The experience of being a fan includes the elation of vicariously lifting trophies as well as the cynicism of owning yourself and others online when things are going disastrously. One of the secret ingredients to the magic of fandom though is the uncertainty — the conjecture of what’s yet to come. In soccer, part and parcel to this feeling is the joyful mystery around incoming transfers. As an Atlanta United fan in 2021, it feels great to be excited about uncertainty once again.
Specifically, this offseason the front office has gone out and addressed what is at times the most mysterious position of all: central midfielder. That they went out and found a couple of young Argentinian prospects in Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra makes this even more fun.
If you’re like me, you have a seemingly endless appetite for information on Atlanta United central midfield transfer targets. This post is a journal entry of sorts — assorted observations from watching some tape on these guys, and pulling a part what limited data is available, two inputs that you would hope your team is considering as it casts its net wide to upgrade its squad in any given offseason.
- 21 years old
- ~900+ minutes over 3 seasons for River Plate.
- Argentina U20 player
- He’s played mostly on the right side of a double pivot, or as a single defensive midfielder
- First thing I notice watching: He’s slightly bigger than I’d imagined, but perhaps slightly slower. He’s a ball winner, breaks up opponent possessions at high rates for a central midfielder in Argentina. Shows up often to intercept opposition passes.
- As far as I can tell, his passing is not great. It appears as though in his limited appearances at River, he’s either mostly not asked to progress the ball directly with his passes, or he’s not yet capable of it (although still young). He completes passes at a high rate in the low 80%s, but it’s tons of sideways/backwards passes, the occasional long diagonal, but not well hit. Occasionally starts a transition for the opponent. He has not to date orchestrated the advancement of the ball in buildup.
- Because he plays for River Plate, when he’s in a double pivot, he takes up more advanced positions sometimes in the opponent half when River are cycling the ball around, and he looks more useful here than as a lone defensive midfielder shielding the back line. Again, I’m not seeing anything that screams “special” in terms of what he does with the ball in these spells, but he should still be at least comfortable in these spots. Because he plays for River his opponents are probably sitting back a bit more, which might be closing him off from providing the more incisive passing noted above as absent.
- Sosa has stepped into the backline on the right side of a back three from time to time (roughly 15% of his appearances), so that’s a possibility.
- He has a give-away or two in him, nothing we haven’t seen before, glares at Eric Remedi.
- River Plate fans are upset to lose him.
- 19 years old
- ~900 minutes this year for Argentinos Juniors
- He has played as a single pivot, or on the left side of a midfield three, but often on the right side of a double pivot.
- First thing I notice watching: he’s aggressive. He’s shorter than Sosa and less imposing physically, but he’s everywhere. Maybe not a ball winner in the same physical way as Sosa, but constantly around the ball. He’s constantly being asked to apply pressure and try to take the ball. There’s a clip I love where the opponents Boca Juniors are trying to play out of their own third, and Ibarra’s the deepest lying midfielder for Argentinos, hanging out maybe at the top of his own third, but he rushes forward to apply pressure on a Boca player who is receiving the ball in his own half and facing his own goal. Tactically, shades of Carlos Carmona at Bobby Dodd stadium, charging forward to lead the press from the deepest midfield spot. In this same clip, Ibarra’s teammate recovers the ball after the pressure, plays it short to him, and Ibarra, one touch passes it back, then receives again, then with his weak foot quickly finds a progressive pass forward to an attacker in the final third. It was good. Which brings me to...
- His passing is very high-risk and progressive. He is being asked to advance the ball, and because of this, his overall pass % is lower, mid to high 70%s, but he is very often finding the feet of attacking players who are showing for the ball to move forward. I think part of this could be systematic, but it’s an exciting system and he looks good in it. Ibarra is very often recovering a ball or receiving a pass in a situation where he has a limited amount of time to look up and find a target, but either because of the system, or because of a certain mental picture of the field, he’s so often able to improve his team’s situation, to my eye at least. Exciting stuff in limited minutes. Hard to be certain.
- On that note, one of the most memorable moments I saw was also an unfortunate one. This guy rarely passes it backwards (in contrast to the more circulatory Sosa), but the one time I noticed him doing so it was a nightmare, to no one in particular and the opposition recovered it and were through on goal.
- Oh yea, he has a red card or two in him.
Fitting them in
If I had to choose one of these two guys for the starting lineup, against conventional wisdom I think it would be Ibarra, despite the more favorable pedigree for Sosa; however, it wouldn’t shock me if this was a false choice. The most common Gabriel Heinze setup at Velez and Argentinos Juniors was a 4-3-3 with the CDM dropping in between the center backs. Sosa has more experience being a metronome type at the base of midfield (but not a lot), and from what I could tell neither of these players has consistently played that exact “split the CBs” role Heinze requires. While I’d prefer to see a single pivot midfield-three this year, these guys are both very experienced doing the double-pivot thing, and you could imagine Heinze playing them in a pair, especially if he opts to go with a back three, something he was starting to use more and more before resigning from Velez.
My guess is that scouts at Atlanta see the highest upside in Sosa given his stature and coming from River, but I haven’t seen enough on film to spark much excitement around him. He might well develop into something great, but I’m not sure he’s here to provide immediate salvation in the center. Perhaps counterintuitively, my hunch is that Franco Ibarra is the one more likely to have that special something Atlanta United fans crave, a certain commitment and courage to seek the ball and then to advance it. He is also very raw and may not be perfect for a possession-intensive system, but there’s just something about him.
Thanks for reading the definitive scouting report on these two very young players with very little data available with which to make good judgments, which will in no way cause me regret a year from now.