Six critical tasks for Atlanta United’s next coach

Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer congratulates midfielder Mo Adams after a 2019 match.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer congratulates midfielder Mo Adams after a 2019 match. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Frank de Boer, MLS team parted ways on Friday

Atlanta United’s next manager will have at least six important tasks to accomplish in order to snap the team’s four-game losing streak and restore a sense of confidence to the franchise.

Frank de Boer and team agreed to part ways on Friday. That de Boer is gone isn’t a surprise. That it was mutual was a surprise because as late as Tuesday night, following his team’s third consecutive 1-0 defeat, de Boer sounded like a man who thought he would be back on the pitch at the training ground in Marietta after a couple of days off.

De Boer shouldn’t be blamed for all of Atlanta United’s issues the past two years, nor should he receive all of the credit for the success, which included winning the U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season. If not for bad luck and a wonder strike by Toronto, Atlanta United, with de Boer, should have hosted its second consecutive MLS Cup.

But professional sports are often about the now and Atlanta United’s players looked uninspired and sometimes confused during the MLS tournament.

Turning to this season, if the next manager can’t work out these six issues then it seems very unlikely that Atlanta United (2-3-0) will even have a chance to host an MLS Cup this season:

Figure out transfers. It was never clear if de Boer had any say on the players being bought or sold by Vice President Carlos Bocanegra. De Boer was stubborn, but he was also honest so when he said a few days before Erik Lopez was signed that he didn’t know anything about the player he seemed truthful.

De Boer didn’t want Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel or Darlington Nagbe to be sold or traded last year. Why would he? They were among the best in the league at their positions. Even after Gonzalez Pirez publicly criticized de Boer, the manager defended him.

The players added for this season are quality, but none are likely going to be as impactful as Gressel or Nagbe, for example. That’s not a new issue. It can be argued that the last game-changing signing made by Bocanegra was Nagbe in Dec. 2017. He is no longer with the team having been traded following the 2019 season.

At least one more player, speedy winger Jurgen Damm, will join the team in August.

The next manager should have a clearer voice in transfers in and out.

Figure out the locker room. A person with knowledge of the team said the players often felt underprepared under de Boer and didn’t completely understand what he wanted tactically.

That was clear at the beginning of de Boer’s first season when the team won just one of its first five games and then again this year during the Orlando tournament when it appeared that much like during last season’s rocky start possession was more important than creating chances or shots on goal. The team has 19 shots on goals, tied for 14th in MLS. Its 51 shots are 17th and its four goals are tied for 19th.

The next manager needs to be clear on formation and tactics, identify the leaders in the locker room, win them over and then start to instill confidence in the rest of the roster.

Figure out the roster. Bocanegra has compiled a roster of utilitarian players but there are quite a few positional redundancies. It’s great that so many can play so many different positions but on the field they can only play one at a time. It’s time to figure out which players are best at which position and use them there consistently. Consistency can breed confidence. Confidence can breed aggressiveness.

De Boer liked that so many players could play different positions because he said it allowed for tactical flexibility. He talked about it. A lot. A problem was he rarely used that flexibility within games.

Figure out a formation or two. Figuring out the best 18 players will allow the manager to figure out a formation and tactics too. Whatever he chooses, it needs to be attacking because that’s what the players want. It’s what they have wanted.

But it had better not be a 3-4-3 because that hasn’t worked with this group.

The simplest would be to go back to the 4-3-3 or 3-4-2-1 used first by previous manager Gerardo Martino and then by de Boer last season. The players have said they like those formations because it keeps things simple and allows them to play.

Figure out how to use the DPs. This may be the most important task of all: figure out how to get the most out of Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco.

The Argentines are two of the team’s three Designated Players and for various reasons haven’t been as impactful as expected.

Barco, bought for a reported $14 million before the 2018 season, has 10 goals and seven assists in 46 appearances.

Martinez, bought for a reported $15 million, has five goals and 11 assists in 37 appearances.

The player whose minutes they took, Hector Villalba, had 21 goals and 24 assists in 82 appearances before he asked to be sold because of diminishing minutes.

Barco and Martinez need a striker to play off of to best use their creativity and eyes for passes.

Martinez can be quite impactful on the left wing pinging in crosses. Barco can be impactful picking up the ball near midfield and running at defenders.

Both players have said they eventually want to play in Europe. Though owner Arthur Blank is a billionaire, Atlanta United would like to make a profit on its investments.

Figure out the Homegrowns. When de Boer was hired, the aspiration was for him to help Atlanta United become the Ajax of MLS.

Ajax, the club de Boer played for and coached for, is one of the leading producers of soccer talent in the world.

Atlanta United has several promising Homegrown players on its roster: fullback George Bello, centerback George Campbell and forward Tyler Wolff. Two more, Andrew Carleton and Lagos Kunga, are on season-long loans to USL clubs.

The next manager needs to work with Bocanegra and Atlanta United 2 manager Stephen Glass on a development plan for each player that eventually results in appearances with the first team.

Not every Homegrown signing will develop into a first-team player.

So far, the only Homegrown to receive consistent time is Bello, with two starts this season. To his credit, de Boer had no problem starting Bello or putting Wolff and Campbell into the game-day roster. Campbell also has one appearance this season.

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