Ezequiel Barco, a player that has plodded his way through an Atlanta United tenure full of starts and stops, seems ready for one last go.
The Argentine’s future may soon lie elsewhere, something that seems to have become conventional wisdom among fans. But that’s exactly why his return to Atlanta United in scintillating form this week has been such a boost — and perhaps an unexpected one — for a squad and fan base that desperately needs it.
A masterful performance against Columbus Saturday night that produced a brace for Barco and a win for the team could be the impetus Atlanta needs to hit its best run of form since the Frank de Boer era.
Barco’s career to date is a puzzling one. Even at just 22 years of age, Barco’s Atlanta tenure has meandered in any number of ways that includes off-field indiscipline, domestic silverware, stubborn injuries and wavering form. With seemingly little time remaining in MLS, Barco has one final chance to help lead Atlanta United to a successful finish to the season.
Falling Short of Expectations
Ezequiel Barco is held to a higher standard than most of his teammates. And for good reason. The Argentine joined the club for a significant fee of $15 million and was one of the world’s brightest prospects when he signed in January of 2018.
Even though he was only 18 years old, Barco’s first MLS season in 2018 fell short of the mark. Although Barco did provide an overall positive contribution, particularly early on, he found himself coming off the bench during the team’s MLS Cup run. Making matters worse, he was suspended by then-manager Tata Martino and missed significant time.
In 2019, Barco again missed time due to injury and the U-20 World Cup. But when he was on the field, he showed the type of player he was, as Atlanta fell just short of MLS Cup. We see below that he ranked as one of Atlanta’s top players in xG+xA for 90 minutes.
Barco also lead the team in chances created (key passes) per 90 minutes.
He tied with Pity Martinez for the most shot creating actions per 90 minutes. These are defined as “the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls.”
After a very good 2019 season, 2020 seemed like the year for Barco to explode. Things didn’t go to plan — neither for him, nor the team altogether. Atlanta’s principle goal scoring force in Jose Martinez was lost for the entire season. Then there was the delay due to the pandemic. After returning to the pitch, things spiraled further as we witnessed the firing of manager Frank de Boer and sale of Pity Martinez. And during a nightmare season for the club as a whole, Barco’s performances suffered accordingly. Once again, the Argentine missed a ton of time, playing in just 15 matches. And his attacking numbers fell off a cliff, with respect to scoring and assisting. Just look at how he compared with the rest of the league from the 2019 to 2020 seasons. First we see 2019.
And now, 2020. Yuck.
Atlanta fans hoped that 2021 would be the year where everything fell into place. But once again, Barco has been inconsistent. And for a second straight season, the pieces around him have so far fallen flat, with the a supporting cast of Cubo Torres, Jake Mulraney, and Erik Lopez all struggling to find form.
So, if Barco’s more obvious attacking stats appear to wane or flourish depending on the pieces around him, where is he contributing on a consistent basis? As it turns out, a deeper look shows that many contributions have gone unnoticed, and perhaps under appreciated.
Let’s take a look at Barco’s output over the past 365 days compared to his MLS colleagues.
We see the disappointing attacking output in the stats we just discussed. But clearly, Barco has been elite in other areas.
Indeed, much of Barco’s influence has not come around the goal, but from deeper spots in the middle and final third, where the Argentine can drive the team forward by carrying, dribbling, or passing forward to set up attacks. This is displayed by his excellent output in progressive carries, defined as a “player moving the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 5 yards, or any carry into the penalty area, excluding carries from the defensive third of the pitch.” We also see his effectiveness in dribbles completed, and progressive passes ( defined as “completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent’s goal at least 10 yards from its furthest point in the last six passes, or any completed pass into the penalty area”).
Clearly, Barco is driving the attack forward at high levels. But is this setting of the table for his attackers actually leading to chances? We needn’t look further than his shot creating actions in the table above — Barco ranks in the top quarter of MLS players over the last year in that category despite Atlanta’s forwards being among MLS’ worst (hopefully this can change if Martinez finds form).
A Deeper Position
Clearly, while Barco’s more visible attacking third stats have fluctuated depending on his surroundings, he continues to show a preference to excel in other areas of the pitch.
And this season, Barco’s tendency to drop deep has been amplified further. Gabriel Heinze employed Barco in a center midfield role for the first time in his career.
Let’s take a look at his heatmap compared to previous seasons for confirmation. Below we see 2019.
And now, 2020
Again, we see that Barco is taking more of his touches in deeper positions, not so much right around goal. And in 2021, that trait was magnified.
Playing in a midfield position for Heinze, Barco was very clearly coming even deeper than before for most of his touches.
Looking deeper at the player, we see that judging Barco solely through goals and assists is simply not prudent. This was especially the case this season, where he was been employed in center midfield. And now, with him getting many of those touches higher up the pitch under Rob Valentino, many of his contributions and abilities have become more apparent.
We perhaps foolishly expect Barco to fill up the stat sheet with goals and assists like his predecessor Miguel Almiron, but he simply is not that profile of player (Almirons don’t grow on trees, sadly). Instead, he impacts the match from different areas, setting the table for the players in front of him, rather than being the one to take the final shot or play the final ball.
As we saw with George Bello’s backheel assist in Columbus and Martinez’ brilliant finish in Orlando, Barco’s direct goal and chances creation metrics very much depend on the players around him. But while this direct goal creation has varied, it’s not the only measure of him as a player, and he has provided critical and consistent contributions elsewhere that are frequently ignored. The reality is, if you need goals from a player like Barco to win, a player who doesn’t often touch the ball inside the 18-yard box, your roster probably isn’t that well constructed in the first place.
Much of the Barco critique is fair. When you pay big money for a player, he’s expected to outperform others around him en route to wins. Barco’s injury issues coupled with participation in international tournaments have also caused him to miss significant time on the field. And even though he’s a player who likes to drop deep into midfield, surely he could have shown a flexibility to his game, and found a way to at least get on the ball more often around goal instead of relying on the likes of Torres, Adam Jahn or Erik Lopez to find the back of the net instead?
On the other hand, criticisms of Barco have become a reflexive reaction that is often unfair, and shows a lack of willingness to properly evaluate the role he actually plays for the team, and the difficult hand he’s been dealt as the pieces around him have faltered. He was never a natural goalscorer, and was always the type to make his impact most felt from midfield (where his impact has been overwhelmingly positive), which naturally relies on the players in front of him to produce in order for him to be most effective. This critical context and the realities of Barco’s play style are all-too-often ignored.
In the end, an objective look at Barco’s time in Atlanta tells us two things. Firstly, he’s fallen short of expectations. And secondly, he’s been far and away Atlanta’a most productive player during a torrid time for Atlanta, a combination of factors that results in inaccurate judgements about his quality.
There are lots of problems for Atlanta United, at present. But thanks in large part to Barco’s reintroduction to the team after a long period missing, Atlanta United gave us hope with 4 points in a two game road trip last week. Barco can still define the story of his time in Atlanta. If it’s a happy ending — one where the team fights back into the playoffs and gives the fans an entertaining run-in — Barco will need to be consistent and healthy, maybe the only things he hasn’t experienced in Atlanta.