Thiago Almada’s MVP case is bolstered in abstentia
I hate to start this column talking about a player who was not involved in the grotesque proceedings on display Saturday night, but as the goals continued to pile up and Atlanta’s own ineptitude on the ball was evident continuous throughout the 90 minutes, I couldn’t stop thinking about Almada’s influence.
Almada’s talent is obvious for anyone to see, whether it’s the spectacular free kicks, the close control or the ability to play a teammate in behind the opposing defense. But what’s easy to forget is how ever-present he seems to be, popping up all over the place to helps teammates get out of trouble. Without that player Saturday, Atlanta’s once cohesive unit looked fragmented, and every player looked like a worse, less confident version of themselves.
The roster does not have a backup No. 10
Sticking on Almada for a bit, Saturday showed that Atlanta doesn’t simply have the problem that when the Argentine is out, there’s no one with similar quality to replace him. It’s that there’s just no one to replace him with, period. There does not seem to be a natural No. 10 type of player on the roster that can satisfy Pineda’s demand of the role in the 4-2-3-1 shape that he prefers. Amar Sejdic got the nod in the position Saturday, which negatively affected the team in two ways by 1) playing a player out of his natural position where he was ineffective in the role and 2) pulling Sejdic out of a cohesive tandem alongside Franco Ibarra. As a result, we saw all three midfielders play their worst games of the season (and not having Almada there to solve problems for them certainly didn’t help).
An Ibarra-Sosa double pivot doesn’t seem to work
Perhaps it’s just because it was their first game playing alongside each other in a long while, but the evidence we have on hand suggests that these two Argentine midfielders should not be playing together in the double pivot in Pineda’s 4-2-3-1. On the one hand, it seems like it could work when you look at their attributes and you have Santiago Sosa as the passer/distributor and Franco Ibarra as the tackler/destroyer. But what is missing between the two of them is “the runner” in the classic “runner/passer” double pivot tandem. Neither of these players covers tons of ground, and that caused a problem for Atlanta Saturday night. After witnessing the experiment, I’m not sure I want to see these two players on the field together again. It’s an awkward situation where two players you always envisioned would be able to pair together are now fighting for one place in the team. As of right now, based on prior performances, Ibarra is winning that job. Which leaves Sosa, once thought of as the brightest non-DP young player in Atlanta’s ranks, on the outside looking in.
Andrew Gutman’s injury is a problem
Hopefully when we hear official word about the injury (reportedly a groin and not the quadriceps tendon he dealt with last year) it will not be one that keeps him out a significant period of time. Gutman said himself earlier this season that after he dealt with the quad injury last year, he was not playing at 100 percent upon his return. I, for one, was worried that he’d re-aggravated the injury given his distraught look sitting on the bench after having been subbed out of the game.
But the injury is going to be the first significant bump in the road that will shake up the look of Pineda’s best XI (international duty aside). Yes, Rossetto has also missed time after a strong start to the season, but replacing him with Amar Sejdic is like-for-like in both quality and in the role they play. Gutman’s injury is going to force Caleb Wiley out of his left wing position where he’s been one of the most productive in MLS so far this season. Fortunately, Pineda has an ample fill-in for Wiley in that position through Derrick Etienne, Jr., but without Gutman’s work rate and defensive instincts at left back, that left flank could be a vulnerability.
Atlanta United lost their heads after halftime
It wasn’t just the finale scoreline that made us all cringe while watching such a horror show, it was the way the team was playing in the second half that made them looking like amateurs against a professional side (that was also missing some key pieces). They came out of the locker room asleep and thus conceded immediately. And then, it’s almost as if you could see the fear set in, with players realizing that they had to endure another 40 minutes of painful defending, considering their total ineptitude creating any scoring chances for themselves. Hopefully they will be able to learn something from that experience (mainly that they never want to be in such a position ever again). Fortunately, it’s a result and performance that is unlikely to be repeated with a full squad expected to be back in action next week. But at the same time, players can’t explain it away and forgive themselves for the reasons that we on the outside can. If anything, they should return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Saturday with a point to prove.