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The Bielsa Report: Five things NYCFC supporters should know about Atlanta United

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We analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Atlanta United squad

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The Bielsa Report is named for Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, and the comprehensive if legally suspect research he conducts on opposing teams.

1. The Atlanta United backline is young, fast, and big

Atlanta’s defense is anchored by Designated Player Alan Franco, the 25-year-old Argentine from Club Atlético Independiente, Miles Robinson, the 24-year old USMNT starter, and Anton Walkes, the 24-year-old English player first signed by Tottenham Hotspur. All three are over 6’, and all three have pace.

Atlanta allowed only 37 goals this year, one more than NYCFC. You could argue that Atlanta’s defense turned around the season and lifted the team into the playoffs.

2. Miles Robinson vs Taty Castellanos will be spicy

Robinson shut down Hirving Lozano and the rest of the Mexican attack in the USMNT’s cathartic 2-0 win over Mexico last Friday—before he was sent off in the 89’ for a second yellow card. It was an uncharacteristic lapse for Robinson, who seldom gets into foul trouble. In fact, the defender has only one yellow card for the entire 2021 regular season—which he earned in the October 20 game against NYCFC.

It sets the stage for a picante matchup in the Bronx: The physical Castellanos, with his upper body strength and general love of mixing it up in the box, pitted against the equally physical Robinson, flying high after beating Mexico (and rested after sitting out the USMNT’s away game in Jamaica).

Put simply, we’ll see the best striker in MLS going head-to-head with one of the best defenders in the United States.

3. George Bello is good

The 19-year-old George Bello is having a breakout year, and his overlapping runs up and down the flanks are drawing the attention of European clubs.

That could give Bello something to play for. Or it could prove to be a distraction for the Atlanta homegrown. Note that Bello was capped for the USMNT in October but wasn’t called up in November, while NYCFC’s James Sands was added to the roster for the game against Jamaica on November 16.

4. 3-4-2-1 or 4-2-3-1?

After taking over the club in August, Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda has favored a 3-4-2-1 formation that proved to be effective in the back—and lackluster up front. While the defense allowed a mere 37 goals this season as noted above, the offense scored only 45, far off the blistering 70 scored in 2018, or even the 58 scored in 2019 under hapless manager Frank de Boer. Atlanta’s attack doesn't have much of a bite.

That was on display when Atlanta drew the New Jersey Red Bulls 0-0 in a sluggish game on November 3. Still, Pineda stuck with the 3-4-2-1 against Cincinnati on Decision Day, and promptly fell behind 1-0 to the worst team in MLS.

The manager switched to a 4-2-3-1 at halftime, and Atlanta roared back to win the game 1-2. As our colleagues at Dirty South Soccer put it:

“The move paid immediate dividends as the Five Stripes completely dominated the ball, all while looking much more comfortable, fluid, and dynamic. One particular highlight of the shift in tactics was the involvement and effectiveness of Josef Martinez. He simply looked like a different player in the 4-2-3-1 as the focal point.”

Will Pineda return to old habits and try to win the game by attrition by locking down NYCFC’s attack with a 3-4-2-1? Or does he like his shiny new 3-4-2-1, and the freedom it gave to a Martinez rediscovering his form after injuring his hamstring in early October?

5. Atlanta hates Yankee Stadium, Atlanta Loves Yankee Stadium

We’ll say it again: The five-a-side field at Yankee Stadium is NYCFC’s secret weapon. Other teams accustomed to a regulation pitch, with a flat surface and parallel lines and corners that have right-angles, are at a disadvantage when they come to the Bronx.

In fact, Dirty South Soccer writes that Atlanta is “training on practice fields painted to its exact dimensions,” and Pineda reportedly said playing at Yankee Stadium feels “twisted.”

Atlanta’s regular-season record at Yankee Stadium bears that out: Zero wins, one draw, two losses. Even more juicy, NYCFC has outscored Atlanta at Yankee Stadium 8-3. (In June, NYCFC beat Atlanta 1-0 at Red Bulls Arena.)

The postseason record is different. In 2018, NYCFC lost to Atlanta 0-1 at Yankee Stadium as the Five Stripes rolled on to win the MLS Cup.

That makes handicapping this game a candlestick-or-faces optical illusion: Do you see an Atlanta that essentially never wins at Yankee Stadium? Or an Atlanta that always wins at Yankee Stadium?

One more thing:

Waka Flocka recorded an anthem for Atlanta and it dropped on Decision Day. It slaps.

There’s nothing here to criticize. We’re not even going to poke fun at Atlanta United President Darren Eales, who puts on a cheetah-print track-suit, drinks whisky (or is it tequila?) from the bottle, and makes it rain in the dressing room. He pulls it off in his C-suite fashion.

Dirty South Soccer reports that this is the first single in more than six years from Waka Flocka, and that he’s a legit Atlanta supporter. You have to respect that.