The gradual recovery of Ezequiel Barco from a season-opening quad strain has delayed one of the most delicate coaching decisions of the young season: How is head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino going to get him into Atlanta United's starting XI?
Ever since their ugly opening-weekend loss in Houston, Atlanta have been excellent. The Five Stripes have won four straight, including last weekend’s dismantling of LAFC. Martino’s men have been nearly flawless lately.
On one hand, Martino has a team that looks sharp, balanced, and cohesive on the field. On the other hand, he has a prodigal talent and $15 million asset on the bench. It’s easy to say it’s a nice problem to have, but it’s still a dilemma Martino has to face.
In their opening game in Houston, Atlanta started in a 4-3-3 formation. Houston sliced through Atlanta easily and trotted to a 4-0 win. The following weekend, Martino opted for a 3-5-2. While the move to the 3-5-2 has been one of the smartest tactical decisions of the year so far and has worked well over several games, it creates a slight problem moving forward; namely, it doesn’t have an obvious spot for Barco.
In preseason, it appeared Atlanta planned to play the same 4-3-3 they used in 2017, with Barco taking the spot at left wing from the departed Yamil Asad. When Barco was ruled out, second-year utility-man Julian Gressel stepped in to play winger. It seemed likely that Gressel would keep the position warm until Barco returned.
But when Martino switched to the 3-5-2, the winger position disappeared. The left winger, Gressel, moved to right wing back and the right winger, Tito Villalba, moved up top to partner with goal machine Josef Martinez. The position Barco was signed to play was no longer used by the team.
It’s not to say Barco can’t play a position other than winger; he’s also capable of playing as a central attacking midfielder, but that creates another problem. Among the names on the midfielders and forwards section of Atlanta’s team sheet are starters Jeff Larentowicz, Darlington Nagbe, Miguel Almiron, Villalba, and Martinez.
Who on that list does Tata sit? Almiron is the most electric player in the league. Martinez is scoring goals at a video game pace. Villalba has been excellent over the last 12 months. Nagbe is a US national team regular. And Larentowicz, the least sexy name on the list, has proven to be indispensable as the defensive midfield anchor that holds the group together, especially since Carlos Carmona left in the offseason.
Martino won’t want to take any of those players out of the lineup. For one, none of them would be happy to get benched. But he’s also built a reputation for developing deep relationships with his players. A large part of his approach as a manager depends on mutual trust with his players. To bench them could put their relationship at risk. I realize it’s easy for many fans to think that it’s part of a professional player’s job to deal with hearing that news and fight to get your place back, but it still can be painful to hear the news.
To avoid messing with the chemistry of his team, Martino could switch back to the 4-3-3 and insert Barco for Gressel as originally planned. Gressel entered the year assuming he would be a rotated player anyway. Since getting his opportunity, however, Gressel has made himself a vital part of the team. He’s produced the most chances created and key passes on the team, per Opta, as well as the second-most passes and touches. That’s right – over the first five games, the player on Atlanta that has created the most goal scoring chances isn’t Almiron or Nagbe or Villalba, but Gressel. So while Atlanta’s plan might have depended on Gressel’s willingness to take a backseat, Gressel has pushed himself into the driver’s position.
Overall, there isn’t a clear option for Martino. If Martino wanted to pull something out of his sleeve, he could adjust the formation slightly to look more like a 3-4-3 than a 3-5-2. Barco could play left winger, Nagbe left midfield, Villalba right winger, and Gressel right midfield. It doesn’t suit other players, namely the center backs who would be left with more ground to cover than they would prefer, but it puts Barco back into a spot he’s familiar with. Greg Garza would be the one moved to the bench. It seems silly to think about, but so does every other option to get Atlanta’s best 11 players on the field when everyone’s healthy.
And perhaps that’s the out that Atlanta management expect in the situation. Over the 29 remaining games, they might rarely have everyone healthy. On the day after Barco returned to training, Martinez pulled himself out of training midway through the session, though he returned to the practice field on Thursday. The point of depth is to have protection for inevitable injuries. When Almiron missed a couple games late in 2017, Atlanta didn’t look like the same team. With an extra starting-caliber player, the hope is the loss of a single player doesn’t hurt as bad.
Atlanta still have time, too, before they need to decide what to do with their full allotment. Barco returned to training this week, but it should be at least 10 days before he’s ready to make a gameday roster. Every player is different, but the usual recovery regimen after an injury includes: shutdown from activity, rehab in the weight room, soccer specific rehab alone on the field, partial training with the team (warm-up and technical drills), then at least a week of full training before being considered for a match. Even then, they would likely ease Barco into the game with 30-minute stints before considering him to start.
Martino still has time. But when the time comes, it’ll be interesting to see how the famed Argentine manager pieces the puzzle together. He won’t complain about having so much talent, but it’s a problem he needs to solve nonetheless.