If King Kong had walked onto the field and ripped the Spike out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, it probably would have left Atlanta fans feeling better than reality did.
Miguel Almiron limped off in the first half, and head coach Tata Martino confirmed after the game that the star midfielder is set to miss the final two games of the regular season with what's been diagnosed as a left hamstring injury. Atlanta have been the best team in MLS this season, and Almiron’s been a – for me, the – key part.
Almiron’s absence will stretch beyond the lineup implications. The Paraguayan isn’t a player you can replace with a simple like-for-like switch. He contributes more than his physical talent.
When we think of Atlanta’s most dangerous element, it’s the counter-attack. They can turn a defensive scrum in their own box into a goal scoring opportunity on the other end faster than anyone else in the league. That’s Almiron. He’s able to fly at high speeds with the ball under control, then make the right choice at precisely the right moment. He’s in a top-tier of counter-attack drivers with Carlos Vela, Diego Valeri and Ignacio Piatti. While Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel, and Darlington Nagbe can all ball, they can’t execute Atlanta’s most effective weapon as well as Almiron.
Similarly, Almiron generally acts as the problem-solver for Atlanta. When teammates appear to be trapped, he offers himself as the outlet; when Atlanta find themselves locked tactically, unable to untie a defense, Almiron is the one to move people around, often situating himself on the left and moving the left-sided player inside to provide a new look. Not many players can offer that blend of thought, bravery, and varied skill.
Finally, and perhaps most troublesome for Atlanta, Almiron’s energy and demeanor set the tone. The Five Stripes are an explosive, relentless, exhilarating team. Josef Martinez contributes a lot from the front with his always-focused, always-angry attitude, but forwards can only do so much to drive a team’s energy. Almiron flies around everywhere. He presses the ball in midfield; tracks runners into his team’s box; and flies forward on the break. And when your most talented player does all of that, it becomes infectious. Atlanta United aren’t just losing a uniquely talented player, they are losing a leader.
So what are Martino’s options?
Really, who knows? The former Barcelona boss has tried a bunch of formations and styles this year. But I see two divergent options for him.
He can insert Ezequiel Barco into the starting lineup as the like-for-like switch for Almiron. Everything would stay the same with Barco coming off the bench for Almiron. Matt Doyle and I covered the pros and cons, and even Martino acknowledged after Saturday’s match that it’s not a perfect fit:
Martino could also insert Franco Escobar into the starting lineup and move others around to take Almiron’s place. Escobar would play center back, right back or right wing back, freeing up Nagbe to become the highest center midfielder. Escobar could play right center back in the 3-4-1-2, Jeff Larentowicz could move back into midfielder, and Nagbe could move a line higher to Almiron’s role.
Or … Julian Gressel could move higher and/or central. Escobar would play right back or right wing back and Gressel could move to center mid, attacking mid or right wing.
Or the same idea in a 4-3-3:
And with that said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tata go even more outside the box and move Nagbe to the left, similar to the wide role he often took in Portland, to keep Tito Villalba on the right:
My gut says he opts for inserting Escobar into the lineup and uses either Nagbe or Gressel in Almiron’s spot. At this point in the season, coaches prefer players they trust, and it appears Martino works harder to get Escobar on the field than Barco.
Losing Almiron is a horrible turn of events for Atlanta, but something they have to deal with. They have two games to secure their club’s first trophy, plus whatever the playoffs might hold. They are going to need every ounce of Tata’s experience right now.