Atlanta United: Gabriel Heinze is exactly what club needs

Atlanta United, Gabriel Heinze (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)
Atlanta United, Gabriel Heinze (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images) /

Atlanta United got it right by bringing Gabriel Heinze aboard

Like most football/soccer clubs around the world, Atlanta United struggled in 2020. They were so bad that they fired their manager, Frank de Boer, just five games into the season. Things only got worse under interim manager Stephen Glass as the Five Stripes won just four of their final 18 matches.

While it’s easy to blame such a horrible season on a pandemic, the underlying factors for Atlanta’s failure actually stem from de Boer’s hiring in December of 2018, as well as the front office’s personnel decisions (made in tandem with de Boer) made during the offseason following the 2019 season.

Hiring de Boer was a smart decision on paper; de Boer brought a winning background from his time with Ajax in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie and he brought playing experience from some of the biggest clubs in the world (Barcelona, Ajax). However, de Boer was never quite able to get the best out of the players at his disposal and his teams never looked comfortable. There were numerous reports of player unrest due to the manager’s unorganized tactical message and failure to connect with players.

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On top of having a mediocre manager, the front office decided to trade away or sell most of the team’s most important players.

Darlington Nagbe (traded to Columbus), Julian Gressel (traded to DC), Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez (transferred to Club Tijuana, now with Miami), and Hector ‘Tito’ Villalba (transferred to Libertad) were each an integral part of Atlanta’s trophies in the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Yet, the front office felt instead of paying these players, they could find players of equal productivity while paying less money.

These decisions led to the downfall of one of Major League Soccer’s best-constructed teams. De Boer’s style as manager was detrimental to the team already constructed, while further player personnel moves from the front office made the culture surrounding the team worse.

With Gabriel Heinze officially announced as the newest Atlanta United manager, we can discuss why Heinze is the right decision for a club looking to return to its winning ways.

Culture and organization

Heinze will hopefully be a reset button for the Five Stripes. The Argentine brings an impressive reputation, with former manager Sir Alex Ferguson praising Heinze’s intense attitude when the latter played for Manchester United back in the mid-2000s. This attitude will be useful in restoring a winning culture to a now dull locker room.

Much more will be brought with Heinze as he takes the reins of a floundering team. As a devout follower of fellow countrymen and current Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa, Heinze will bring a detailed and heavily organized tactical approach to a team seemingly lost on the pitch at times under de Boer.

Because of Heinze’s tactical background, fans should expect Atlanta to look more like the 2017 and 2018 versions under Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. Like Heinze, Tata is a manager who subscribes to the same attacking principles as Bielsa.

Heinze will still have to adapt to a somewhat mediocre stable of players. Recent additions like Jake Mulraney, Matheus Rossetto, Fernando Meza, and Brooks Lennon, all brought in as “replacements” for the players mentioned earlier, will have to prove their worth under an entirely new manager. It is possible Heinze will give these players slack due to the tumultuous 2020 season, but their performances this past season might not matter given Heinze’s coaching resume from Argentina.

It is well documented that Heinze took charge of a relegation-threatened Velez Sarsfield, only to bring them all the way to a third-place finish in the league in under a year and a half. That particular team, which was also on the younger side (average age of starting players: 24), proves that Heinze can take an inexperienced team and coach them to success. With this current Atlanta United squad still relatively unsettled, Heinze should be an excellent candidate to coach up the players.

That being said, moves have already been made since the 2020 season ended. It is likely these decisions were made with Heinze’s input. First Atlanta traded attacker Jon Gallagher to Austin FC in exchange for $225k in GAM. Atlanta also traded $175k in GAM to Nashville SC for a 2021 international roster slot. That signals the incoming signing of an international player, most likely of Heinze’s choosing.

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With Heinze’s tactical background as a Bielsista and his track record of coaching up young teams, this new hiring should be a great fit for Atlanta. Of course, many people, including myself, thought the same of Frank de Boer upon his hiring as manager. Time will certainly tell if the hiring of Heinze is the right one, but until then, it appears to be an excellent decision.