When Atlanta United square off against Columbus Crew SC Tuesday (8 pm ET | ESPN2, TUDN in US; TSN in Canada), it will not only be a must-win game for Frank de Boer’s squad, the Group E showdown will also be a reunion of sorts.
At the heart of the Crew’s midfield is Darlington Nagbe, who manned Atlanta United’s midfield the previous two seasons.
“For me he is the best midfielder, one of the best few midfielders in the league, so we’re going to miss him, that’s for sure,” De Boer said in a media conference call Sunday. “He’s a very important player for them, but he’s going to be a very important player for any team he plays for.”
De Boer lauded Nagbe’s calmness on the ball and comfort in small faces, even while being pressed.
“Not many in this league and also in Europe have that, like Frenkie De Jong, [Sergio] Busquets, those players, they scan their environment well and he has the same,” de Boer said.
Mostly, De Boer said, Nagbe reminds him of Busquets, the Barcelona veteran considered one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation.
Carr: Why Atlanta miss Nagbe so much
“He will not score many goals, maybe one or two a season, but he’s like the cement between the stones,” De Boer said. “He’s so important for them, but also in pressing when they lose the ball, he has the speed also to track back.”
While De Boer would prefer to still have Nagbe in his midfield, how do you go about replacing someone with those qualities? It doesn’t happen with one player.
“Mo [Adams] is defending very well and with Emerson [Hyndman], who’s more attacking and give assists and scoring more goals — Emerson scored two goals already, that’s more than Darlington Nagbe does,” De Boer said. “You have to try to find that balance in between and that’s how we’re going to approach it. Again, I’d prefer that he was still with us, because he was one of the best, but he decided to leave to Columbus, I wish him all the best. and I’m not complaining anymore.”
As for Adams, he's not concerned about filling Nagbe’s shoes.
“Nagbe’s a great player, and we all know that. No shame in saying that, I think for anybody,” Adams said. “The best way to show Nagbe respect is to not show him respect, in terms of getting up against him, putting the work in and putting him under pressure.”