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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Atlanta United

What to expect on the turf at Mercedes-Benz as the Red Bulls head down south

Atlanta United v Inter Miami CF
Atlanta has stuttered slightly under new manager Gabriel Heinze
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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

Three goals proved an insurmountable mid-week deficit, with the New York Red Bulls not completing the comeback against the New England Revolution. The league’s best team at the peak of a three-year cycle will only be brought down by a much stronger performance, a looming playoff threat to be avoided for as long as possible. The match had a little bit of everything, from catastrophic failures to omens of a hopeful future, a better showing than the previous meeting. Time marches on, and there’s another challenger on the horizon.

This week’s opponent is Atlanta United, a somewhat rival struggling to take off this season. Gabriel Heinze, in his first year at the club, has lost only twice but drawn five times, firmly lodged in the logjam at the middle of the Eastern Conference. Recent weeks have revealed a team that is unable to defend leads, failing to put away the Seattle Sounders, Nashville SC, and the Philadelphia Union. A spot in the playoffs cannot be earned in June, but it can certainly be frittered away.

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

ANOTHER ONE OF THESE TEAMS

What type of tactical style is the most susceptible to the Red Bulls’ high pressing style? What does Atlanta like to do? The answer to both questions is, of course, “playing the ball out of the back.” Long past the halcyon days of yore, late throes of the possession era continue to dominate certain spheres of the world, clinging to power like the Eastern Roman Empire. The year is 1400 and Constantinople still stands, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess.

[Image via WhoScored]

Atlanta’s dogged determination to a holistic possession style can and will lead to catastrophic errors. Those poorly timed giveaways in the defensive third should result in a few scoring opportunities, with Fábio and Patryk Klimala always looking to turn every match into a track meet. There was a slight softening in pressing statistics against New England, perhaps a symptom of the skillful opponent’s ability to split lines or the absence of Caden Clark. An active Dru Yearwood filled the gap and may be due for another start, fitness permitting.

THE DUALITY OF WINGS

Wings giveth, wings taketh, and sometimes Wings produced preposterously bland music validating every songwriting criticism John Lennon levelled against Paul McCartney.

On the attack, fullbacks/wingbacks Brooks Lennon and George Bello are the focal points in the final third, especially when playing in the 3-5-2 formation. As should be obvious to anyone who has ever watched the sport, the two alternate between the traditional options of making overlapping runs or drifting to the center of the field. The Red Bulls back line must also be aware of the long ball, particularly in the midst of sustained position. Heinze’s squad is fairly prolific at uncorking deep passes past sleeping defenders, perhaps correlating with the frequent possession sustained in the defensive half after drawing out the opponent’s formation.

While far from an expert on this weekend’s opponent, a brief perusal of recent highlight footage shows problems defending wide play and handling crosses. Nashville SC – New York’s more artistic but less disciplined younger brother – drove deep into the corners of the field, sliding in behind the fullback and pulling a center back out of position. While not the most talented defender, this could be yet another match in which Kyle Duncan demonstrates his attacking abilities and shifts the balance in favor of the Red Bulls.

THE CORONEL QUESTION

This subject deserves a long-form article by someone more knowledgeable about the goalkeeping position, but I’ll give it a shot for the sake of meeting my self-imposed word count.

Loaned in from Red Bull Salzburg and having a prior history with Gerhard Struber, there was little doubt that Carlos Coronel would be the starting goalkeeper this season. In nine matches, the Brazilian has been steady if unspectacular, fitting into the team’s tactical picture but surrendering a few soft goals on which he could have possibly done “better.” As is customary for the nebulous position few in or outside of the sport truly understand, calls for the insertion into the lineup of the ever-present Ryan Meara have begun, especially after an arguable whoopsie-doodle or two against New England (the second goal low to the near post and the chip on the breakaway third - although athleticism and getting down has never been the veteran back-ups speciality post-injury). Should the part-time number one in 2012 and 2020 receive his chance to compete for the role?

We can argue about shot stopping abilities, controlling the box, and which player better inhabits those qualities or we can discuss why the switch was ultimately made this offseason. Struber desires a goalkeeper that can hold his own in possession, which is slightly more in the wheelhouse of Coronel. While not wholly engaging in possession compared to the rest of the league, he plays a lot of long balls, is involved in the build-up, and shows composure under pressure. These numbers are also a slight improvement over his teammates in 2020, a statistical advantage of which the impact is probably better understood by Red Bulls head of goalkeeping Jyri Nieminen, who specializes in passing under pressure.

Should Coronel continue to start over Meara? He probably should for the time being.

Could the Red Bulls find a better goalkeeper somewhere in the world? They probably should at least try, but good luck with that task.

Is there a more annoying way to end a blog post than with a self-Socratic dialogue performed by a hobbyist writer with little to no knowledge on the subject of his discussion? Sure, I could be singing these questions.

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