Justin Meram, 14, midfielder for Atlanta United, dribbles the ball during the first half of a match between Atlanta United and Saint Louis FC at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Atlanta United and Saint Louis FC were tied 0-0 at the end of the first half. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta/Christina Matacotta
Photo: Christina R. Matacotta/Christina Matacotta

Atlanta United’s Gressel, Meram get green light - and it shows

Two of the biggest revelations for Atlanta United in its switch to the 3-5-2 formation are wingbacks Julian Gressel and Justin Meram.

Gressel’s production, seven chances created in Sunday’s 2-1 win against NYCFC, isn’t as much a surprise as Meram’s because he played the position last season under previous manager Gerardo Martino. 

While Meram has been a winger most of his career, playing wingback, which requires more running and defensive responsibilities, is new to him this season. His ability to beat his man one-on-one to the end line to deliver what is becoming a familiar chipped cross, and still have the awareness and endurance to get back, has made the left side of the Five Stripes’ attack as dangerous as its right.

“I think I’ve handled it alright,” said Meram, who with Atlanta United will host Club America on Wednesday in the Campeones Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “Now it’s finding my moments to balance. Just trying to put it all together every game.”

After Meram was acquired by Atlanta United in a trade with Columbus in May, he said he was passive when playing. He didn’t want to lose the ball.

The coaching staff told him to snap out of it. 

“If you are going to play that way, we have guys that can do that,” Meram said in relating the conversation. “You need to express yourself. Once they gave me that green light, I started to play like I know how to play. 

“I’ve been a winger my whole career so taking guys on is something I strive at to get in those moments. To be in that position where (Ezequiel) Barco, Pity (Martinez), Josef (Martinez) are attracting players they get to me play through when I’m running at guys with pace, it’s going to be difficult to stop me. I’m enjoying that.”

Atlanta United was using a 4-4-1-1 formation before the switch. The move to the 3-5-2, or 3-4-2-1, happened six games ago.

Meram said when he was told that he was going to play as a wingback, with no true fullback behind him to support him defensively, he reached out to past coaches and players for advice. 

The best piece of advice he said he received almost seems counter-intuitive when learning about defense. He was told to keep attacking.

The more he attacks, the deeper it forces the opposing player on his side to drop. Meram referenced playing against Carlos Vela in the 4-3 loss at LAFC. Meram came on as a second half sub on the left and was told to get up the field. Vela was forced to drop back to defend, which took away his ability to wait on long balls and run at defenders one-on-one, according to Meram.

“With me doing that, now their wingback or outside back is wary of attacking because I have that threat of going forward,” he said.

Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) moves the ball past New York Red Bulls defender Amro Tarek (3) during the first half in a MLS game on Sunday, July 7, 2019, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp

Gressel agreed that attacking more has helped.

“We’re not talking nearly as much about defending anymore,” he said. “We’re talking about being on the front foot and going out to attack teams and creating turnovers, and ultimately that leads to us having the ball more.”

Since the switch to the 3-5-2, the two wingbacks have combined to create 33 key passes in league games, according to whoscored.com. A key pass is one that creates an unfinished goal-scoring opportunity.

NYCFC manager Dome Torrent singled out Gressel’s passes on Sunday.

“They could’ve scored three goals in that way,” Torrent said. “I said to (Ronald) Matarrita, ‘You have to be truly close to him,’ because we practice that.”

Another factor that is helping Atlanta United’s wingbacks is the play of the centerbacks, particularly Miles Robinson.

Typically deployed in the center of the three-man backline, Robinson’s speed and strength in one-on-one situations has given the wingbacks the confidence to know that if they can’t get back, the defense will still likely snuff out the counterattack.

“You don’t even have to worry sometimes,” Meram said. “You know nobody is going to get around him. to have that security now, with me playing wingback, helps a lot of us out. 

“With a guy like him he does more than just win the duels. He essentially helps us create chances just with his presence in the back.” 

August 11, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United midfielder Justin Meram gets off a shot between New York City FC defenders in front of their goal in their soccer match on Sunday, August 11, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

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