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Examining Santiago Sosa’s role in Gabriel Heinze’s Atlanta United side

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Atlanta United’s scrimmage against the Charleston Battery offered hints on Gabriel Heinze’s tactics and Sosa’s key role.

When Atlanta United signed midfielder Santiago Sosa from River Plate on a multi-million dollar transfer earlier this winter, it was easy to envision the player dominating the ball, picking out creative passes, and serving as a crucial playmaker in a side that desperately needed it.

But when Sosa was asked to define his role in the team under new manager Gabriel Heinze, the first thing the 21-year-old mentioned wasn’t about the passing, the skills, or the creativity. The first thing Sosa he spoke about was positioning and being aware defensively.

“I think my role is to give fluidity to team, to be in position at all times both offensively and defensively and to pay attention when we are in attack,” Sosa said through a translator to media on Tuesday.

Just days earlier, Atlanta United fans were granted their first chance to watch the player in action. And what stood out maybe more than anything was his positioning on the field — a deeper and more defensive role than most would have anticipated.

Saturday against Charleston, Sosa assumed the standard positioning that you’d expect of a player in his role when the team was in its defensive shape, sitting in front of the center backs and closing down any attackers trying to find space between the midfield and defensive lines.

Sosa remained in this position when the team built up from the back, using this three-man triangle to outnumber the opposition and find passing routes forward to set up the attack.

But this is where things get interesting, and where it seems that Sosa has been focusing on his role under Heinze. Once Atlanta’s buildup progressed through or past Sosa and comfortably into the opponent’s half of the field, the two center backs pushed up the field very high — almost into spaces that midfielders might typically patrol — while Sosa dropped deep in between the two. In this possession shape, Sosa becomes Atlanta’s deepest outfield player.

This positioning potentially serves a couple of different functions for the team. In possession, Sosa serves as the primary passer of what becomes a back 3 in possession. Here, it’s hard for the opponent to apply too much pressure on Sosa, and a player with his technical ability will surely be able to deal with whatever an opponent might be able to throw his way. For Sosa specifically, it seems to play to his strengths, as a player who can reliably receive, possess, and recycle the ball. Dirty South Soccer covered this in a brief scouting report on him and teammate Franco Ibarra following his signing:

“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.”

This is more-or-less what we saw from Sosa Saturday — a steady passer who moved the ball along and kept the attack ticking. Saturday, on occasion, he was able to pick out some longer passes to the fullbacks stationed in high and wide areas.

But let’s return to what Sosa described about his role: “to pay attention when we are in attack.” I’m interpreting this statement as an awareness of how to react when the ball turns over, and Sosa’s job from this position is to decide whether it’s more prudent to jump up into midfield on a counter press, or, if it’s a more dangerous counter attack in situation, supporting the center backs and protecting the goal.

Alternatively, in this shape with Sosa at the back, the center backs (presumed to most often be Alan Franco and Miles Robinson) will be stationed higher and may jump in to win a duel themselves. This position gives Sosa the opportunity to better read these situations and decide the most prudent move to complement the players around him.

Overall it appears Sosa’s role as Heinze’s “No. 5” is truly a midfield/defense hybrid role — a helpful passer when the team is attacking, but always with an eye toward keeping the team in position to defend.