Atlanta United preparing for New England wrinkles

New England surprised Atlanta United in the first half of their previous meeting Oct. 6 with tactical wrinkles.

Should the Revolution try them again in Saturday’s MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta United is working to be ready.

The first wrinkle was right midfielder Carles Gil drifting inside toward defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to become more of a playmaker. Gustavo Bou, playing as the left striker, would sometimes drop into the space between Larentowicz and the three centerbacks. If Atlanta United’s defense slid to its left, room on New England’s left opened for Cristian Penilla, the left midfielder. Both are dangerous players. Gil, who was named MLS Newcomer of the Year on Wednesday, scored 10 goals with 14 assists in 34 games. Bou scored nine goals with two assists in 14 games.

“With Bou up top, they were dynamic and creative in that way,” Gressel said. “Gave Jeff a bit of a headache in the first half with him having to deal with most of that.”

Larentowicz described the tactics as tricky. New England’s formation would change from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-4 when it was attacking, particularly following an Atlanta United turnover. If Atlanta United’s wingbacks were still up field, New England would have four attackers going at three Atlanta United centerbacks.

“The adjustment is to make sure we know where those guys are in the half-space,” Larentowicz said. “It’s mainly those two. The awareness of where those guys are.”

Atlanta United eventually made that adjustment in the first half with the score tied 1-1. Atlanta United won 3-1.

With that card successfully played by New England manager Bruce Arena, it will be interesting to see if he uses it again Saturday. Darlington Nagbe said he thinks Arena will because Gil is a good passer and because it worked.

Allowing too much undefended space was an issue for Atlanta United this season in some of its biggest losses: at Chicago, at Toronto and at NYCFC.

Sometimes that happened because some of Atlanta United’s players would pick the wrong moments to press the opponent, which would create gaps. Other times, the gaps happened because of turnovers when too many Atlanta United players were caught too far up the field.

Like it did last season when it won the MLS Cup, Atlanta United is taking a more pragmatic approach to defense in training sessions for the past 10 days. The team knows it can’t give New England’s players, particularly Gil, time on the ball. If he can get his head up and make a pass, defending those spaces will become more difficult.

“Just a matter of staying disciplined as a team and recognizing moments when you need to tighten it up and when we can really go forward,” Gressel said.