Many people will tell you that the central defensive midfield role is the most important for a successful MLS team. That’s probably because the defensive midfield role is the most important position in soccer, no matter the league. If you identify some of the best defensive midfielders in the world, it comes as no surprise that you find them on the best teams. Sergio Busquets at Barcelona. N’Golo Kante at Leicester City last season when they won the Premier League, and now at Chelsea who’s currently a heavy favorite to lift the league trophy. Carlos Carmona will prove to be just as important for Atlanta United this season, for better or for worse.
Atlanta United has splashed the cash on lots of fancy things, for lack of a better word, and continue to make headlines for employing such an attractive brand of soccer in MLS. Tata Martino is a world-renowned coach known for an up-tempo attacking style. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, two of the team’s Designated Players, are setting the league alight with their speed, dynamism, and goal scoring prowess. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, so you’re forgiven about overlooking Carlos Carmona. But you should try to pay attention to him, because Atlanta United’s success in the standings will undoubtedly be correlated with his ability to play often and play well for the Five Stripes.
So why is Carmona such a central figure in a team that is all about attacking? First, every team needs balance. Despite so much of Atlanta’s resources being allocated toward the players who are likely to get on the score sheet, it’s all for naught if the team is constantly leaking goals and can’t win games. Secondly, he’s a seasoned veteran who can help organize the young midfielders around him. Believe it or not, the next oldest of the regular starting midfielders this season is Julian Gressel, a rookie playing alongside Carmona in the middle of the field.
Tactically, Carmona fills a vital position. When the team has the ball and is pushing forward, Carmona is a central figure in helping the team retain possession. That’s not to say he’s an excellent passer, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s intelligent and moves around the field so that he’s available to receive the ball from his teammates, and he doesn’t try things that are too risky. Short, simple, quick passing is Carmona’s style, much different than a defensive midfielder in the mold of an Andrea Pirlo who wants to dictate the game. Carmona knows his role is to keep the team solid defensively and distribute the ball to the attacking players as quickly and simply as possible.
Let’s look at some of these aspects from Atlanta’s debut against New York Red Bulls. Carmona missed the Minnesota match due to suspension, missed most of the Sounders match due to fatigue, and his role was drastically different vs. Chicago when the team played against 10 men for 80 minutes. The things Carmona does in these clips are not highlight reel types of plays, but they’re vital for a well-functioning team. (He’s No. 14 and wearing orange boots.)
This one’s short, but it’s a good example of Carmona’s mobility and how it helps the team. In fact, his ability to move laterally on the field is a primary reason why Atlanta is able to effectively play a 4-3-3. I don’t think Jeff Larentowicz is capable of covering ground like this, especially when you take a look at the clock and realize the game is in it’s later stages. Although he isn’t used here, you can see how determined he is to make himself available for Garza as an option to receive a pass.
Speaking of passing, here’s a simple move by Atlanta playing the ball out from the back. NYRB are well known for their relentless press, but you can see why Atlanta forced New York to change the shape. Here, they’re trying to implement their press with the two forwards, but with Carmona staying in close proximity to the center backs, Atlanta was able to easily pass around them, rendering the press ineffective. Also worth noting here is the manner in which Carmona positions himself with respect to the back line, dropping between the two center backs. I’ll be interested to see if this movement becomes more pronounced as the season progresses and the team becomes more comfortable in possession. Possession-heavy teams often have the defensive midfielder drop between the two center backs who flare out much wider than you see here, creating a 3-4-3/3-3-1-3 ( a famously used formation by Marcelo Bielsa, who Martino played under at Newell’s Old Boys).
And finally, we get to what Carlos Carmona does best, which is to take up smart positions marking players who try to find space between the midfield and defense. Carmona closes down intelligently, and while he doesn’t really touch the ball much, he greatly affects the general play.
Carlos Carmona has a vital position in the team tactically, and his experience and savvy will be leaned upon throughout the season. It’s imperative that he stays fit, as I’m sure he’ll play well if he does. It would be hypocritical of me to chastise him for the red-card he deservedly earned late in the game against NYRB, but hopefully he’s able to control himself better when things don’t go his way as the season progresses. He’s a great player for the league and a perfect fit for what Tata Martino wants to do tactically, and he just might prove to be Atlanta’s most important player of the season.