ATLANTA — The Atlanta United attack has been the subject of much grumbling from both players and fans this season. In a 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy Saturday evening, the Five Stripes returned to form, aggressively pushing forward and taking 19 shots, 11 on target. This was all possible because centerback Miles Robinson put on a masterclass in one-v-one defending.
Playing in the middle of Atlanta’s back three, Robinson was charged with marking the Galaxy’s speedy center forward, Uriel Antuna. Normally a winger, Antuna filled in up top with Zlatan Ibrahmović suspended due to yellow-card accumulation. Ahead of the game, Five Stripes manager Frank de Boer warned Antuna would use his pace and be a threat to get behind Atlanta’s defense on the counter.
“He’s very mobile, fast. We have to be aware. When we talked about wanting to press high, then we have a lot of space in the back, and he will try to exploit those positions,” de Boer said Friday.
Antuna did indeed try to exploit those positions, but Robinson was there with the answer nearly every time. Only once was the Mexico international, who scored four goals and provided two assists during last month’s Gold Cup, able to beat Robinson and take a shot on target. Robinson consistently used his own combination of speed and strength to win the ball off Antuna without committing a single foul.
“I knew I was going to be following him around, staying with him pretty much the whole game,” Robinson said after the victory.
Had Robinson not been able to stop Antuna on a regular basis, de Boer likely would have adjusted the game plan to take a more conservative approach, with more bodies at the back. The manager has shown a preference for defensive stability over attacking fireworks when forced to choose between the two. Robinson offered that stability in Atlanta’s most important matchup of the contest.
“Enormous, enormous,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said of Robinson’s performance. “LA [doesn’t] have Zlatan up there, so they do what a couple of teams have done — D.C. probably most recently — where they play smaller attackers with speed and they try to break on us. They try to break from outside to in and they play in behind us. With a guy like Miles that can match up athletically, not only does he have the pace to get there, but once he gets there, he’s tied to you. You’re not going to get the ball from him.
“He allows us to press forward knowing that he’s kind of that free safety.”
Robinson’s defensive prowess has been on display all season, but he has grown more confident playing the ball, slowly but surely. The 22-year-old had his best performance in that regard Saturday. He completed a successful dribble in his own penalty area and missed on just three passes all evening. On the Galaxy’s second own goal, Robinson started the play with a line-splitting pass through the middle to Josef Martínez.
We don't stop.
Make it ✌️ for Atlanta pic.twitter.com/QzpMKoKGkS
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) August 3, 2019
“The coaches have been continuing to tell me to take the space when I have it and try to find passes, and that’s what I tried to do today,” Robinson said.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan said he told Robinson after that it was “one of his better games.”
“The thing with Miles is we all know how athletic he is, how good he is,” Guzan said. “I thought tonight he played with confidence. He stepped into the middle of the pitch when they allowed him to find the passing lanes to then get the ball to Pity [Martínez], to get the ball to Josef, [Ezequiel] Barco. So, I thought that part was excellent, and on top of it, I thought his mentality was really good tonight for 90 minutes.
“If teams are going to give him the space and time to step into the middle of the pitch, he’s got to be confident to step in and do it and make those passes and start the attack for us. Tonight he did that. I think for him, it’s a performance he can look back on, be proud of and build on and really use this game as a stepping stone.”
Barco returns, Pity shines
A last-16 run at the under-20 World Cup followed by a long injury layoff made Barco Atlanta’s missing man in recent months. Barco started Saturday for the first time since Atlanta’s U.S. Open Cup win at the Columbus Crew on June 18. It was his first MLS start since a 3-0 victory at Sporting Kansas City on May 5.
In 62 minutes against the Galaxy, Barco took four shots (one on target, but another hit the crossbar), created one chance and was fouled twice. That is not bad for a player who should be at least a little rusty. Having Barco, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and Josef Martínez together for just the fourth time in MLS play gave the Five Stripes a new attacking dimension.
“You see that they have special qualities in them,” de Boer said during his postgame news conference. “They showed the combination with Barco and Josef and Pity up front. That’s very nice for every man and woman who loves football, that’s always very nice to see and to watch. I was also enjoying it.
“But we also sometimes don’t have the ball, and they did a great job [pressing defensively] today. This is what I expect from everybody, and today they showed it. So hopefully we can enjoy more in the future.”
Pity Martínez in particular benefitted from Barco’s return. The two Argentines often played off one another in attack, and El Pity looked more confident in everything he did. That translated to a higher work rate.
“In the past, specifically I’m thinking of early in the year when we were playing 5-4-1, Pity’s kind of one of the left interior midfielders,” Larentowicz said. “When he’s picking his head up, he’s seeing only Josef. I think the Monterrey game is a really good example. He doesn’t have someone to play with. And he needs an extra body, he needs someone to occupy spaces, he needs someone that can actually draw defenders so that he can have space once he gets on it.
“Tonight’s a perfect example. I think the balance from right to left between the two of them was really good. Barco on the left could turn, and you saw when we switched it to the right, Pity was kind of in space right behind Jona dos Santos. He turns and takes us forward. And that’s really all down to having another guy on the field that creates offensive pressure to the other team.”
Don’t look at the standings
The victory moved Atlanta atop the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the Philadelphia Union but with taking the lead with more wins. Philadelphia plays Sunday night and could reclaim first place, but Atlanta will have a game in hand.
Reporters asked de Boer and his players about their place in the standings. De Boer said it is indicative of his team’s quality, but the players were quick to dissuade any such talk at this point in the season.
“Forget the standings,” Guzan sneered. “We’ve got ‘X’ amount of games left. It doesn’t matter where you’re at now. I don’t think anyone in this locker room is looking at the standings and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re in first place.’ It means nothing. We’re looking at it, game-by-game performance and how do we get better so that in two to three months, whatever it is, come playoffs, we find ourselves in the playoffs but we’re on an upward trend? We want to be playing well, feeling good. So it’s not about first place. Talk to me come the end of November. That’s when we want to be in first place.”
“It means probably as little as it can,” the midfielder said. “We’re six points from last place in the playoff spots and currently on 39 [points] in first place. As little as it can possibly mean, I think that’s what it means. Frankly, right now we’re there, and that’s good, but it’s deceiving. I don’t think we can rest on our position.”