Atlanta United’s flexibility may be key against Toronto

There’s no code word like “Duels.”

There’s no hand signal to signify “get ready.”

When Atlanta United makes an in-game adjustment from one formation to another, it is typically a simple message from manager Frank de Boer to the player closest next to him. Sometimes it’s to the sub coming. Sometimes it’s to a player already on the field.

But the adjustments that de Boer are making are a reason why Atlanta United on Wednesday will get a chance to play for the MLS Cup if it can defeat Toronto at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In each of the past three games, two of them in the playoffs, de Boer has switched the formation in which the team started to another to specifically deal with a situation. The first two times were from  a 3-4-2-1 formation to a variation of a 4-3-3. In last week’s semifinal win against Philadelphia, de Boer flipped the script, going from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1. Each, time Atlanta United won, posting two shutouts.

“We can easily swap from system to system,” de Boer said. “The personnel that we have on the field, it’s easy to go from three, it’s easy to go to four in the back, so just one sign and, hey, we don’t feel comfortable right now because they’re going to explore spaces that we cannot cover. Then you can say, OK we’re going to do it with three or we’re going to do it with four. That’s the advantage that they know exactly how to operate in each system.”

Though he did make a formational change from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 for last year’s playoffs, that kind of change isn’t something that previous manager Gerardo Martino would make in games, except for the final minutes when leads were being protected. It’s not something de Boer did much until the past few weeks.

Part of the reason why is Atlanta United rarely had time to work on tactics because they were going from game to game, as many as three in eight days, throughout most of the season. Now that the team is playing one game a week, de Boer has had time to truly put his stamp on the team’s style.

“With these games, having more days, the coach can prepare us,” fullback Mikey Ambrose said. “We can prepare each other. We can have a good game plan going in. We can really focus on what we are going to do in the game. It really helps a lot.”

The versatility of the players, particularly Franco Escobar and Julian Gressel on the right side of the formation, are key to the flexibility. Escobar considers himself a centerback, which he plays when Atlanta United is using three at the back. However, he has shown in the playoffs a successful aptitude as a wingback or fullback. Of his five goals, three have come in the playoffs when he’s typically on the edge of the formation.

He can’t explain his scoring success.

“...It could be for the function of the team more than anything, because I’ve been playing this position for two years with the team,” he said. “We train it during the week, and I think you’re able to see those results in the games because we train the movements and everything we want to do. So maybe if I was with a different team, playing in a similar role, then it wouldn’t be the same.”

When Escobar is part of a three-man backline, Gressel is typically the right wingback. When the team switches to four, Escobar moves to fullback, which gives him more freedom to attack, and Gressel becomes either a right midfielder, or in some cases a right forward. Escobar described Gressel as an “animal” going forward.

Though Escobar speaks very little English and Gressel not much Spanish, they have developed an intuition, particularly when Escobar wants to attack. Escobar’s goal against New England in the first round of the playoffs was an example. It came just after a formation switch. Escobar made an underlapping run, or run between the wide midfielders and central players. Gressel held back for a split-second, which froze the defenders. Ezequiel Barco played a pass into space for Escobar for sprint onto. His shot was the winning goal.

“I think we both have a pretty good understanding of how we need to play on that side,” Gressel said. “Even in the game against Philly, I covered for him a lot. Sometimes I even tell him if he's inside and I'm outside, that he should go press and I'll cover at right back just because he has a closer run or can get on the end of a cross or things like that. It's quick little shouts or just looking at each other just because it's hard to hear anyway on the field.”

Keeping that tactical flexibility will be important against Toronto because it can also play very fluidly, particularly with Alejandro Pozuelo if manager Greg Vanney uses him as a "false nine."

“Not every team plays with a false nine, so if he exploits certain areas that we didn't expect him to, then we might have to adjust on the fly,” midfielder Emerson Hyndman said. “At the same time, we expect him to obviously try to overload certain areas, things like that, so we just gotta be switched on for that kind of stuff. But of course we'll adjust if we need to.”