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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Atlanta United

Atlanta has turned themselves back into contenders, which could make for a true test of just how good the rising Red Bulls are.

SOCCER: JUN 27 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Joining the likes of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, the New York Red Bulls are some of America’s finest dramatists. The stoppage time 1-0 win kept the postseason dream alive, allowing the Modern Bull-etheus to keep trudging forward into an uncertain and colder future. A mere three points may be required from the final two matches, a true fight to the finish or perhaps a scrap and then a quick break. Gerhard Struber appears up for the task, but amidst a crowded schedule arise clear signs of fatigue.

Atlanta United sits a single point ahead of the Red Bulls in the standings. This might be the most important match of the year, since the last one, except for real this time. With Nashville SC the only remaining opponent, this is the last chance for New York to push someone else’s head into the dirt and leapfrog up the table. Life is so simple and full of possibilities before the pendulum whizzes past one’s head, a reminder that life’s end is swaying ever more near in both soccer and life.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

GOOD TEAM?

Atlanta United started the season with a 3-6-9 record. Since hiring Gonzalo Pineda in August, the form is a searing 9-3-2. This is a solidly upper-mid-table opponent that beats the right teams but failed to secure three points against Nashville SC, the Philadelphia Union, and New York City FC. The Red Bulls will learn a lot about themselves, particularly their true placement in the Eastern Conference logjam.

Pineda has Atlanta on the front foot again, shooting frequently, passing more, and playing the direct attacking style that has defined the club’s brief history. This may come as a shock, but well-coached teams that utilize the existing personnel and overcome injury issues tend to perform better. There is also a reduction from pressing and crossing, which seems a common theme across Major League Soccer in 2021 – high energy soccer may not be dead but being more discerning in when to pursue prevents overextension. The front-line still forces turnovers and quickly moves into transition, but the entire team is no longer throwing caution to the wind.

Atlanta uses a 3-4-3 built around the combined attacking trio of Marcelino Moreno, a now-healthy Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, or Luiz Araújo. The latter player tends to drift inward, allowing for winger/wingback/fullback George Bello to make deep inroads into the final third and create a numeric advantage. The back line of Miles Robinson, Alan Franco, and Anton Walkes is quite pacey and capable of covering the width of the field, up to the physical task of the combating Red Bulls’ vertical tactics. However, the tendency to play around at the back does lead to some danger.

The match against the Union was a festival of poor decision-making (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel)

This was a pretty rash attempt to squeeze the ball between two opponents that led directly to a penalty against CF Montréal (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel).

Sometimes even dribbling out of the back can be the wrong choice (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel).

This is from the latest match against Toronto FC (via Major League Soccer YouTube channel).

These are, of course, isolated clips. Atlanta isn’t spraying the ball around willy-nilly, constantly stepping on rakes. There is an expected margin of error for MLS teams playing possession out of the back against pressing opponents. In this case, Walkes is a converted fullback, Robinson’s passing is a continual work in progress, and Franco can be a little too daring. The Red Bulls will have chances, but capitalizing remains a different issue.

THE MIDFIELD

The argument could be made that Santiago Sosa is Atlanta’s most impactful player. The defensive midfielder dominates on both sides of the ball, aggressively patrolling in front of the back line and serving as the focal point in possession. Alex Miller of Dirty South Soccer described him as being able to “kill all the vertical and lateral space” around opposing forwards. Signed from River Plate in February, his technical ability has delighted both the fan and neutral viewer.

He also might not be in the lineup. Sosa missed the last two matches with a muscle injury suffered against NYCFC. If he is not able to play, the replacement options are the more attacking Matheus Rossetto, the defensive-minded Franco Ibarra, or Moreno dropping deeper in the formation. Which player Atlanta chooses will likely signal the overall strategy. Will Pineda have his team attempting to dictate the game or slightly sitting back in hopes of catching the Red Bulls on the counter-attack?

Struber’s tactical system attempts to win the center of the field, clogging the middle third and forcing opponents to the wing. For all of Atlanta’s flair and technique, there are still only two central midfielders in the formation. The Red Bulls should maintain a constant advantage, whether Sean Davis is dumping passes over the top, Dru Yearwood shuttles, or Cristian Cásseres plays slick through balls.

IN BETWEEN

Since mid-September, Caden Clark has been largely on the fringes of the squad, playing a mere 104 minutes. For someone who was supposed to be a key factor this season, the reduction is a curious choice for such a heralded talent and pressing dervish, regardless of injury status. Making the most of brief appearances is a difficult task, asking a teenager to wield a greater influence without working his way into the match.

Part of the issue is that Clark does not quite fit in any of the traditional footballing roles. He does not quite score enough to be a striker and certainly does not fit the physical profile for a target man in Struber’s system. While highly technical, his passing is not quite incisive enough for an attacking midfielder. His one-on-one defending and involvement during the build-up fail to match the requirements of a box-to-box shuttler, and, while quick, nobody would confuse him for a burner of a winger.

Despite all of those unfair criticisms of a still developing player, his performance against CF Montréal was sublime. Clark made an impact the second he stepped on the field, looking like the highly rated prospect of old. The pass to Cásseres perfectly split two defenders and should have resulted in a goal, which would have opened up the match into the type of wide-open space opera that favors his abilities. Instead, the 18-year-old was forced to wait for stoppage time, when his header back across the net enabled Fábio to claim the match-winner.

The instinct to deflect the ball to a teammate instead of going for goal speaks to a preternatural feel for the game. Clark in many ways resembles prime-era Clint Dempsey, from his build, to the criticisms of not quite fitting into an explicit position in many formations, and down to the winner’s mentality that ekes out that extra yard over a less-determined opponent. The Fulham legend overcame any limitations to his game by inflicting his will and forcing managers to keep him in the lineup, regardless of how many times the privilege had to be earned and earned again in big moments. After the performance against Montréal, Struber may be facing a similar quandary, for the remaining three-to-five matches before the loan from Leipzig ends.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.