It is only fitting that for our first installment of ATLUTD Player Previews that we dive into one the newest and most exciting additions to the Five Stripes, Darlington Nagbe.
U.S. & The A.
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 13, 2017
On December 13th, 2017, Darlington Nagbe finally made his big move away from Providence Park as Atlanta United announced that it had acquired the creative midfielder for a potential total of $1.65 million in allocation money. It was yet another statement from the Atlanta United front office that the Five Stripes were not in MLS to be another apprehensive club, but rather a trailblazer.
Wondering what will trigger that $600k in future TAM? Per sources I trust…
💰 $150k – League MVP
💰 $100k – 12 goals or more
💰 $100k – 15 or more assists
💰 $250k – Top 3 in MLS points + ATL win MLS Cup
— Andrew Wiebe (@andrew_wiebe) December 13, 2017
During his 7 years in Portland, Nagbe garnered an immense amount of attention from eyes around MLS as his individual creative spark help form one of the leagues most exciting and formidable attacks. However, Nagbe’s potential in relation to his output caused MLS and Portland fans alike to question if their eyes deceived them. It always seemed as if there was something extra to be desired in Darlington’s game. Sometimes it seemed that there was too much being asked of him, maybe he wasn’t being played the right position or he just wasn’t playing up to his potential. Whatever it was, if the Timbers weren’t winning, the fingers almost always found their way to be pointed at Caleb Porter, Portland’s Head Coach, or Darlington Nagbe. When it was announced Porter, who has coached Nagbe all but 2 seasons since Nagbe entered school at Akron, had been fired at the end of 2017 MLS season, Nagbe felt it was probably best to leave Portland as well.
As Nagbe admitted in a conference call with MLS, he was “just looking for a change and Atlanta’s obviously a great organization with a great team moving in the right direction.” and as an Atlanta United fan, I can say we are blessed to have acquired such a player at an opportune time. In Portland, where he was relied upon to do a lot of work inside the 18 yard box at times questions were brought upon Nagbe’s end product. It seems that Nagbe was being deployed in the wrong places on the field more often than not. The things that Nagbe excels at are the small things that might take Atlanta from great to elite if not generational. Nagbe’s athleticism and dribbling ability caused him to be played out on the wing where, yes he can beat players one-on-one but everything else is lacking, and in Portland, the Timbers didn’t really have the other assets to put out wide so Nagbe could play central. However, in Atlanta (HELLOOOOO) the Five Stripes have Tito Villalba, Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and now Ezequiel Barco all in attack, allowing Darlington Nagbe to play the position that analytically, he is best at. Nagbe’s skills in central midfield are the reason why Atlanta United went out on a limb to sign him. Atlanta’s technical director, Carlos Bocanegra, alluded to such skills in his conference call with MLS in December:
“Darlington had the highest ball retention rate of possession in the league this year…we see him coming in as a big connector, someone that is dynamic and also dribbles his way out of trouble. He pulls opposition out of position. He creates space for other players. That’s where we see that he benefits our club with his ability on the ball, his ability to run with the ball to retain possession and to bring other people into the game was why he became our number one target.”
Darlington Nagbe is at his absolute best when asked to carry the ball from the defense to the attack, using his ball retention skills and innate ability to find the right player to move the attack forward and create goal scoring opportunities. In almost all of the advanced statistical categories relevant to Darlington Nagbe, he is better at Central Midfield than he is as the forward winger he was deployed as at times in both Portland and USMNT. Nagbe’s best attribute is probably his dribbling in tight spaces, something that could add an exciting element for the Five Stripes given how dynamic the attack already is. Thanks to WhoScored.com and our friends over at Dirty South Soccer and @TiotalFootball on twitter you can notice on the chart where Atlanta’s previous two Central Midfield partner(Carmona and Larentowicz fist bumping at the point of origin) are on the graph below, attempting dribbles in midfield would be an almost brand new dynamic for the team.
