Atlanta United's turnaround under Rob Valentino has been quite remarkable.
By the end of Gabriel Heinze's short tenure, the Five Stripes were tenth in the Eastern Conference with just two wins from 13 MLS games. More worryingly, the team looked devoid of fresh ideas or the confidence to try them.
Fast-forward just over a month and the picture is very different. Atlanta are now joint-seventh in the East and enjoying a four-game winning streak for the first time in MLS play since August 2019.
“I told the boys this morning I hope I bring the human element," Valentino said upon his instalment as interim manager. "In terms of tactics, I’ll do my best. We’ll all do our best to turn the results around. Take more risks, create more chances, score more goals and win games. But ultimately, we’re dealing with humans. We’re dealing with people.”
Though performances haven't been perfect under Valentino, they've been enjoyable. Atlanta play with more purpose and the likes of Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco seem far more willing and confident to drive the ball forward and take those risks. Josef Martinez is back among the goals (four in his last five appearances). And at centre-back, genuine chemistry is emerging between Miles Robinson, Alan Franco and Anton Walkes.
Atlanta attempted 20.75 take-ons per match under Valentino compared to 16.54 under Heinze. Big chances created are up to 1.38 from 0.46, shots on target 5.13 from 3.69, and attempted passes into the final third 119.38 up from 96.23.
Again, rather than anything overly tactical, this all comes down to confidence and the 'freedom' Valentino has given to his players.
“It wasn’t one thing. It wasn’t’ just like a magic switch. I think he gave a lot of confidence to the group," said Brad Guzan when asked about the key to Valentino's turnaround after Atlanta's 2-1 win over DC United on Saturday.
"I think he gave a lot of belief to guys to go and I don’t want to say play freely, but play freely within the team and how we wanted to play as a group. So, you started to see guys express themselves. You started seeing guys' ability individually and quality in what they could bring to the team.
"When you have that quality within the group and you have an idea of what you’re trying to do as eleven guys on the field and then that little bit of quality shines through, more times than not good things are going to happen.”
One of the biggest benefactors of the Valentino era has been Marcelino Moreno. The Argentine notched four goals and an assist in the eight MLS games under his interim manager (including the winner vs DC), compared to three and one, respecitvely, in 13 appearances under Heinze. Moreover, the 27-year-old is finally starting to look like the difference-maker Atlanta signed him to be last year, quickly turning defence into attack with driving runs and precision passing.
“I think there is a difference in the system," Moreno responded when asked to compare Valentino and Heinze following the DC win. "It is two different systems and two coaches that had different thoughts and the way they look at the game. For any sense, you have Gabriel that was a little more possession and defensive. Then you have Rob who, in his opinion, is going to attack and score goals.”
So, does Valentino's front-footed style suit Moreno more?
“I think so because I have more freedom when I am attacking," Moreno concluded, again pointing to the 'freedom' Valentino has given him and his teammates.
Valentino's time in charge is now over and fans can look forward to new manager Gonzalo Pineda taking the reins. Already, the Mexican has voiced his admiration for the style implemented by Valentino, who will stay on Atlanta United's staff.
"I don’t have to come and change things, especially because Rob Valentino has done a tremendous job," said Pineda during his first press conference.
"I’m excited to see where it’s going, because we can’t just stop here," Valentino said on Saturday. "We’re close, but look at the realistic position that we are in. We need to be better, we need to be higher up the table. There is a lot of work to go, but we are happy for the moment that we have and we will celebrate this moment.”
He's not the only one excited. For so long, Atlanta United's season looked like another write-off. Now, they're on the cusp of the playoff places with supporters finally able to look up the table at who to catch next.
They have the league's deadliest goalscorer back in form. Behind him, there's a supporting cast with the talent to do real damage in the post-season, guided by a manager credited with much of the tactical genius behind the Seattle Sounders' recent success.
And, once again, there's confidence and freedom flowing through the club.
It isn't job done yet, but there's no doubting Valentino has laid the foundations for Pineda to turn 2021 into a year of success for Atlanta United.