Tata Martino famously implemented the system when setting the foundation for Atlanta United upon becoming the club’s first manager in 2017. But even in 2018 – the same year the Five Stripes won MLS Cup – he settled for a less aggressive approach in a new formation.
“That’s the price we’re paying right now with the change in system that we made,” Martino said last April when discussing his team’s lack of possession playing in a 3-5-2. “We’re still working on it, we’re still perfecting it, there’s still things to improve. We’d like to be farther up the field. I think in the [4-2-3-1], we’re 20 meters further up the field at all times and able to press the ball. So that’s something that we’re still working on improving.”
These words will sound familiar to anyone who has paid attention to Atlanta in 2019, though struggles in the two different systems have flipped this go-around. Under Frank de Boer, the Five Stripes struggled mightily to impose themselves in the 4-2-3-1, as the formation neutralized the potential of Pity Martinez and others.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez against Atlanta's rival, Orlando City SC | USA Today Sports
The predicament facing De Boer was a common one: how to keep the team defensively solid, all while simultaneously allowing his attacking players freedom to create. The answer lies in an unlikely figure: 22-year-old center back Miles Robinson.
“A lot of time we play one-against-one in the back and you have to have guys who win the duels and have speed. He has both. He’s crucial,” De Boer told media about Robinson on Thursday. “That’s key for the system that we play. I think that’s also why he’s been selected for the national team, because those key moments when he will step in.”
The newly-minted US men’s national team player will again be pivotal when Atlanta visit the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada) for a top-of-the-Eastern Conference clash.
While Martino was hesitant to play Robinson, the youngster is enjoying a breakout campaign. With ball-playing center backs like Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Franco Escobar (or Florentin Pogba) flanking him, Robinson’s duel-winning ability alone is enough to give De Boer confidence. His teammates agree, too.
Franco Escobar celebrates his goal against the Portland Timbers in the 2018 MLS Cup final | USA Today Sports
“It gives you security because he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s good in the air,” Escobar said of Robinson. “So if you lose the ball, you know he’s going to win you a little bit of time to recover and track back.
“Same thing goes for [Leandro] when he gets forward. We know we have Miles there providing more security and it’s good for the whole team to have that.”