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Alan Franco: What can Atlanta United fans expect from their long-awaited new center-back?

Gabriel Heinze will be pleased.

Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s search for a center-back has finally come to an end after the signing of Alan Franco from Independiente.

With Fernando Meza departing on loan to Defensa y Justicia, it was vital Gabriel Heinze bolstered his defence with another addition. But the Five Stripes had already missed out on two previous targets, with Hector David Martinez choosing to go on loan to River Plate from Defensa y Justicia and Lautaro Giannetti failing a medical after a fee had been agreed.

So, what can Atlanta United fans expect from their new center-back? Let’s take a look.

What role will Franco play for Atlanta United?

Though he spent his final few games with Independiente as the middle center-back in a back three, Franco has played most on the right in a two-man partnership.

Regardless of which role he plays, Franco is incredibly aggressive and proactive, often stepping onto the opposition to apply pressure, while he’ll get close behind receiving forwards to step them turning on goal. Though he does sometimes come out a little too far to win the ball — leaving a lot of exposed space behind him — Franco’s aggressive nature and willingness to go hunting for the ball could make him a very useful player in Heinze’s high-pressing system.

When required, Franco is also able to sit off and cover space behind his backline. The 24-year-old has good positional awareness, allowing him to be in the right place at the right time to stop balls over the top of his full-backs, while he’s often well-placed to make interceptions and clearances when balls are delivered into his box.

As his Smarterscout actions map from the 2019/20 season shows, Franco plays a lot of long passes from the middle third of the pitch, while he is comfortable playing short link-up passes, too. From footage, it’s clear that he’s accurate when spraying long diagonals and doesn’t seem flustered when taking the ball under pressure, skilfully and carefully turning his way of trouble or playing around an opponent with quick, one-touch passing.

Each of those skills in possession will be vital for Heinze, who will expect Atlanta to be quick in transition — meaning Franco’s long passing can come into play, moving his side forward at speed — but also comfortable dominating the ball and patiently crafting an opening. This is where his short passing and ability to play through the press will come to the fore.

Where will he fit in with Atlanta United?

If Atlanta’s friendly against Charleston Battery is anything to go by, Santiago Sosa will operate as Heinze’s No.6, providing that first passing option and protection for his center-backs, and often dropping between them when the Five Stripes are either building out from the back or defending a counter-attack. Indeed, Sosa played as a center-back and holding midfielder hybrid in Atlanta’s CONCACAF Champions League game against Alajuelense.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see Franco being tasked with aggressively hunting for the ball as he has with Independiente, as it would leave a ton of space exposed behind him. That said, Miles Robinson is a superb one-on-one defender and the perfect partner for this sort of center-back.

Even so, Franco is more likely to stay put and allow others further forward to press for the ball. From here, he can easily cover his right-back — either Ronald Hernandez or Brooks Lennon — who will be expected to push forward and provide attacking thrust, pinning the opposition wingers back.

The fact that Franco is comfortable in a back three is an added bonus. Should Heinze switch that system, most likely bringing Anton Walkes into the starting XI, Franco could act as something of a libero, sweeping behind and hunting in front of his backline in equal measure, while being the most comfortable in possession would give him the responsibility of coming out with the ball, stepping into midfield.

What experience will Franco offer to Atlanta United?

At 24, Franco is still relatively young and will surely have his sights set on a move to European within the next couple of years. The hope is that Atlanta can get the best from him across two or three seasons, then sell him on at a profit. Even so, Franco still brings a wealth of experience with him relative to his age.

The Avellaneda-born defender already has one senior cap under his belt for Argentina, coming off the bench during a 3-0 win over Guatemala in 2018 — the same game in which scored his one and only senior international goal to date.

Franco also has over 30 games of combined Copa Libertadores and Sudamericana experience to his name with Independiente, including playing 12 games in the latter during the 2016/17 campaign as El Rojo ran out winners. The goalscorer for Independiente in the second leg of the final against Flamengo? Ezequiel Barco, who Franco says he has been in regular contact wit via video calls and will surely play a big part in his transition to life in Atlanta.

If he hits the ground running, Franco’s experience in big games and internationals will be invaluable to a team still in transition as Heinze makes his mark on the roster.