Editorial (December 5, 2018) – When Gerardo “Tata” Martino was introduced as the inaugural manager of Atlanta United FC in September 2016, Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra and team President Darren Eales both used the words “fast and fluid” to describe the style of play they expected Martino to bring.
But with everything on the line during his team’s first four playoff matches of 2018, Martino has backed off his usual style in favor of a safer, direct approach that has seen ATLUTD allow just two goals in four playoff matches. As surprising as this shift may seem for a coach known for eschewing the long ball, Martino has shown a willingness toward pragmatism since the second week of the season.
Tata Martino’s pragmatic turn started in week two
Martino burst onto the MLS scene in 2017 with an ambitious attacking style that saw Atlanta score 70 goals in its inaugural season, second only to eventual MLS Cup Champions Toronto’s 74. He did it through the almost exclusive use of a 4-3-3 formation (sometimes described as a 4-2-3-1) that deployed star play-maker Miguel Almiron behind a trio of South American attackers—usually Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba on the wings with Josef Martinez as the central striker.
After Atlanta added U.S. National Team midfielder Darlington Nagbe and Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco for an MLS-record $15 million in the off-season, fans and media expected more of the same in 2018—but the Houston Dynamo dashed those plans with a 4-0 drubbing of ATL in the season’s opening weekend.
The next week is when Tata showed that he cared more about winning than about the fluid attacking formation. For Atlanta’s second game of the season, Martino ran out a 3-5-2 formation that sat deeper and pressed less, with Franco Escobar shifting over as a third center-back and Julian Gressel moving to the right wing-back spot.
Tata was rewarded for his pragmatism with an eight-game unbeaten streak in which they outscored opponents 23-6.
The last temptation of Tata
Despite that success of the 3-5-2, Tata couldn’t resist the temptation of the beautiful 4-3-3 with its suffocating high press and short passes out of the back. With Escobar injured for the May 9 home match against Sporting Kansas City and the eight-game unbeaten streak on the line, Martino switched back to the 4-3-3, threw Sal Zizzo in at right-back, and watched his team lose at home 0-2, thanks in large part to a Brad Guzan red card in the first half.
Atlanta reverted to the 3-5-2, but it didn’t immediately bring the magic back. Two weeks after the SKC loss, Atlanta lost 1-3 at home to eventual Supporters’ Shield winner New York Red Bulls. Soon after, Atlanta was hit with injuries to starters Nagbe and Greg Garza, and Barco had to serve a lengthy team-imposed suspension for personal issues.
As the team returned to full strength, Tata seemed to be settling into the 4-3-3 for good until the unthinkable happened—the Five Stripes lost the Supporters’ Shield on the last day of the season thanks to a 4-1 loss to Toronto FC.
Whatever it takes
Tata had to watch his team give up four goals while playing out of the back in the 4-3-3 on Toronto’s awful, bumpy pitch. And that might have been the final straw that pushed Tata to accept the need to ugly things up a little.
For all four playoff matches, Martino trotted out the most conservative of 3-5-2 formations, with Almiron pushed up to the second forward spot, Gressel moved to the middle for better ball-winning, and Escobar shifted to the right wing, giving Atlanta another big target for long balls. This came at the cost of leaving the potent Villalba and Barco on the bench.
So far the conservative pragmatism has given ATL fans exactly what they wanted—an MLS Cup Final at home. But the pragmatism shouldn’t come as a shock, as it first started to show in the second week of the season.
Atlanta was in the 4-3-3 for its disappointing home draw against Portland on June 24, and it’s anybody’s guess what Tata will do this time against Portland. But it is probably safe to assume one thing: Whatever tactics Martino opts for in the final, it won’t be about what’s fun to watch. It will be about what he thinks will work.