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Tactical flexibility carrying Atlanta United through MLS Cup playoffs

The Five Stripes are comfortable changing formations mid-game, and it has paid off with two playoff clean sheets.

Oct 19, 2019; Atlanta , GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) goes up for a header against New England Revolution forward Juan Caicedo (9) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 19, 2019; Atlanta , GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) goes up for a header against New England Revolution forward Juan Caicedo (9) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Throughout the 2019 Major League Soccer regular season, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer and his players often lamented their congested schedule.

Playing a condensed MLS season, winning the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup and reaching the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League resulted in 13 multi-game weeks from late February through early October with a few international breaks sprinkled in. Non-game days were often used for travel and/or recovery. There was hardly any time to build new tactical concepts in training.

Atlanta enjoyed two weeks off before the start of the MLS Cup playoffs, and de Boer used the time to improve his team tactically. He now has his players comfortable adjusting to opponents by changing formations in game. In a wide-open postseason, the Five Stripes have recorded two clean sheets en route to relatively comfortable victories.

“I think just getting the message across quick. It obviously comes from the bench usually, so you’ve got to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing,” Emerson Hyndman said Tuesday of the risk that comes with drastically changing shape in game. “But as soon as everyone kind of knows it — we’ve worked on it enough to where everyone knows their position, knows their roles — so if we need to do that again then we will. But at the same time, we’re going to have a game plan before the game. Go out there and try to do it Plan A, right? If we need a plan B, then we’ll use it.”

In the regular-season finale against the New England Revolution, Atlanta opened in the attack-minded 3-5-2 formation that it had been playing for months, but the Five Stripes were left too exposed defensively, particularly on the wings. Leading 3-1 in the 63rd minute, de Boer brought on Héctor “Tito” Villalba and Florentin Pogba for Ezequiel Barco and Justin Meram. The shape changed to a 4-3-3, and after the introduction of Michael Parkhurst for Julian Gressel in the 79th minute, it adjusted to a 4-4-2. Atlanta reasserted control and, save for flurry in the final minutes when the Revs flooded bodies forward, coasted to the win.

“It is always good to get a feeling in a different system, and sometimes you need to do that to get more control of the game,” de Boer said after that game. “Now, we have a little taste of that already, so maybe now I can make one click and they can do it.”

In the 1-0 playoff win over New England Oct. 19, the game played out in similar fashion. Atlanta was more conservative from the opening whistle, lining up in a 5-3-2, but the Five Stripes again switched to a 4-3-3 in the second half. This time, the score was level and de Boer’s team was struggling to create good chances. The change allowed Franco Escobar to move from center back to right back and bomb up and down the wing. Barco found him with a perfect through ball in the 70th minute, and Escobar buried the winner.

“[Tactical flexibility is] important,” Escobar said through an interpreter Tuesday. “I think it also has to do with the opponent that we’re playing and how they’re going to line up, what their strengths and weaknesses are and how we expect them to play. We look at every game based on the opponent, and then Frank decides what we want to do during the week and we train certain things. We know now we have the ability to switch between a [back-]three and a four, and it’s something that we’ve worked on, so I think that is important having it in each game.”

Against the Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference semifinals, de Boer’s game plan was reversed. Atlanta started out in a 4-2-3-1 with Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez back in the XI as a No. 10 and Mikey Ambrose and Florentin Pogba joining Escobar and Leandro González-Pírez on a makeshift backline. The late substitutions of Hyndman and Eric Remedi for Barco and Martínez, respectively, pushed Jeff Larentowicz from midfield to center back, and Atlanta closed out the victory in a 5-4-1. Gressel hit a long ball to Josef Martínez in the 80th minute, and the Venezuelan sealed the result with a thunderbolt.

“I think it has more to do with the opponent, because we want to set up in the way that is going to be most beneficial to us, and then depending on who’s on the field, we can defend better or defend differently,” Escobar said.

Atlanta faces a difficult task versus Toronto FC in Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alejandro Pozuelo, a creative attacking midfielder and 2019 MLS newcomer of the year contender, is likely to play as a “false nine” center forward, dropping deep and drifting wide to find the ball in space. The Five Stripes struggled to defend Pozuelo during a 3-2 loss at Toronto in July. If Atlanta gets off to a rocky start, at least it will have a Plan B.

“Playoff time is one-off games, so you have to be able to switch tactics and switch personnel as soon as you can if the game isn’t going the right way or if you feel like you can be better a different way then those changes have to be made,” Hyndman said. “We’ve worked on it in training and obviously we’ve seen it in recent games, and I think it’s worked well so far.”

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