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De’s Nuggets: He totally meant to do that, right?

Making sense of a man of the match performer coming off the bench

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After weeks of disappointing performances mixed with a dash of hydroplaning, Atlanta United finally got their first MLS win of the season against New England. The Five Stripes put in a dominant 2-0 performance on 19 shots, 8 shots on goal, 16 chances created, and xG of 3.29 that came close to equaling the team’s total against MLS teams for the entire season.

Everything went according Frank de Boer’s master plan.

Well, not exactly.

Ezequiel Barco, who scored both goals, earned MLS Player of the Week honor, and would have won Heineken Man of the Match honors were he of legal drinking age, wasn’t in Frank de Boer’s starting XI.

Instead, Zeke came on for a concussed Eric Remedi early in the first half, then proceeded to score twice during what expert #ATLUTD troll Matt Doyle described as a “breakout performance.” It was Barco’s first multi-goal match in MLS, and he event notched two key passes off corners to boot.

The optimist in me, which I admit is small and shifty like Barco, was glad to see him put in his best shift yet for Atlanta and demonstrate once again how the hard work he put in during the offseason has paid off.

But the much larger pessimist in me once again came away from the match confused by FdB’s decision to start Barco on the bench.

From a tactical standpoint, I liked how FdB put out a team with four in the back and a midfield that allowed for a player to roam in behind Josef Martinez up top and Tito Villalba and Julian Gressel on the wings. Here he is during the post-match presser explaining his decision:

“Normally, [the Revolution] played a different system than they used to play. They [typically] play with two strikers and they didn’t today with Teal [Bunbury] more as a second striker. That’s why we put Darlington [Nagbe] on the ten position and coming to the midfield to track the central defender from them into the midfield, or if he stays, Darlington is free and Darlington is at his best when he gets the ball with a player on his back. He turns and he creates space for us, but also the rhythm of the game and I think he played a great game.”

All this worked out from the start, but things kicked into high gear once Barco came on for Remedi, which pushed Nagbe out of the 10 role and back into his standard midfield role focused on maintaining possession.

Barco was then given the chance to range in the space between the front line and supporting midfielders, and he thrived. As John pointed out yesterday, Barco’s pass chart shows just how far he roamed, and though his pass completion rate was relatively low, his pass attempts show how he was always looking to be aggressive and play the ball forward through the channels.

“You have to make decisions sometimes,” de Boer said. “He started on the bench, but you want that type of response from every substitute.”

The performance might have FdB rethinking his views on Barco. For nearly every match, he’s put Barco on the right side of a front 3, though he did change things up slightly when he started him on the left side against Monterrey. It might be time for FdB to put Barco in that 10 role for good. (And I know I’m speaking way too soon here, but we may finally be at the point where Barco starts to fill the Miggy void, which was really the long-term plan all along.)

I’m very interested to see how de Boer handles this weekend’s FC Dallas match at The Benz. Will he do what Tata Martino did so successfully and evolve his views on tactics and player selection? Will he go with Barco in this creative role, given it worked so effectively last week? Or will he keep tinkering and trot out yet another combination and permutation of Atlanta players?

The answer will teach us a bit more about how we should view FdB’s as a manager.