The sleeping giant known as Atlanta United may have finally woken up.
The team, as well as coach Frank de Boer, are starting to understand each other a little better on the pitch.
This was the third win in four games for United. It’s quite a turnaround for the Five Stripes. The MLS season started poorly, and the CONCACAF Champions League was rough. Where has the improvement come from lately?
FdB making slight tactical adjustments that are working
On one hand, Frank de Boer has not changed much from the start of the season. He’s still playing a possession-heavy game, but the team is opening up and attacking more.
His formation varied from a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3 during the game against Sporting KC Sunday night. There were times during the match that Atlanta had as many as 8 players on the attacking side of the pitch. Atlanta was able to play the possession-based style that de Boer wants, holding the ball for 55% of the time while maintaining a 87% passing accuracy, but playing an uptempo style that was reminiscent of last season.
A look at their heat map from WhoScored against KC (ATL is on the right with 771 touches) shows they dominated play in the middle of the pitch–and higher up the pitch as well.
Compare that to some of their poorest showings–like against Philadelphia below where they’re on the left (and where they had nearly double the touches–but many in their defensive third).
Or look at the draw against FC Cincinnati (same, same)–and you’ll see how Atlanta is pressing more and playing higher today versus last month. The trend really started not against New England Revolution, but in a loss against FC Dallas where they were the better, but unluckier, squad.
Line-up changes working as well and the rise of Barco
The placement of Michael Parkhurst at left-back was questionable as it was the first time he started in that position in 7 years. Parkhurst age showed at times but in the end, de Boer made the correct choice in starting Parkhurst. His ability to cross the ball, defensive presence and the ability to see the field was a great advantage to the team.
The transition game of Atlanta United looked quick and unstoppable against Sporting KC. Ezequiel Barco is showing that he can be the replacement at the #10 position for Miguel Almiron. He was able to link with Josef Martinez and create more chances on the night. He scored from outside the 18-yard box on a rocket shot and had an assist on the second goal for Martinez.
This connection is what Atlanta fans have been hoping to see all season. While on the topic of Josef Martinez, last years MLS Golden Boot winner seems to have found his confidence and is putting the ball in the back of the net. Josef Martinez showed Sunday night he is ready to get back to putting the ball in the back of the net. His awareness of where the ball was inside the 18-yard box was uncanny. He put his body on the line every chance he was able to get a touch on the ball. Part of the reason ATL has had a better non-shot xG tally in every single game except for the opener is due to Martinez’s adept in the box movement.
The midfield continued to be controlled by Darlington Nagbe. His precision passing and ability to win balls back in the attacking half are proving to be valuable. The return of Eric Remedi was welcomed after a two-game absence.
Defensively the team looked like a wall. Brad Guzan was tested very little as the back four held Sporting KC to only 3 shots on target the majority coming in the first few minutes of the game. Miles Robinson is proving to be a defensive stronghold and the use of him and Leonardo Gonzalez Perez game after game for de Boer is paying off. The combination is proving to be one of the strongest in MLS, and has helped guide the team to three clean sheets in the last four games.
Still some areas of improvement
Atlanta has been taking a number of shots outside the 18 yard box. These tend to be lower quality shots, and that is part of the reason they’ve posted losses like against FC Dallas, where ATL was clearly the better team.
Finding passing lanes and crosses to take advantage of Martinez’s inside the box movement would also help create higher quality big opportunities.
Regardless, if Atlanta can stay healthy and find a consistent left-back, the team is in position to turn around their dismal start and be the playoff team everyone expected at the beginning of the year.
In a game that was a must-win for Atlanta United, a key early decision may have been the turning point Frank de Boer and the Five Stripes needed.
In the 15th minute away at New England Revolution, Eric Remedi suffered a head injury. De Boer opted to sub in Ezequiel Barco. The tone of the game–and possibly the season–immediately shifted from there.
Barco quickly impacted the game, scoring in the 29th minute with a goal assisted by Tito Villalba. Barco netted a brace with what should be an MLS Goal of the Week nominee in the 49th minute with a right-footed bomb to the upper 90 from outside the 18-yard box (2:05 in the below video).
Miles Robinson continued to perform like a seasoned veteran. Franco Escobar and Pity Martinez also took the pitch as subs late in the game. Both players are returning from injury and have seen limited time this season.
FdB ends a long win-less streak
In the victory, Frank de Boer ended his 900-day winless streak. He did so, in part, by doing something that hasn’t been a trademark of his coaching philosophy the past few years: adapting.
De Boer moved away from his 3-4-3 formation and went back to the 4-3-3 formation that sometimes floated into a 4-2-3-1 formation. The team seemed to be more comfortable and play more organized. Atlanta had a clear identity and the players knew what their roles were and played them well.
The real question worth asking: is Frank de Boer starting to feel the pressure to win and maybe straying away from the European style that he is accustomed to and playing more of a South American style that this team is known for playing? Saturday night the answer was yes.
The 5 Stripes played to the caliber the supporters have been waiting to see all season. They looked like the MLS Championship side that are a threat to take 3 points every game.
If de Boer is feeling the pressure from ghosts of clubs past (Inter and Palace), his response on Saturday night is definitely encouraging. ATLUTD supporters will see if this performance was an aberration or a sign of things to come next week as they take on Dallas FC at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.