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Tactics Revisited: What Atlanta Does Well, and How to Beat Them

After a lifeless Open Cup showing, can NYCFC bounce back?

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC continues to be arguably the most uneven team in MLS. Just days after a feel-good win at Yankee Stadium, their geographically confused neighbors once again beat the stuffing out of them.

The Boys in Blue were riding high following a 3-0 domination of an Orlando City side that looked lost without leading scorer Dom Dwyer. Their Open Cup match on Wednesday was a wash from the word “go”. A (second straight) 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls with a goal in the first two minutes paired with a 4th consecutive season wherein NYCFC haven’t won an Open Cup game is as bitter a pill as there is to swallow.

But there’s no time for pouting, as they may face their toughest test of the season. The white-hot Atlanta United are coming to town.

While stopping the Holy Trinity of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Ezequiel Barco is nigh impossible with a full squad, NYCFC have gotten some rather bad news: Yangel Herrera will miss the remainder of the season following an ankle injury suffered at Houston. While he was certainly up-and-down, NYCFC were clearly better with him in the starting lineup.

Whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty person, NYCFC’s 2-2 draw with Atlanta could fit into both narratives. On one hand, NYCFC took points away from arguably the best team, in maybe the toughest environment in MLS. On the other hand, Atlanta missed several chances to take the lead. Now, with their impeccable form, they likely won’t miss them. Here is what Patrick Vieira has to do to keep the Five Stripes at bay.

THE FORMATIONS

Atlanta have made one small variation to their usual 3 at the back formation now that Barco is fully healthy and ingrained in the squad. Instead of a 3-1-4-2 with Jeff Larentowicz as the sole defensive midfielder, they have switched to a 3-4-1-2 with Julian Gressell and Chris McCann as wing backs. With McCann unsure for this game due to a hamstring injury, Mikey Ambrose may end up getting the start. Miguel Almiron has slid back into an No. 10 attacking midfield role, with Barco acting as a second striker/center forward. Josef Martinez, — who just tied the MLS record for hat tricks in 31 fewer games than it took joint record holder Stern John — is the only true striker.

NYCFC’s fluid 4-3-3 formation went out the window after 35 minutes. Jo Inge Berget, Jesus Medina, and Ismael Tajorui-Shradi were supposed to vacillate between each of the three attacking positions, but ITS’s injury thrust David Villa onto the field, where he proceeded to do what he does and level the game at 1-1 with a penalty. Their three-man midfield needs retooling, as Maxi Moralez has been playing in more advanced positions since their last match and Ebenezer Ofori will likely replace Herrera. Unless NYCFC stick with their 3-at-the-back formation that just doesn’t work as well when the play a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the defensive quartet from the Atlanta game should trot out there once more. Maxime Chanot hasn’t featured in several weeks, and if Vieira doesn’t feel comfortable with the Luxembourgian, Sebastian Ibeagha will start.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Ring has long been the under-appreciated star of NYCFC’s roster. While David Villa and Tajorui-Shradi soak up all the glory, Ring bosses the midfield on a weekly basis. NYCFC supporters have longed for the Finnish international to open his MLS goal-scoring account, and he did so in spectacular fashion with his golazo against Atlanta to tie it at 2-2.

Ring’s goal put a cap on a terrific performance controlling Josef Martinez. When he gets in the box, there isn’t a better striker in MLS than the Venezuelan. Limiting him to 18 touches all game and just 2 in the attacking third has to be encouraging for Patrick Vieira to see.

With two teams that both like to control possession (albeit with Atlanta operating at a quicker tempo than NYCFC), the Boys in Blue were able to win the possession battle 55-45. Beating Atlanta is tough enough as it is. Allowing them to have most of the ball, especially in the final third, is a death sentence.

WHAT WENT WRONG

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Almiron is the best player in MLS and if you disagree then you’re flat out wrong. Sebastian Giovinco, Carlos Vela, and others have good cases, but the young Paraguayan is having an absolutely torrid first part of the season. With six goals and six assists and dwarfing all other midfielder in shots, Almiron is deadly with the ball at his feet.

While he only chalked up one assist, Almiron played much better than that in ATL’s first meeting with the Bronx Blues. While Atlanta’s “pick your poison” offensive trio means that you’re going to get sliced and torn asunder by one of them to a certain degree, stopping Almiron should be priority #1. Martinez isn’t as dangerous when he can’t get service into the box.

NYCFC’s second conceded goal, assisted by Almiron, underscores their struggles on set pieces. Vieira’s relentless commitment to zonal marking has bit NYCFC in the butt several times, including against Atlanta. With several quality set piece takers and finishers, NYCFC have to tighten up.

The odds all three of Atlanta’s big guns are held in check are slim to none. But if NYCFC can hold down the fort and take down their Eastern Conference foes, they’ll not only put their Open Cup disappointment behind them, but they’ll have the knowledge they can go toe to toe with anyone in MLS (except Red Bulls, apparently).