After Miguel Almirón left on the last day of the transfer window last year, the position of attacking midfielder became open for Atlanta United. So, the predecessor was needed to be found quickly with the new MLS season about to start in a month. Thankfully, they already had a replacement at the time: 20-year-old Ezequiel Barco, the Argentinian attacker, became a vital cog in the system of 2019 U.S. Open Cup Champions. In this tactical analysis, we will look into his best qualities and what he brings into this Atlanta United team, what are some parts of his game where he needs to improve and a little bit about his future.
Frank de Boer made a lot of experiments with tactics and formation since his appointment. In his first couple of games in charge, he utilised the formation with three and five defenders. Later on in the season, Atlanta United were playing with four at the back. But, seeing the discontent of the fans and even players together with not the best performances, De Boer switched to 3-5-2 formation midway through the season in July. This scheme was used by Atlanta’s previous coach, Tata Martino, and retained as the main option until the end of the season. We can look at the positioning of the players in this system below:
Barco was starting games as one of the central midfielders, but during the game, he was moving higher up the pitch to form a front-three with Joseph and Pity. Barco was playing mainly as a left-sided inverted winger, so he could cut inside and shoot or pass. Also, he was sometimes drifting wide to take on a couple of defenders, while another winger, Pity Martinez, was staying close to the striker Joseph Martinez to form a striker-duo.
This movement often created space for both full-backs, Justin Meram and Julian Gressel. So, the front-three partnership with Barco is extremely fluid and one of the wingers, Barco or Pity, could stay central or drift wide. This was helpful for all the attackers, as their movements became more unpredictable, but Barco especially benefited from this change. He wasn’t restricted to a certain position on the pitch and thus he had more space.
Having such a fluid and fast attack backed up with a certain attacking structure employed by De Boer, it is obvious that this team won’t have a problem with creating chances. With Joseph Martinez being the main man in converting chances into goals, what role does Ezequiel Barco play in this attack? Well, he shoots less than both Martinez and Pity (he is averaging 2.6 shots per game while the other two have 3.44 and 3.12 respectively). He scored four goals in 2019 MLS season, which can come as a surprise, but if we will look at his xG, it values only on 4.28 expected goals. So, he is scoring practically as much as he has real chances to do so. But why does he have such a fairly low xG output?
From the analysis of his shots from the image above, we can see that a lot of his shots are either taken from the left side of the penalty area (marked as 1) and around the zone 14 (marked as 2). The role Barco plays in this team doesn’t require taking a lot of shots and being the main provider of goals (this role is saved for Joseph Martinez with 30 goal contributions last season). However, we can still understand where his shots and goals are coming from by looking at a couple of examples below:
A lot of his shots from area 1 (inside the penalty area) are created either from counter-attacks or from smart movement inside the box. Barco always joins counter-attacks, he positions himself to the left side, and because there is a maximum of 2-3 defenders, his teammates can always pass to him. We can see this pattern in the image above, where Atlanta are attacking 3v2, and defenders should pay attention to both Barco on the left and the number-nine on the right.
Another pattern for a shot from area 1 is a rarer case than shots from counter-attacks. These are shots inside the box after a proper build-up play, and Barco wasn’t in these situations often last season, mainly because Atlanta United have other players for that. Here is an example of such a shot, which resulted in the opening goal for Atlanta:
Quite a big sample of his shots comes from outside the box, and I think he prefers these kinds of shots more. Most of the time during the attacks he makes himself available around the penalty area. After receiving a pass, he tries to curve the ball into the back of the net. Here is an example in the image below:
He definitely has a great ability to shoot, and if he does it right, he scores some fantastic goals:
I believe that if his teammates get him onto shooting positions more often next season, he will at least double his record from last season. He definitely can shoot, but he doesn’t do it often enough.
Taking on multiple opponents and then getting past them is one of Barco’s strengths. He attempts around five dribbles per game with 53.4% success rate. During the build-up, he drops deep from his left winger position to the centre circle to get the ball and dribble past a couple of opponents:
He is the main dribbling force in this team and after getting the ball he almost always tries to dribble, which results in a lot of lost balls. But his ball progression trumps every his mistake. He helps his team massively in the attack, and while Martinez is the main goalscorer, Barco is linking with him very well, as Almiron did two seasons ago. Their partnership together with Pity Martinez got them 48 goal contributions last season, and that is very impressive.
When Barco takes the ball on the left, he usually tries to get the ball to the centre to have more passing options:
De Boer’s attacking play allows Barco to free roam and get himself between lines to progress the ball forward. It is not exactly what Almiron did, because this Atlanta team is more organised and has a certain attacking structure, but Barco is not restricted to his position. We have seen that in some of the examples above and we can also see that in the image below:
So, he is an important asset of this team, and the fluid and wide-open 3-5-2 structure helps him tremendously. His best qualities: pace, dribbling, agility, quick-thinking all show up when he has a lot of space. The role he plays in Atlanta allows him to change positions, create space for himself and for his teammates and move the ball forward. With Joseph Martinez always on the verge of an offside, it became a deadly partnership and can become even more so next season.
Having this hybrid role of an attacking midfielder/left winger makes Barco a focal point in Atlanta’s attack. He participates in the link-up play with midfielders, defenders and full-backs, and, when it comes to attacking through transitions, Barco is the most frequent receiver of the ball after recovery. While opposition team attack he is completely unmarked and thus has a lot of space and time to make a decision. One of these moments is presented in the image below:
Minnesota United are caught out in transition, Barco gets the ball straight away and continues the attack by passing to Justin Meram (orange arrow in the image above).
Barco and Pity Martinez play behind Joseph Martinez and they participate a lot in the build-up play. Using a formation with three at the back implies having a lot of width while attacking. Thus Barco and Pity usually stay very narrow during the build-up in order to allow Justin Meram and Julian Gressel to push up. However, it is important to note that the wingers are still free to go wide or vice versa. Usually, when one of them drifts wide, the other one stays narrow and forms an attacking duo with Martinez. We can see Barco’s average positioning and his involvement in the passing play by looking at the image below. These are passes made by Atlanta players in their game against Orlando City in August:
It is clear that most of the time Barco is in the middle third during the build-up. From there, he is able to make through passes to either Pity, Joseph or Gressel, who all can make a run in behind the defence.
The same strategy works with the passes over the opposition defence:
Meram and Gressel are positioning very wide, scattering the defence of the opposition. This structure during build-up gives Barco an opportunity to make this passes and create opportunities for the team.
This scout report of Ezequiel Barco showed his best qualities: speed, passing, dribbling. Also, it showed some areas where he needs to improve or to change his playing style (for example, shooting). Overall, he is an outstanding player, one of the best talents in MLS, and already drawing the attention of the biggest clubs in Europe. Even though his transfer move this winter seems unlikely, he is yet to show what he is really worth.