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Atlanta United, Julian Gressel thrive in 3-5-2, giving Frank de Boer a choice to make

Is this familiar formation the way forward for Atlanta?

Jul 17, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) celebrates after a goal with midfielder Eric Remedi (11) against the Houston Dynamo in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Atlanta United returned to the 3-5-2 formation, and Julian Gressel returned to the right wingback position Wednesday night. It is hard to argue with the results: Atlanta 5, Houston Dynamo 0.

The obvious and necessary disclaimer: Houston elected to rest Mauro Manotas and Romell Quioto, two-thirds of its vicious front line. Alberth Elis, the star attacker who did start, earned a sixth-minute sending off for bumping referee Chris Penso. Had Atlanta not dominated this game, it would have been cause for great alarm.

But Atlanta did dominate, and beyond that, the team looked confident from the opening kickoff. Playing in the formation that proved so successful under Gerardo “Tata” Martino in 2018, the passing was quicker and the off-ball runs were better and more frequent. Everyone seemed to have a better understanding of their job. This, despite fatigue, a slew of injuries and the fact that Atlanta hardly trained in the formation prior to the Dynamo game.

“I feel like everyone was comfortable,” Nagbe said after the win. “We went over it just briefly the day before the game, yesterday, and being down a defender kind of made us play three in the back, and we needed a response from the last game, so I think the response and playing that formation helped us.”

If the 3-5-2 worked wonders for the Five Stripes as a whole, its effect was even more pronounced on Gressel. The former Major League Soccer SuperDraft pick has played in central midfield more this year. He has struggled and never really looked sure of himself. Playing on the wing Wednesday night brought Gressel a return to top form, and he once again looked like one of MLS’ best players. Gressel, in his 100th appearance for Atlanta, finished the night with a goal and two assists. He had two goals and one assist over his previous 13 MLS games. Against the Dynamo, he created seven chances. No one else for the home side created more than two.

Julian Gressel's open-play passing chalkboard vs. the Houston Dynamo, with successful passes [green], unsuccessful passes [red], key passes [yellow] and assists [blue].

Julian Gressel’s open-play passing chalkboard vs. the Houston Dynamo, with successful passes [green], unsuccessful passes [red], key passes [yellow] and assists [blue].

“I think it’s no secret I like to play out on the right as a wingback,” Gressel said. “I’m not shying away from any work you have to do with that. Did a lot of running tonight. Ultimately, you saw today that it gets me in pretty good spots down that right side. I think one of my best qualities is to pick out the right pass. Today, a couple came off. A couple others ones were good, where we didn’t score. But, whatever the coach thinks is the best approach to go into games, that’s where I’ll stand 100 percent behind him.”

Manager Frank de Boer acknowledged Gressel is best utilized on the right flank.

“Yeah, I think that it was more suitable for him, because he likes to run, make crosses and he has a good connection in that moment,” de Boer told reporters. “Always his first control, and then he knows where Josef [Martínez] is, and that’s a good combination.

“I knew that, but sometimes you think, ‘OK, you have to choose between two choices,’ and sometimes, it’s more beneficial for the team to put him in the midfield, where I also think he did well. I think his preferred position is on the right side, that’s for sure.”

Pressed on whether Wednesday’s performance was convincing enough to give Gressel a permanent move to his natural position, de Boer would not fully commit.

“I’m looking for the best results and the best team,” the manager said. “If it’s Jules on the outside, then it’s Jules on the outside.” 

When de Boer says he has to make a choice that is best for his team, he is referring to fitting as many quality players in their best positions. Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez has played all across Atlanta’s attacking midfield, but he has found the most success as an inverted right winger, thus forcing Gressel into central midfield. The 3-5-2 is not de Boer’s favored formation, and when Franco Escobar returns from a yellow-card suspension against DC United Sunday, the manager can choose to revert to the 4-2-3-1 he has used for most of this season.

Atlanta’s altered formation was not perfect. While Josef Martínez nearly put the hosts on top in the 14th second, Houston found two good scoring chances before Elis saw red. Had the Dynamo converted either, it would have been a different game. De Boer prioritizes defensive stability, and the first six minutes must have made him uncomfortable? But was the opening stanza any worse than Atlanta’s defensive form in the past month?

Normally, there is nothing to glean from a lopsided victory against a 10-man side. But as de Boer noted in his postgame press conference, Atlanta struggled in the same scenario at the New York Red Bulls on May 19 and lost 1-0. Playing the 3-5-2 with Gressel on the right wing brought the Five Stripes to life.

De Boer has much to consider when choosing what is more beneficial for his team going forward, and the choice may come down to deciding between his or his players’ comfort zones.

Emerson Hyndman is ‘knocking on the door’

Emerson Hyndman made his second start for Atlanta — his first in league play — against Houston. Still working toward full match fitness, Hyndman played 64 minutes. He was active during his time on the field, getting involved in Atlanta’s first two goals and picking up his first MLS assist (a secondary assist) on Darlington Nagbe’s opener. 

Hyndman plays quick passes and is eager to run behind opposing back lines. He possesses the qualities de Boer covets in a midfielder. The manager acknowledged Hyndman is pushing to be part of the first-choice XI.

“I love when people are knocking on the door and want to be involved in the team, and he’s certainly knocking,” de Boer said. “That’s good for me. I have to make those choices. I took him out because he didn’t play that many games, of course, and you don’t want to rush him and get an unnecessary injury.

“But I’m pleased with his performance. I think still he can do better, but I think this is a good start for him. Hopefully he can contribute more, but that counts for everybody. I’m happy with his performance.”

Mo Adams debuts 10 hours after joining Atlanta

Maybe it was down to a lack of available bodies, or maybe it was down to how highly de Boer rates Mo Adams. Either way, Atlanta’s newest player made his debut the same day he officially joined the club via trade with the Chicago Fire.

Adams subbed on for Nagbe in the 77th minute. That was at 8:46 p.m. ET, 10 hours and 1 minute after Atlanta and Chicago announced the trade at 10:45 a.m.

“I think you’ve always got to be prepared,” Adams said after the game. “I just try to envision myself coming on and trying to be as mentally prepared as possible. Stepping on the field was a moment I’ll remember forever. They just said to be myself and play my game. One thing the coach said to me was to enjoy it.

Adams said he initially did not know his destination when Fire officials told him he was being traded. When he found out it was Atlanta, he was “over the moon.” 

Adams completed 19 of 20 passes and contributed two recoveries, one tackle, one interception and one clearance. De Boer liked what he saw, and he expects the player will have further opportunities to prove himself on the field in the near future.

“You saw directly what his quality in chasing guys,” the manager said. “He’s fast, and he’s mobile. It’s nice to have fresh legs in the end of the game. Comfortable on the ball. Nice debut, feel for the turf, for the stadium, and hopefully, he can contribute.

“I already said to him, ‘We are involved in two competitions still.’ Two games away from hopefully winning something. Also close for playoffs. We can lose everything, we can also have a fantastic season, and he can be a part of that, so, hopefully, he will.”

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