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Breaking down Ezequiel Barco’s first start for Atlanta United

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Barco only makes Atlanta’s attack more potent.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Los Angeles Galaxy Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At just 18-years of age, Ezequiel Barco cost $15 million. He was most expensive signing in MLS history. He scored the winning goal in the Copa Sudamericana final for the famous Club Atlético Independiente. Suffice it to say, consensus opinion tells us that Barco is one of the world’s brightest prospects.

But despite the expectations and hype, one important part of the equation was missing here in Atlanta. Thanks to a quadricep injury in the final week of preseason, Barco had yet to touch the pitch in an MLS match. We finally got our first look in a cameo appearance against NYCFC on Apr. 15. But Saturday’s victory against Los Angeles Galaxy gave us a much clearer idea of what to expect from the Argentinian.

In L.A., Tata Martino deployed the youngster in Atlanta’s most fluid and creative position. And the young gun’s impact was enormous over an 83-minutes where Barco showed us exactly what the hoopla was all about.

By the Numbers

Before we dive into the match itself, let’s discuss how Barco was used on Saturday by Martino. Barco was deployed underneath striker Josef Martinez in Atlanta’s 3-5-2 formation. Several weeks ago, we discussed the “free role” this position entails, which sees Martinez deployed as a traditional No. 9 on the last defender, while the other striker is allowed the freedom to roam into space wherever he sees fit. The freedom afforded to this position usually gives us a good idea of a players’ preferred individual game - Tito Villalba wanted to come deep into wide areas to beat fullbacks for pace, Miguel Almirón prefers to drift to his left or even come all the way back into midfield to get the attack moving. But after one match of Barco, we saw that he is a quite different individual player from both, offering another type of option in attack.

The numbers from Barco’s first match may end up speaking volumes with respect to his play style. In his first start, Barco attempted 57 passes. Almirón averaged 38 passes in his two starts up top, while Villalba just 17 (slightly skewed as he was subbed before the 65th minute in each start). This indicates not that Almirón or Villalba are poor passers, but more so that both prefer a more direct style of play to Barco when playing up front (especially Tito), looking to pass and move vertically and drive at defenders.

Another number that gives us a better clue is dribbles-per-game. Barco is known as an exceptional dribbler, but Almirón averaged more dribbles in his time with AU than Barco ever did at Independiente. Again, this paints the picture of Barco being less likely to drive at defenses, more so looking to pass.

Also interesting is Barco’s amount of “key passes” in his time at Independiente (that is, any pass that leads directly to a chance), which beats out Almirón despite the fact that the Paraguayan completed far more overall passes per game as Atlanta’s central playmaker, while Barco was usually positioned out wide at CAI. Once again, this paints the picture of Barco as a patient playmaker, rather than the 100 miles-per- hour-attack-style of Almirón or Villalba. If this were not the case, he wouldn’t be averaging so many key passes compared to overall passes completed.

(all stats from whoscored.com)

A Different Element in Attack

Now, let’s take a look at the film from Saturday, and view the different styles of play from Almirón and Barco up close. Just watch below and see how the two handle a virtually identical scenario on the attack.

When Almirón receives the ball in that dangerous position wide left, he barrels down towards goal with a full head of steam, looking to play the quick one-two with Barco and get in behind. With Barco in a similar situation moments later, he elects to slow the play down and cut inside, switching a perfectly weighted ball to Julian Gressel. In each scenario, a dangerous opportunity is created, just in different ways.

Let’s not forget Barco makes a strikingly similar contribution for Josef Martinez’ opening goal, making the decision to hold the play up around the box and find the incisive ball.

Once again, Barco’s uncanny ability to maintain possession in the area of the pitch where the defense is tightest is on full display. And also once again, it’s a lovely switch of play to Gressel that creates the opportunity.

Interchange with Miggy

Another positive was the immediate connection between Barco and Almirón, and how their different styles of play perfectly complimented each other, allowing them to seamlessly swap positions in attack. As discussed earlier, Almirón is a more direct player who wants to run at goal with or without the ball. With Barco’s ability to hold up the play, Almirón is free to make forward runs like a striker, while Barco sits in behind as a No. 10 might, looking to start the play with a pass to Miggy.

We saw an early preview of this below, as Barco holds the ball and then finds the Atlanta No. 10 for a half chance.

Moments later comes a similar sequence, this time winning a penalty kick for the Five Stripes.

In both instances, we see Barco’s ability to slow down play, and then play the perfect pass to the speedy Paraguayan. Watch in both clips as he doesn’t rush the play despite a defender watching his every move, allowing the Paraguayan time to make his run and exploit the space. Simply put, this is a nightmare to defend, as opposing players must keep tight on Barco, who is likely to play the deadly pass at any time, while also staying aware of Almirón making the trailing run out of midfield, one of the hardest runs to track for any defense.

It would seem the chemistry between these two is already scary good. And the duo have only played just over 100 MLS minutes together.

The Barco Effect

Martino wants his secondary striker to play with absolute freedom. And we saw Barco’s approaching this freedom slightly differently than others who have played in the same position for Atlanta. While he does have the capabilities of an Almirón or Villalba with the ball at his feet, he also has the ability to slow the game down and pick out the perfect pass, something that isn’t a strength of Almirón or Villalba's game, with both looking to play almost exclusively at a quicker pace.

After just one match, Ezequiel Barco’s imprint was obvious. The starlet created the first goal and numerous chances. Mean time, Atlanta won the possession battle with a back three for the first time this season.

In Barco, the Five Stripes not only have another gifted attacking player. But they also have a much-needed different type of player in attack, making defense’s jobs even harder when they line up against Atlanta United.