After achieving the maximum of success in their 2018 campaign, being crowned as MLS champions, Atlanta United went for another great run into the post-season in 2019 but lost in in the semi-finals against Toronto FC.
Since their inaugural season in 2017, the Five Stripes have won three titles – besides the 2018 MLS title, a Campeones Cup against Club América and the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup, both in 2019.
Since the beginning of the project, Atlanta have aimed for great coaches, as confirmed when Tata Martino, former Barcelona manager, was hired. After their league title win, former Netherlands legend Frank de Boer took over with his Ajax-based philosophy. In this tactical analysis, we will explain how de Boer commanded Atlanta and how he adapted his tactics to the team.
Frank de Boer’s history
As a former Ajax player, de Boer started his coach career in the club’s youth team. After the 2010 World Cup, when he was an assistant for Bert van Marwijk, de Boer took place as the head coach for Ajax’s first team. In his time there, he led them to four league titles from 2010 to 2016, when he left for Internazionale. Clearly coming from the Ajax school of thought, de Boer could also be linked to another great dutch manager, Louis van Gaal. Comparisons may occur primarily on the tactical disposition of the team in its formations, as van Gaal liked to interchange from the 3-4-3 to the 5-3-2, mainly in the 2014 WC. Although both tended to create good offence with quick transitions, de Boer likes to have the ball more.
His total football roots are still present today, since, more than just playing at Ajax, de Boer was coached by Johan Cruyff himself at Barcelona. This possession-based style is shown, for example, in his short period at Crystal Palace – in his five games in charge, 81% of Palace’s passes were short ones. From the 4-3-3 to the three-man defence, de Boer posts his lines narrow and makes his players attack open spaces on the flanks. His tactical ideas now are more flexible than at his times of Ajax, though.
Numbers show superiority
Analysis of Atlanta’s data is encouraging. Behind just New York City FC, they were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, as well as having the best home record of the conference. League-wise, Atlanta was tied at the third place for goals (58) and the third-best goal difference (15), behind the most prolific attacking teams in the MLS, Los Angeles FC and NYCFC. Something that possibly slowed them down was the fact that their away record was not the best one – 10 losses in 17 games (six wins, one draw).
As for their general stats, Atlanta are better at nearly everything, at least on average. They shot more than the opposition, passed the ball more and with higher accuracy and held a high ball possession average at almost 56%. Their defensive stats were also better, from sole numbers or accuracy. Atlanta recovered the ball more and although got a slight disadvantage on the challenges per game number, they were more accurate on a 49%. The same thing can be said about their defensive duels: even with 10 less per game, de Boer’s side was good at more than 60% of them.
Also, data can show how teams play. The former centre-back orchestrates his team to create with positional play, short passes and space-attacking. That can be seen on their positional attacks stats: six more per game than the opposition. And while Atlanta relied less on counter-attacking, they generally did it on a higher ratio than their opponents. Another thing that was showed by data analysis is how they attack, as de Boer’s space-attacking philosophy generally erupts into wide opportunities. It is seen in their crosses stats: four more per game than the opposition.
Atlanta started their build-up phase generally with spaced players. de Boer adapted his tactics in the MLS more than he did in other clubs. His most-used formations were the 4-2-3-1 and the 3-4-2-1. It shows flexibility both in his philosophy and Atlanta’s roster. This way the head coach could adapt depending on the opposition to get better matchup results.
When building up, Atlanta spaced the field to get passing angles as well as avoiding pressure. Their full-backs went up, creating a second line of four players in midfield. With this space, their centre-backs advanced with the ball or, when in pressing situations, could get more forward options to break it.
After spacing the field and surpassing a possible press, they had four players close to the opposing first line of defence. It forced the opposition to stay defending at lower positions and it gave Atlanta room to progress. This way, the Five Stripes had cutting options with three players behind the defence. This kind of play created their goal against Toronto, in their last match in the playoffs: a trough ball to Pity Martínez that resulted in an assist to Julian Gressel.
When attacking, they liked to create from wide areas with quick passes. The full-back overlapped and helped the winger, who dropped down the field, to triangulate. There were short options, like a midfielder operating between the lines, or long options with through balls. Generally, de Boer took advantage of Josef Martínez’s speed and movement to attack spaces.
Differently from the ball-possession mentality of Ajax, de Boer used the possession combined with spacing to create. It generated gaps on the defensive lines, where his players have become masters of using. Along with that, Josef Martínez did a great job being a threat at every moment. It made opposing defenders watch him carefully at every play, making his teammates’ lives easier.
Atlanta also held a very dense attacking phase. When trading lots of passes, they overloaded the opposing defensive field. de Boer used it to create new lines to play between the opposition and break their structure. Generally, they formed a 2-2-4-2 scheme and that way they could always have options at wide areas as well as penetrating players on the box. It was also common to see them in a 2-4-1-3 shape, mainly in the early creative phase.
Also, the Dutchman showed flashes of his total football roots in his work at Atlanta. Mainly when building-up, when things tend to be more “organised” and patterned. Players adopted different positioning to create angles, passing options or space for another teammate to progress forward. With this, it was not rare to see the centre-backs going up, centre-midfielders up and down the field and more advanced midfielders or wingers going back to help building-up.
As a ball-possession enthusiast himself, de Boer liked to regain possession quickly. It could be seen in his throw-in pressure when players blocked all possible passing lanes. It forced the opposition to go back and start building-up all over again or take a risky chance trying to go forward.
Atlanta started to press the opposing ball-carrier right after the change of possession. Players rapidly closed out to block opposition’s angles while one player chased the ball. In general, they were pressing high and forcing the opposition to wide areas, where they were more susceptible to giving it away. It was also not a voluminous press. This way they would not be unprotected if the opponents broke their press, but could intelligently force them to commit a mistake.
When they lost the ball next to the midfield, they quickly compacted their lines. This way they tried to close the player’s passing options. Also, the opposition would not have time to arrange a wide attack and Atlanta could steal the ball.
And when in full defensive phase, de Boer’s team held opposing transition offence with their compacted shape. Along with that, they attached man-marking to the reference player of opposition’s attack. To prevent them from progressing and creating vertically, one of the centre-backs followed the centre-forward to tackle him if he got the ball or deny him as a good passing option.
When first appointed as head coach of the Atlanta United, de Boer was not familiar with the league or the players and it resulted in a slow start. Now the Dutchman is ready for the challenge, but lots of roster changes may slow his progress initially again. Besides that, the Five Stripes’ preseason was a good one. Pity Martínez, had questionable performances late last season, culminating in his removal from the starting XI. Ezequiel Barco, their young star, missed a lot of time with injury and playing for Argentina U-20, but his performances were in question last season. Yet combined with Josef Martínez, Atlanta potentially has one of the best trios in the MLS.
But on the other hand, lots of important players are now gone. Darlington Nagbe, Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel, Justin Meram and Florentin Pogba, all of whom logged more than 1,000 first-team minutes last year, are not on the roster anymore. It gives space for young and promising players to step up and make a good amount of starts this season. Alongside with Barco, that should get a more important role, new signings Matheus Rossetto and Brooks Lennon could be essential for their rotation. With time, Atlanta has everything it takes to repeat their 2018 success.