Understanding the Different Formations

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Tata Martino screams orders from the sideline. Credit: Adam Hagy, goal.com

In Atlanta United’s previous two matches, manager Tata Martino has shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2 set up. The new formation has resulted in a 3-1 and a 4-1 victory for the Five Stripes. Martino hinted at the possibility of using a back three earlier in the season, and Atlanta fans have seen favorable results from the change. The Argentinian manager has said that the team is capable of playing both styles, but maybe United has found their comfort zone in the new formation. Both styles of play have their pros and cons, but which style suits Atlanta United best?

First, we’ll take a look at the 4-2-3-1 formation used in Atlanta’s inaugural campaign.  The formation seems to fit the Five Stripes well with its “springy” quality. The setup allows the team to absorb some pressure, but able to quickly strike once acquiring possession. This proved to work very well with Atlanta’s talented attack with players like Miguel Almiròn, Josef Martinez, and Hector Villalba. Defensively, the setup allows the front four to go high up the pitch and press opposing teams high up, while the defensive midfielders allow no space in front of the back four. The back four can then either press as well, or can drop back further depending on game scenario. Once the team is able to retain possession, the wingbacks can run further up the field knowing the defensive midfielders can support the center defenders. The Five Stripe faithful saw this in full effect with All-Star defender Greg Garza constantly sending in crosses or finding the back of the net. If the attack is stopped, the 4-2-3-1 is designed to keep possession with numerous passing options for each player.

Although the formation seems like the best of both worlds, when its ran incorrectly, it can be slow and ineffective. If the midfielders are forced to track back to the defensive midfielders, the lone striker is left up top with little to no support for the attack. Or the opposite can occur, where the attacking group of midfielders forget to come back and support their full-backs, allowing opposition wide players to overload the defense. The formation provides its own set of challenges for each position on the field. The full backs must be incredibly fit to make runs up the field and also able to help defensively. The two center backs must be especially good at defending aerial crosses sent into the box from opposing wing players.

Next, we’ll look into the 3-5-2 formation used in the previous two matchups. The formation appears to fit Atlanta United’s attack well, giving Josef Martinez some support high up the pitch. Along with support up top, the setup still provides three central midfielders to send balls up the field, or out wide to the wingbacks. Defensively the formation matches up particularly well against a two-striker system (which Vancouver used in Saturday’s match).  The two strikers are constantly faced with three defenders who are always back to end any attacking threat from opposition.

The formation provides difficulties to the three defenders charged with halting the attack. In a traditional back four, the two center backs have each other as a reference point on the field. Having a third defender acting as another center back eliminates that constant reference point, forcing the defenders to be a tightly knit unit. The defender must combine the attributes of traditional center backs with the skills needed for a traditional wing back. The formation’s biggest weakness if defending against a single striker, especially when the striker is a “false nine.” This is a center forward who drops back and allows room for midfielders and wide attackers to get into the box. The “false nine” leaves the three defenders marking no one, making for a defensive nightmare.