MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

One of the world’s greatest atmospheres set the stage for a massive clash in MLS. Second and third-placed DC United and Atlanta United took to battle in the race for the Eastern Conference.

In this tactical analysis, we will take an in-depth look at the team’s tactics. Where DC United are going wrong and Frank de Boer’s solution to crack open MLS’ second-best defence.


MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Atlanta United vs. DC United (Via Wyscout)

Atlanta United lined up in a 3-5-2 at the start of the game with right back Franco Escobar operating as an auxiliary centre back. Eventually shifting to right-back and the team to a very apparent 4-3-3. 2018 South American player of the year Gonzalo Martinez would be left on the bench for the second game in a row.

Ben Olsen’s D.C. United would be without star player Wayne Rooney. Luciano Acosta would start as a false nine in a 3-4-3. He’s often operated as a second striker this season behind Wayne Rooney. Acosta has scored five times against the five stripes of Atlanta United more than any other player in MLS.

D.C.’s front three

Despite missing their star man D.C.’s signature principles were on full display: a very simple but effective game plan on paper. Olsen’s men would defend in a deep block forcing Atlanta to play out wide and attempt to cross into their physically superior defenders. Through this analysis, we will see the specific tactics used to execute this plan.

The front three played the biggest role during this game for the capital club. Playing massive parts on and off the ball.

In defensive shape, they were the first line of pressure. During Atlanta’s buildup phase they would look to prevent entry into D.C.’s half. Not doing this by disrupting their buildup through intense pressing but by intelligently cutting off passing lanes. Atlanta was limited to only 84 completed passes in D.C’s half in the first half, compared to the 292 total passes they made.

Continuing in the visitor’s half the front three would play a massive part in this area of the pitch as well. A signature deep block was deployed with the front three preventing any progress through vertical passing sequences. Atlanta’s players were unable to find space between the three lines of DC United’s compact shape and couldn’t create numerical advantages.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
DC United front three first line of pressure.
MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Front three defending in own half.

Below is left winger Lucas Rodriguez’s heat map from the game that can highlight his emphasis in his half. The Argentine youngster won 100% of his tackles this match.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Lucas Rodriguez heat map vs Atlanta United (H).

Going forward the front three would have little support from the rest of the team. Meaning they would have to rely on individual brilliance to create chances for themselves.

Attacking in transition would provide the best opportunity for the front three. As Atlanta’s centre backs would often be caught in the opposition half during possession spells. This would leave a lot of space for D.C’s forwards to expose. United States international Paul Arriola would squander two big chances from attacking in transition.

Atlanta’s problems 

Ben Olsen’s tactics were certainly effective but Atlanta would not help themselves when trying to play through the defensive shape of DC United. Atlanta’s tempo and off the ball movement were to slow to disorient the opposition’s defensive shape. So they would look to stretch the defensive block through wide play.

Below is midfielder Emerson Hyndman’s passes to left-back Justin Meram. Hyndman made 21 passes to Meram. From this passing graphic, you can see the significant focus on getting the ball into wide areas to play around D.C.’s low block.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Emerson Hyndman passes to Justin Meram. (Via @StatsZone)

Atlanta’s biggest problem throughout the game would be their service to their forwards from wide areas. Service was either inaccurate or forward Josef Martinez would be unable to win his aerial duels against United’s athletically superior defenders. Atlanta would only make eight of their 27 crosses successfully.

Youngster Brandon Vasquez had scored two goals in seven games coming into the game. However, he struggled positionally this game. Failing to showcase predatory instincts in the box and more importantly working with Josef Martinez. Vasquez would only make a shocking two passes to Martinez. Also struggling to make movements around Martinez to open up space for play.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Vasquez fails to recognize the goal-scoring opportunity from Martinez’s shot.

D.C. struggles to settle

A criticism of D.C. United’s play this season has been their lack of possession. Their pragmatic approach often invites pressure but it has provided eight clean sheets this season.

Olsen’s United would only have 29% of possession on the day. Interestingly however Atlanta failed more passes than their Eastern Conference rivals. D.C. made 67% passing accuracy in the short periods they had possession. So where did things go wrong on the ball?

D.C. during possession spells would look to progress the ball forward as a team. As the ball moves forward so do the team. Looking to make quick combinations through triangle patterns to play through Atlanta’s aggressive counter-press.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
DC using triangle pattern to create solutions against Atlanta’s counter-press in the middle third.
MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
DC win the ball back and look to combine through triangle patterns to progress ball through Atlanta counter-press.

Atlanta made 97 passes in their defensive third. In comparison, D.C. made 37 in their defensive third. Through analysis, we can see how D.C. looked to force play forward. This attempt to move the ball forward to quickly lead to turnovers.

After losing the ball there would be no responses as D.C. had no effective counter-pressing method to win the ball back immediately after losing it. Leading to more and more time off the ball. Only two of the top five players in ball recoveries came from D.C. United.

Unlikely hero

In the 65th minute, Frank de Boer would make the change to break the deadlock. Gonzalo Martinez would come on to replace Vasquez. The former South American player of the year has been subjected to heavy criticism this season.

Martinez on this day would offer the key to break open D.C.’s defensive block. Late runs from deep can disorient marking inside the box. Atlanta lacked penetrating late runs into Atlanta‘s box and Martinez would provide exactly that. Martinez would recognize where space was going to be and make a late run to find himself in space and connect onto the end of Nagbe’s cross.

MLS 2019: Atlanta United vs D.C. United – tactical analysis tactics
Martinez recognizes the space and makes a late run into the box.

Contrary to Vasquez he was finding space in between the lines. He attempted two entry passes into the final third. He created two big chances, one directly leading to an assist for Josef Martinez.


Atlanta United and Frank de Boer continue to work their way back after a rough start to the season. Tactics under de Boer has been described as “boring” however keeping control of the ball for the majority of games has seen them keep the most clean sheets in the MLS this season.

On the other hand, DC’s pragmatic principles should see them as a staple for the playoffs moving forward. However, as showcased during this analysis against the top calibre opposition, their lack-lustre play in possession has continued to develop into a bigger problem.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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