On Sunday night, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer used yet another formation without returning to the formation that made Atlanta so successful under previous manager Gerardo Martino.
This time, it was a variation on the Dutchman’s preferred 3-4-3 formation. The starting midfielders lined up in a diamond with Jeff Larentowicz at the base, Eric Remedi on the left, Julian Gressel on the right and Darlington Nagbe at the point. This version did not include the wingback role that de Boer typically uses.
The new system did not yield any new results. Atlanta United looked uncomfortable going forward and did not have a single shot on goal in the first 30 minutes.
“In the beginning, we were finding some problems trying to find our free man,” de Boer said. “Philly was very well organized, so we couldn’t find our man against their midfield three. The first 30 minutes wasn’t the type of play that we wanted to see.”
De Boer then ditched the 3-4-3 diamond, and the Five Stripes eventually settled for a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia Union that left Atlanta still winless in MLS play, with only two goals in three matches.
His switch to four at the back for the rest of the match made Atlanta look much better. It was closer to the 4-2-3-1 of the Martino era, but de Boer still called it a 4-4-2.
“After the first 30 minutes, we got better in the game. We also created more chances, or threats,” de Boer said.
Gressel, who shifted to right back after the formation change, agreed that four at the back was better for the team.
“Ultimately, we want to win the game, and we were in the game better with the system we had in the second half with four in the back,” Gressel said.
The positive performance while playing four at the back raises the question of why de Boer has not attempted to start a game with the 4-2-3-1 formation that propelled Atlanta’s success over the last two years. He was resolute in his decision to start in a 3-4-3 because of the way Philadelphia usually lines up.
“I still feel like against (Philadelphia’s) system, when you play 3-4-3, you can do a lot of harm to the opponent,” de Boer said. “But you have to be not sloppy with the ball, because then it’s a really dangerous system. Because we couldn’t find our free man really, we changed to 4-4-2, and after that moment we had more control and created more.”
Before Atlanta United’s second game against Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League, de Boer had said that he would not change from a 3-4-3 with less than a week to prepare because it would be “panicking.”
But with only three days between that Monterrey tie on Wednesday and the clash with Philadelphia on Sunday, de Boer changed things up. It may have still been a 3-4-3, but it was certainly different, and it was certainly ineffective.
The manager will now have an extra week to prepare his team and get them rested during the international break. Whether he sticks with his familiar 3-4-3 or becomes inspired by Atlanta’s recent play with four at the back is something that only the enigmatic Dutchman will know, but he’s got time to think about it.
United returns to action March 30 on the road against Columbus Crew.