and the threat offered on the counter which leaves opponents weary to commit too many numbers forward, has seen Atlanta concede just eleven goals in fourteen matches.
At 0.78 xG,a league best, de Boer has improved upon an already impressive 2018 season that saw the side concede 1.29 xG, good enough for the third best rank in MLS for that campaign. When you add the fact that Guzan and his backline have conceded just four goals at home in seven encounters and that Chicago has among the lowest chance conversion rates in the East, those numbers look even more daunting for Chicago at the weekend.
Mercedes-like Efficiency: Atlanta currently find themselves on a streak of four consecutive home wins at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Moreover, they’ve lost just once on their own pitch all season—an early season dropped result against Dallas. A slight dip in attendance from last year’s record setting numbers is hardly noticeable as the Five Stripes have still averaged over 50,000 spectators per match in 2019. When you add the fact that the turf surface may force Veljko Paunovic to think twice about utilizing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nico Gaitan, the Fire seemingly have an insurmountable hurdle in front of them.
Weaknesses: For as good as this Atlanta side can be, they started out the season with just one win in their opening six matches. Additionally, outbursts of frustration, thrown water bottles, and handshake refusals from Pity, Josef Martinez, and Gonzalez-Pirez have highlighted the disconnect between de Boer’s coaching style and that of his predecessor. The transition has been anything but smooth and recent success does not hide that fact. Let’s see where they might struggle on Saturday.
But You’re Not Ajax: The easiest place to start this column is with the elephant in the room. Many of the MLS veterans in this Atlanta side do not have the skill level to play the way that de Boer demands from his players and the foreign imports have a very different soccer ethos encoded into their DNA. The two consecutive losses against New York Red Bull and RSL earlier this month perfectly exemplified this.
As de Boer and his men faced a high press typical of Red Bull sides around the world from the academy on up, the lack of passing sharpness and calm on the ball by Parkhurst, Larentowicz, and youngster Miles Robinson quickly became apparent. Misplaced passes, slow recoveries, and cheap giveaways typified the first half for the trio as de Boer was left fuming on the sideline. Although his side dominated the possession stats, they could not break into the Red Bull final third in a meaningful way. Hopeful longballs into Josef Martinez became the norm prior to Atlanta going up a man, and even then, forays into dangerous areas were few and far between.
Similarly, lost midfield duals against RSL meant that attacking chances were mitigated by Mike Petke’s charges as Atlanta were held to just three shots on target. An away tactical switch to four midfielders typified by their defensive prowess and box to box capabilities—Remedi, Larentowicz, Nagbe, and Gressel—saw Pity Martinez benched in that encounter, a move rightly questioned by onlookers. That decision showed that tactical rigidity and coach power continue to underly what this Atlanta side is about, a dangerous game to play with some of the characters in the team. The result was not just a loss but arguably a step backward in terms of the progress mentioned above.
Missing Maestro: It is no accident that Atlanta has lost two of their last four matches since Ezequiel Barco left for the U-20 World Cup. After a strange maiden voyage in MLS, Barco has come good on his astronomical transfer fee. Preferred to Pity in the number ten role, he has thrived in that central position after spells on the wing under Martino. While he has officially notched just one assist, he has tallied four of his own and created in less statistically tangible ways. He will be sorely missed on Saturday.
Prediction: This is another match in which the Fire’s Jekyll and Hyde performances, a lack of tactical identity, and poor road form costs them. Chicago 2-5 Atlanta. Aleksandar Katai and CJ Sapong for the visitors. Pity Martinez, Brek Shea, and a Josef Martinez hat trick for the hosts.