Heinze-ball! Valentino-ball! Pineda-ball!

A gif is worth a thousand words:

I’m one of the dummies who thought Gabriel Heinze would be a good hire for this team but my god was I – weren't we all! – dead wrong about that. They did a wonderful job of turning things around under interim manager Rob Valentino and then permanent hire Gonzalo Pineda, and eventually inched their way back into the playoffs.

So it was kind of a successful season, though “success” is a much lower bar in Atlanta than it was even just two years ago.

Formation and tactics

The formation under Heinze was who cares and the primary tactic was to alienate the players, fans and other coaches.

When Valentino took over he did his best to ditch the painfully methodical positional play scheme Heinze was trying to build, instead going for a mid-block 3-4-2-1 built around ultra-aggressive wingbacks and quick transitions out of midfield. They were still a possession-heavy team, but more of that possession occurred in their own defensive third than any other team in the league, with the idea being that they could pull the opposing backline up and then get into space behind them.

It worked really well, and Pineda’s no dummy so he mostly stuck with it. Though it’s worth noting he was much more willing to switch to the 4-2-3-1, and I suspect that formation is his long-term aim.

Highlights

Heinze was dismissed on July 18 and it’s not like Atlanta immediately kicked it into overdrive -- they went just 0-2-2 over the subsequent four games.

On Aug. 7, though, they came alive, beating the Crew 3-2 and kicking off a run during which they won seven of their next eight, and nine of their next 12. They’d won just twice all year up to that point – twice in half a damn season! – which should give you a feel for just how substantial a turnaround this was.

There were some truly big moments in there, including blow-out wins over Orlando City and Cincy, and a pair of six-pointers over D.C. United. Yes, the schedule was softer than it had been during the first half of the year, but Atlanta were playing good football and mostly beating the teams they came up against. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Still, even with that run, they found themselves needing a result on Decision Day to absolutely guarantee a playoff berth. And they somehow ended up trailing for 70 minutes, and then Miles Robinson equalized. But then Cincy were pushing to go ahead again, and then… then Josef did this:

He’s not yet the pre-ACL Josef we knew, but there are times where it’s plain to see that he is still, in fact, Josef.

Lowlight

The Heinze era made the Frank de Boer era look like the Tata Martino era. It was just gruesome, unwatchable anti-soccer that damn near led to dissent amongst the ranks before the season even kicked off. There is no other real competition for this season’s lowlight.

That said, let’s all remember the head-down dribbling, lack of diversity in off-ball attacking runs in transition (a real worry given how heavily reliant upon transition this team was in the second half of the season), and inept set piece defense on display in the playoff loss at NYCFC.

That was not a “we’re here to win” performance.

Revelation

I’m not sure anybody qualifies here? Marcelino Moreno had a much improved second year, but he was a big-money signing who wears the No. 10, so 9g/5a isn’t exactly revelatory. Robinson and Brad Guzan bounced back after tough 2020s, but given their pedigrees that’s not a revelation. Brooks Lennon was probably better than expected, but not mind-blowingly so, while George Bello made reasonable progress in his first truly healthy season.

Young George Campbell probably comes closest. He hadn’t shown much in what I saw of him from his USL appearances over the previous couple of years, but he gave Atlanta 600ish mostly quality minutes in late summer and early autumn when they really needed them.

Disappointment

Should I dunk on Heinze again? No? Ok let’s move along and I’ll just say it: For the fourth straight year I was genuinely disappointed in Ezequiel Barco. Year 1… alright, he’s young and it’s tough to adjust. Year 2… yep, filling Miguel Almiron’s shoes was a big ask, but he was good in the playoffs! Year 3… injuries and the De Boer mess. Mulligan granted.

Year 4? He’s not young anymore, he’s 22 with more than 10,000 career minutes, and he’s adjusting to the same thing everyone else on the team is adjusting to. And while he was better than his previous seasons, he managed just 7g/8a in 2500 minutes across all competitions and was the primary offender when it came to that head-down dribbling and aimless/non-existent off-ball work I mentioned above. When the ball gets to him, he just crushes any flow the Five Stripes might’ve been building, because when the ball gets to him it’s time for the Boat Show.

What does Sebastian Blanco do there, or Emmanuel Reynoso or Carles Gil? Hell, what do Luiz Araujo or Marcelino Moreno do in that spot? “Dribble directly into the center back” is not the answer.

This has been the story with Barco for years, though.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Josef (FW): He looked, what, maybe 65% healthy and still went for 12g/1a in 1700 minutes? Let’s hope he gets closer to 90% (I’m not gonna be greedy and ask for 100%) next year.
  • Araujo (W/AM): The 25-year-old DP winger cost A LOT, and while he didn’t precisely deliver, 4g/4a in 1200 minutes isn’t nothing. A year of familiarity and a full preseason should do him well.
  • Moreno (W/AM): Still not sure what spot is his best – he doesn’t really have the vision to be a true 10 – but good close control + great pass-and-move instincts is a nice foundation.
  • Robinson (CB): The best under-25 center back in the league by a decent margin and a championship-caliber foundational piece even if I’d argue a little bit with this Best XI selection for this season’s work.
  • Santiago Sosa (DM): Didn’t have the best debut season, but “arranges pieces on the chessboard” talent is there, even if I do worry that his lack of athleticism limits his upside.

Offseason Priority:

Seems likely Barco is gone and Thiago Almada is coming in (though Atlanta are frantically tweeting otherwise, at least for now), and having seen a good bit of Almada I’d be surprised if that wasn’t an immediate upgrade.

There are no serious reports of Robinson being sold. Alan Franco wasn’t great, but he settled in well after a rough start under Heinze. There is depth behind them, and there is depth in midfield, and there is depth at left wingback/LCB with Andrew Gutman’s return from his year-long loan with the Red Bulls.

It really is just “get Almada in, get Josef and Sosa healthy, and then work on getting more dangerous off the ball."