Atlanta United appear certain to refill their third Designated Player spot with the signing of Marcelino Moreno from Lanus.
Following the sale of Pity Martinez to Al-Nassr, Five Stripes president Darren Eales was quick to affirm that the club would move quickly to bring in a new DP, assuring fans that they haven’t given up on some form of success during what has been a challenging 2020 season.
“We always are looking to reinvest and reload,” he said ahead of Atlanta United’s 0-0 draw with Inter Miami earlier in September. “The reality is the specifics of this deal was in the best interest of the club and the player. But that isn’t saying we aren’t looking to have success this season. So we will be filling that DP spot.”
The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas and Argentine journalist, Martin Macchiavello, have reported that it is merely a “matter of time” before Moreno becomes an Atlanta United player, while César Luis Merlo also says the Five Stripes are “close” to securing their man.
So, with all sources suggesting the deal is nearly complete, what exactly will Atlanta United be adding to their squad and will Moreno help solve the myriad of problems plaguing the 2018 MLS Cup champions right now?
Speed, skill and energy
Something Atlanta United’s midfield has sorely lacked in 2020 — mainly thanks to the departure of Darlington Nagbe to Columbus Crew — is an ability to get the ball forward quickly with precise passing, direct dribbles and a general sense of urgency.
Indeed, despite completing the second-highest number of passes (5,189) throughout Major League Soccer in 2020, the Five Stripes have made the 13th-lowest number of passes into the opposition penalty area (70), while they rank way down in 17th for progressive passes (424).
Put simply, Atlanta United see plenty of the ball, but rarely try to progress it forward and make it easy for the opposition to set into a defensive block to repel any forthcoming attacks.
While Martinez was namely deployed as a creative player in the No.10 role, many feel that a midfielder to dictate further back is a more pressing issue for Stephen Glass to address.
Although he isn’t necessarily a sitting midfielder in the mold of Nagbe, Moreno does offer a much better box-to-box option than Martinez or arguably any of the midfielders still at Atlanta’s disposal. As can be seen by his 2019/20 actions map below — provided by Smarterscout — Moreno is comfortable receiving the ball in deep areas and driving it forward with direct dribbles, but is most often found directing Lanus’ play in the middle third, both combining in tight spaces with his teammates and spreading the play with long passes out wide.
His dribbling once again comes into play once he reaches the top of the opposition box and Smarterscout’s ratings system gives him a score of 98 out of 99 for that particular skill across the last two seasons. According to Argentine football expert Tom Robinson (World Football Index and GOLAZO), this puts him in the same wheelhouse as Miguel Almiron.
"He is a very direct, powerful ball carrier/dribbler – which I think sets him apart from Pity and Barco and closer to Almiron (if you had to make a comparison)," he told DSS.
"It helps that he also is at Lanus and pretty much stepped into the gap left by Almiron too.
"Having shown signs of his ability for the last few years, last season was his first really consistent run and he was really the driving creative force for Lanus and was in the top 10 players for offensive duels, progressive runs and dribbles last season.
"Other than that, he has a good range of passing, decent shot from range and has more strength and aerial ability than your typical diminutive Argentine attacking midfielder."
Lack of final-third output a worry?
Pouring over clips of Moreno’s performances for Lanus over the past few seasons will quickly lead you to the conclusion that the 25-year-old is a very skillful ball-player and someone whose direct style should make Atlanta United far more effective and proactive in possession.
However, you cannot deny a career total of just six goals and 13 assists in 106 club appearances is a worry. Atlanta United have scored just 15 goals in 14 games across all competitions and only seven of those strikes have come since the return to action following the coronavirus-forced lockdown.
Marcelino Moreno looking likely to be Atlanta United's next DP— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) September 14, 2020
From the clips I've watched, he seems very similar to Barco. Lots of speed, skill & energy. Ball-carrying & late arrivals in the box are his big strengths
His lack of final 1/3 output is a worry
✍️: @FelipeCar pic.twitter.com/LyNDXWFZEO
The injured Josef Martinez is obviously a huge miss with the likes of Adam Jahn and Cubo Torres failing to adequately fill his boots, while Ezequiel Barco continues to struggle for consistency — the departure of Pity only opens the offensive wound even further for Glass.
Still, it’s also important to remember that Moreno has greatly increased his output in the final third recently, scoring three goals and providing six assists across the 2019/20 season so far. For context, that accounts for just over 47% of his career total direct goal involvements.
"Certainly, I think he can up his productivity," Robinson said.
"Three goals and four assists might not jump off the page but if you watch more of him, you see his influence on Lanus and their subsequent success.
"I’d say he got man of the match in at least a quarter of their games and I think he’s really hitting form now and on an upward trajectory.
"Having said that, don’t expect him to suddenly become a goal machine overnight."
On Moreno's ability to transition to MLS -- undoubtedly a concern among fans given Pity's failure and Barco's inconsistency -- he adds: "Style wise, I have no doubts about his ability to adapt to MLS.
"Argentina can be fairly frantic and physical and, as I mentioned before, he’s got a more powerful, direct approach that would mean he should fit in fine.
"In my mind, the Argentinian players who have seemed to thrive in MLS are those who haven’t always necessarily had the physical attributes but have better technique, creativity, and vision than the rest of the league, whereas Moreno seems a halfway house as having more physical attributes fitting of MLS but perhaps not quite as skillful as Barco or Pity."
Where could Moreno line-up?
The most obvious position for Moreno to fill is the No.8 spot in a three-man Atlanta United midfield. Emerson Hyndman showed plenty of promise early in the season but has looked devoid of confidence following the lockdown and seems to lack the legs required to fulfill the crucial box-to-box role.
With Barco ahead of him in a central No.10 role, the Five Stripes would finally have two genuinely exciting players in the same midfield, will to ask serious questions of the opposition defence and providing unpredictability thanks to their ability to both find the defence-splitting pass and drive the ball forward on their own.
Who lines up behind Moreno would likely depend upon the opposition and how Glass wants to approach any given game.
Does he require the defensive solidity offered by the likes of Jeff Larentowicz and Mo Adams, or is he looking for someone to act as a pivot in position? In that scenario, the likes of Eric Remedi and Matheus Rossetto present better choices, and both have a point to prove right now.
All told, the signing of Moreno isn’t likely to solve all of Atlanta United’s problems in one fell swoop. However, he is almost certain to inject some much-needed gusto into the midfield, providing a drive and directness that has been practically non-existent throughout 2020.