Miguel Almiron - Atlanta United - celebrating goal with teammates Parkhurst, Garza and Gonzalez Pirez

It’d be an oversimplification to note that Atlanta United are at the top of the MLS standings. To truly understand their stature, it's necessary to watch them play, to have witnessed them overwhelm, overpower, and demoralize teams. Since their Opening Weekend loss to the Houston Dynamo, Atlanta have gone 8-1-1 with a plus-16 goal differential.


Sporting Kansas City fans will undoubtedly be shaking their heads right now. Peter Vermes’ group are the only team to beat Atlanta since Houston, winning at Mercedes-Benz Stadium just two weeks ago. At the risk of scathing comments from KC, Atlanta had a (probably legitimate) goal disallowed and then had a player sent off. Based on the first 30 minutes – prior to Guzan’s red card – I would take Atlanta to win that game 7 out of 10 times. Even given Sporting's victory, Atlanta are the team to beat in MLS.


It's not just their record, it’s how they go about winning. Atlanta don’t always control games, but they are always in control. They can pierce through a team without warning, can go from defending near their own box to scoring in a matter of seconds, and the goals can come from no less than seven players. Even when a team seems to be building something, Atlanta can turn it against them before anyone has a chance to realize it was happening.


Every game contains an element of randomness, and any team can win any game; some teams will beat Atlanta this year without any type of gameplan – that’s soccer. That in mind, it’s inconceivable for any team to play the Five Stripes, particularly at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, without a specific approach. Just because you could win by random chance doesn’t mean you should plan for it.


Reviewing Atlanta’s games against Houston (4-0 loss), NYCFC (2-2 tie), Montreal (4-1 win), SKC (2-0 loss), and Chicago (2-1 win), I've settled on a plan I'd enact to take on Tata Martino’s men. Rather than a set of macro concepts, it’s a set of instructions that could be applied within a given team’s system and integrated within a week of training.


Two elements jump out as unwavering principles:


  1. Attack the channels immediately after winning the ball.


Atlanta send their fullbacks, Julian Gressel and Greg Garza, forward. Whether Atlanta play the 4-4-2 (as they did in their defeats against Houston and Sporting) or the 3-5-2 (as they’ve played in every other game), Gressel and Garza are a major part of the attack. As physics suggests, when they move forward, the space behind them empties. When the opponent wins the ball, there is a ton of space near the sidelines to exploit. Here’s a snapshot of Atlanta, in a 3-5-2, in a transition moment against the Fire.

Warshaw: Atlanta United are ditching the pack - here's how to keep pace - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/ATL%20transition%20d%201.png

Notice all the space to the side of Michael Parkhurst and Franco Escobar.


And here's NYCFC exploiting the space effectively to earn a PK:

The channels are so open that it’s nuts not to try to attack them. Over-attack them! Ensure someone is always running to the space as soon as the team wins the ball, and hit blind balls if you have to. The evidence suggests that – more times than not – the space will be open and the pass will work.


As an auxiliary point, Atlanta are fantastic at counter-pressing. Immediately after Atlanta lose the ball, they press and swarm to get it back. They are a threat to score even in the moments after they lose the ball. In hitting the channels right away, you are both exploiting Atlanta’s weakness and limiting their strength.


  1. Devise set piece plays that attack the back post.


Atlanta don’t have a roster with much aerial force. When a team lacks aerial ability, you want to put the ball in high, floated positions in which it becomes a jumping competition.


Empirically, Atlanta have given up chances on set pieces to the back post. Houston scored on one, while Chicago and NYC almost scored.

GOAL: Philippe Senderos' header doubles the Houston lead

It’s not hard to work on attacking set pieces during the week; that would be a simple and obvious way to create goal-scoring opportunities against Atlanta.


Beyond those two must-do concepts, there are a few other elements teams should consider:


  1. Keep a d-mid in front of the center backs at all times, even if it means you have to sacrifice possession.


This would be the biggest change for some teams, but it’s a necessary one. Atlanta’s biggest weapon is their transition attacks. The best way to stop those is having a defensive mid to either shield the center backs or fill in for outside backs.


It doesn’t mean a d-mid should avoid the ball. It just means he doesn’t run 10 yards to the side to check to the outside back to get the ball. There isn’t a pass the defensive mid could make that’s more valuable than the space he vacated.


As we could see in both the LAFC and NYCFC games, possession doesn’t necessarily translate to success against Atlanta. NYCFC had 55 percent of the ball while LAFC had 59 percent. (Each went down early and the game states might have contributed to the possession, but given that both are possession teams to begin with, it feels safe to say each would have had more of the ball against Atlanta regardless).


It seems worth it to sacrifice a bit of possession to ensure you are protected against the counter. I’m not sure it’s possible to implement this effectively for some teams in just a week, but it’s worth considering.


  1. Apply high, intense pressure on Atlanta’s build-up.


Here’s a breakdown of how the five teams defended Atlanta:


  • Houston- High press
  • NYCFC - High press
  • Montreal - Very compact middle-to-deep block
  • Sporting - Normal zonal middle block
  • Chicago - Split two strikers wide, Schweinsteiger pressuring the center backs, and man-marked the center mids, especially Almiron.


I would mix the high press and central man-marking schemes. I understand why Montreal and SKC decided to keep compact zones in their own halves – Atlanta are ruthless in open space – but I would argue that Atlanta is too good and too smart and will break a team down over 90 minutes. Atlanta have no problem going wide and finding ways to score.


The high press, however, has worked fairly effectively. It seems to unsettle Atlanta. A pressing scheme allows for space between players, but less space for any individual player. As a result, it appears to make Atlanta players uncomfortable and keeps them from gaining confidence. A lot of times a team makes simple passes just to get touches on the ball because getting touches on the ball is fun and feels nice. The touches don’t mean anything in the moment, but the confidence could mean something later in the game. Open-field transitions are often about making plays, and making plays is often about confidence. It all ties together.


I would high press and keep Atlanta’s players from ever getting time and space, simply to keep them from feeling comfortable or confident.


So, in general, I’d argue the best way to beat Atlanta is to hit them with swift, direct counters, well-devised set pieces, and high, intense defensive pressure. Does that sound like someone you might know?


Yup – the New York Red Bulls … whom Atlanta play on Sunday (7pm ET | FS1, TSN – Full TV & streaming info).


RBNY seem most suited to beating Atlanta right now. They will pressure the crap out of them all over the field, they will play the ball forward as soon as they win it, and they will probably have Tyler Adams track Miguel Almiron through the midfield, just as he did with Maxi Moralez when the Red Bulls picked apart NYCFC.


My only prediction for that game isn't about the score, because even though you can devise a plan, Atlanta field multiple guys who can change a game with one play. Whoever comes out on top, it’ll be high-paced and energetic and deliver. It's one of the games I’ve been the most excited for all year.