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Atlanta’s Swiss Army Knife: Franco Ibarra

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Where is his best position? And where will Heinze use him most?

MLS: CF Montreal at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When Atlanta United signed Franco Ibarra ahead of the 2021 season, most people expected — more than anything — someone to compete with Santiago Sosa for the No. 6 pivot in the midfield. The most notable entry in Heinze’s style is this Regista that can convert the back-four into a back-three on the transition. While Ibarra sometimes fit himself as a No. 10 at Argentinos Juniors, he thrived more in a deeper position in the midfield.

So far though, Heinze has utilized Ibarra in three distinct roles in Atlanta’s first nine matches. Here we’ll discuss each role, and where Ibarra is expected to line up most often this season:

Joint No. 6

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Inter Miami CF Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

In positions where Heinze wants the fullbacks to play high and wide, he will typically line Sosa up strictly as a centerback. Sosa may push higher into the central third, but typically in this position it is up to the two players in front of Sosa to dictate the forward progress of the midfield. Let’s look at some positioning from Atlanta’s first CCL match against Alajuelense:

Here, Ibarra and Hyndman play level to each other, but in a much more conservative position. In this system both of the two midfielders play as No. 6’s, the fullbacks provide the supplemental attacking support, and the two “wingers” push aggressively narrow in order to overload the opposing back line.

In this role, Ibarra’s job is to work with the other midfielder and break up the onslaught of counterattacks.

Attacking Fullback

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Decided mainly due to injury, Ibarra has lined up a single time as the right fullback. But even in this position, his role was not like-for-like with Brooks Lennon or Jack Gurr. In this match — Atlanta’s 3-0 home defeat to the Philadelphia Union in the CCL Round of 16 — Ibarra and the left fullback George Bello were the supplemental attacking support options for Josef Martinez instead of the two wingers. Let’s look at what that positioning meant for Ibarra and Bello:

Bello and Ibarra were in some of the more threatening positions in this match. It also shows an example of how free-form the fullbacks were in this match. Their autonomy mirrored that of a traditional front three, which left the likes of Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco to help out defensively on the left side; something that certainly opened up threatening counter attacks for the Union.

This position for Ibarra appears to be a one-off for the season, at least so far.

Box-to-Box Midfielder

SOCCER: APR 27 CONCACAF Champions League - Philadelphia Union FC at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Regista spot almost certainly locked up by Sosa, Ibarra may have to play in between the two positions he is comfortable with. Heinze will look at Ibarra’s transitional experience to help Sosa break up attacks, and he will look at Ibarra’s late history as an attacking midfielder to make late runs into 18-yard box or to sit at the top and continue the attack moving. Here are examples of both of these roles in Atlanta’s 2-1 loss to New England:

This will most likely become Ibarra’s most common role, as it will give him situational diversity throughout a full 90 minutes.