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Prioritizing the attack, Atlanta United resembles its old self

The Five Stripes dominated NYCFC with aggressive pressing and full-bore attacking. Julian Gressel said the win ‘felt a lot like the last few years.’

Aug 11, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) and New York City FC midfielder Alexandru Mitrita (28) fight for the ball during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 11, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) and New York City FC midfielder Alexandru Mitrita (28) fight for the ball during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — For the second consecutive home game, Atlanta United’s defensive fortitude allowed the team to flourish in attack. Atlanta’s back three — Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar in particular — dominated New York City FC in a 2-1 win Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

New York City boasts the most productive attack in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, leading the division in average goals (1.8), shots (15.1), shots on target (5.8) and possession (55.5 percent) per game. Against Atlanta, those numbers dipped to one, 11, four and 42, respectively. Manager Frank de Boer regularly preaches the importance of winning individual duels, and his team took that instruction to heart Sunday. Atlanta won 55 of its 97 duels against the Pigeons.

Atlanta United's defensive chalkboard vs. NYCFC.

Atlanta United’s defensive chalkboard vs. NYCFC.

Another of de Boer’s consistent talking points is that defending starts up front. Forwards and midfielders must put in the work to keep the back line from facing threatening situations. The Five Stripes excelled at winning the ball back before New York City reached their defensive third.

“They were excellent all night,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “And before it even got to them, I thought we did a very good job of pinning them in and not allowing them out of their half. There were very few times, and I think when you’ve got a guy going one-v-one against Miles, against Leandro [González-Pírez], against Franco, I’m going to take our guys more often than not. They were excellent in that aspect, keeping them pinned in and allowing us to continue to attack.

“I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m sure the numbers will agree that we created tons of chances, so on another night, it certainly could have been more than two [goals].”

The numbers do agree. Atlanta created 14 chances to New York City’s eight. Deploying this newfound aggression results in defense via attack. Justin Meram and Julian Gressel play higher on the flanks, pinning opposing wingers and fullback deeper. When the Five Stripes lost the ball Sunday, New York City often was forced to punt it forward to relieve pressure, thus giving Atlanta another opportunity to retain possession in the attacking half and build that pressure. This concept is known as a “lock on,” and it is a significant component of de Boer’s philosophy.

Robinson, playing in the middle of the back three, again snuffed out nearly every counter attack that came his way. His ability to win duels and offer help to his teammates gives the Five Stripes freedom to flood more bodies upfield.

“He allows us to go one-v-one in the back because he’s so dominant and also covering for both center backs on either side,” Meram said after training Monday. “So that allows myself, Julian to be higher up the field, which allows us to create more chances. With a guy like him, he does more than just win the duels. He helps us create chances just by his presence in the back.”

This is starting to look familiar

De Boer said in his postgame press conference the Pigeons were not ready to be challenged in such a manner. New York City manager Dome Torrent seemed to agree, admitting his team deviated from its game plan as it wilted under Atlanta’s pressure and pace.

“It was very fast because we made mistakes in the first half,” Torrent said. “I said to my players in the second half, ‘If you play every single ball long ball, forget about it. It’s impossible to play.’ In the build up, we play 100 percent. I’ve said many times, ‘Look what happened, play long ball, recover the ball, we defend deep. They have specials in between the lines.’

“Before the game I said to you, ‘I don’t like when we have to play these kind of games, box-to-box,’ and we played in the first half box-to-box. The reason why, because the build up all the time was long ball, long ball, long ball. I said, ‘No, long ball is — we practice long balls to surprise them.’ In the second half, we played short and we played much better.”

In recent weeks, Atlanta has been more willing to push forward and press higher, and the attack has soared. This development — welcome by fans and players alike — comes after shifting to a 3-5-2 formation, and the return of Ezequiel Barco no doubt has helped. But it also simply is part of the team’s evolution under de Boer. The Dutchman focused almost entirely on drilling his players defensively earlier in the year. With that foundation in place, developing the attack has taken priority in training.

“We’re not talking nearly as much about defending anymore,” Gressel said Monday. “We’re more about being on the front foot and going out to attack teams, creating turnovers, and ultimately that leads to us having the ball more.”

Atlanta appears to be returning to its roots as a team that takes risks knowing it has the quality to produce fantastic rewards. The win Sunday “felt a lot like the last few years,” according to Gressel. The Five Stripes currently sit second in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, and they have reached the U.S. Open Cup final. A season that for so long was cast in doubt is beginning to resemble the sort of campaign everyone in Atlanta has come to expect.

Atlanta is healthier, but depth still is key

The Five Stripes have dealt with injuries all year, but de Boer’s team finally is close to fit. Héctor “Tito” Villalba, George Bello and Kevin Kratz are working on their returns to game shape after long layoffs. Brek Shea is out for the season, and Mikey Ambrose’s return is uncertain as he deals with a hamstring issue. De Boer otherwise is able to field  first-choice lineups.

But, that does not mean de Boer has a first-choice 11. The manager will continue to rely on depth based on individual qualities that may match up better against particular opponents.

“I always say we don’t play with 11, we play with 18, 19, 20 on our roster,” de Boer said Sunday. “Everybody’s important, and suddenly it can change. Of course, this is a good lineup, but if you see, like when [Emerson] Hyndman came in, I think he also played really well. And Jeff [Larentowicz]. Sometimes, you think, ‘OK against this opponent, maybe this player’s a little bit more suitable to start.’ I always talk about team performance, so I don’t want to talk about, ‘Hey, this is the ideal 11.’ Like the majority of the team, yeah that’s OK, but there’s always room for some changes.”

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