Baer: What Atlanta United will miss without Darlington Nagbe

Darlington Nagbe - Atlanta United - Close up

Atlanta United are rolling. The second-year club currently sits at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings and enters its Saturday night match against Orlando City SC (7 pm ET | ESPN — Full TV & streaming info) as the odds-on favorite to take home the trophy, which would be the first in team history.

But a roadblock did appear this week, as it was announced that midfielder Darlington Nagbe will be sidelined for 2-3 months with an adductor injury. The 27-year-old US international has performed well in his first season with the Five Stripes and was named to the 2018 MLS All-Star Game Fan XI presented by Target prior to the announcement that he would have to miss the match.

Nagbe came to Atlanta after seven seasons with the Portland Timbers and his role was a bit up in the air upon arrival, as Carlos Carmona was still with the club. Upon the Chilean’s departure it became clear that Nagbe would take over the box-to-box midfielder role that Carmona had occupied in 2017.

How he's fared

The two play the role very differently. Carmona was a more physical presence but he did not lack for technical quality, as evidenced by his 89.36 percent passing accuracy, so Nagbe would have to show his ability to drive through the midfield, keep the ball and create dangerous opportunities from open play to prove his worth.

“Darlington had the highest retention rate of possession in the league this year, which is excellent. We see him coming in as a big connector, someone that is dynamic and also dribbles his way out of trouble. He pulls opposition out of their position,” Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra said back in December. “He creates space for other players. That’s where we see that he benefits our club with his ability on the ball, his ability to run with the ball to retain possession and to bring other people into the game was why he became our number one target.”

He has mostly been able to accomplish this feat.

While he’s attempting fewer passes per 90 minutes than Carmona did in 2017 (54-44), Nagbe has been an influential presence in ATLUTD’s attack this season.

% of Passes in Final Third
Shots Per 90
Chances Created Per 90
Dribbles Completed Per 90

His 1-v-1 ability shows in the table above and he has been more of a presence in the final third and attacking areas than Carmona ever was. This has come without the discrepancy in defensive actions you would expect to see when comparing the two players.

Tackles Per 90
Interceptions Per 90
Recoveries Per 90

What’s important to remember is that head coach Tata Martino did shift from the 4-2-3-1 he played in 2017 to a 3-4-3 in 2018 after a 4-0 shellacking at the hands of the Houston Dynamo on opening weekend. That switch added an extra body in the midfield/defense while sacrificing an attacker.

Options going forward

Now that Nagbe will be out until late August at the earliest, Martino will have to find a way to replace the connecting presence the Ohio native provided. We know in the short term that Kevin Kratz or Julian Gressel will be asked to fill in, but neither possess the same athleticism and passing skills that Nagbe does.

Long term, Eric Remedi figures to occupy a place in Martino’s midfield. The Argentinian defensive midfielder was signed on Tuesday and will be available for selection when the Secondary Transfer Window opens on July 10. The 23-year-old is billed as more of a No. 6 than a No. 8 so it remains to be seen how much he or Jeff Larentowicz could replicate Nagbe’s production.

What we do know is that Atlanta’s attack has been super-charged with Nagbe in the midfield. Their expected goals and passing accuracy figures have improved, even with their possession percentage dropping off 4.5 percentage points.

Expected Goals Per 90
Passing Accuracy
Passing Accuracy in Final Third

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the value of Nagbe. We might just figure it out in his absence over the course of the next couple of months.