Just by watching Nagbe play in midfield, it becomes clear as day how much his athleticism and quickness gives him the advantage in midfield. Darlington possesses the rare ability to create space on his own in the most condensed area on the field whether it is by retaining the ball from incoming challenges or skipping by 1 or 2 defenders with a simple dribble into space. However, some of the bigger questions raised in Portland were what he managed to do with the ball once he created that space. Sometimes criticism would be heaped upon him for simply not taking enough risks given his clear ability to make risky passes and create potential goal scoring opportunities. In the chart below, if you were to split the graph into quadrants, the top left is Incredible, Top Right is boring, bottom right is awful, bottom left is exciting(Asad )’: ). You can clearly see where the risk averse side of Nagbe’s game in the middle third of the field is displayed. He is a huge statistical outlier from the rest of the field, he simply doesn’t take that many risks passing the ball which would be okay if he wasn’t supposed to be the creative midfielder on the team. One hope is that this can be coached out of him, Tata Martino is well renowned as an excellent attacking minded coach and some time on the training pitch regarding this glass ceiling so to speak. Don’t coach all of the risk awareness out of the player, don’t tell Nagbe to take all the risks but just the smart ones, make sure there are numbers back in defense to cover if the risk taken ends in a bad result.
Obviously there could many worse problems in a player’s game than being risk averse in passing, there is always a flip side to that, such as him not being the player that will give the ball away in silly areas. With a team like Atlanta that plays so wide open, it is excellent to have a central midfielder that is talented but also knows when and when not to take risks. Erring on the side of caution could be a benefit more often than not when in midfield. Nagbe’s defensive abilities have been a question at times, while he has been known to choose his chances to tackle wisely and efficiently, he doesn’t do it very often which could pose an issue given Carlos Carmona’s recent departure, a player who was never afraid to fly into a tackle and let the opponent know they were there. The hope for the Five Stripes is that recently named MLS Executive of the Year, Darren Eales can find a suitable replacement for Carmona in time before Preseason training ends. Preferably a player that will get their hands dirty, a “destroyer” so to speak, so a now 34 year-old Jeff Larentowicz isn’t forced to play all 34 games or another 2500 minutes this season. The sooner the replacement happens, the better because no Atlanta United fan should feel comfortable forcing an aging Larentowicz to be overworked, nor depend on Nagbe to be all that active in defensive duties aside from the work required from a central midfielder in Tata Martino’s system
In recent interviews from the first few days of preseason training, Nagbe alluded to the fact he just wanted to get the ball at his feet, that is where he feels that he is most comfortable. It is expected that his role in this Atlanta United team will be to facilitate during the buildup as a central midfielder, not necessarily being the guy to supply the final ball, but find the right pass and get it to the player that will supply it. Throughout his career Nagbe has been depended on to be THE guy, Atlanta United bought him to be another well-oiled gear in and already incredible machine. It might be this pressure lifted off that allows Darlington Nagbe to be the player MLS fans have always expected him to be. My guess is that Nagbe’s performances will be recognized in commentary and plaudits, not necessarily on the stat sheet. Assuming he stays healthy, which has been somewhat of an issue at times in his career, Darlington Nagbe could rack up close to 3-5 goals and 7-10 assists in 2018. While this would be a career year for him statistically, I believe the reason will be the space created by players all around the pitch. This Atlanta United squad is the most talented Nagbe has played in and Atlanta should be disappointed if they don’t score 70+ goals this season and that would be way more than any of the teams Nagbe played on in Portland ever produced. Just based on his level of involvement, Nagbe’s stats should see a bump in output, however I still standby the statement he will receive more plaudits and recognition in conversation than he will on the stat sheet.
If Nagbe’s skill in central midfield directly translates from the charts to the field, Atlanta United might become the Golden State Warriors of MLS, if not in their winning ways then in how much space each player creates for the other because of their individual abilities. Any of the five Atlanta attackers(Josef, Miggy, Tito, Barco, Nagbe) mentioned earlier could walk into one-third of MLS locker rooms and be that club’s best player. Those same incredible players seem to have returned this preseason feeling there was much left to offer on the table following their postseason exit last October. The Five Stripes feel there is unfinished business to attend to and a hungry locker room of electrifying talent seems a perfect recipe for something special. This kind of attitude and hunger is infectious, especially toward players who are new to the club such as Darlington Nagbe. This fresh start, could take Nagbe’s game to a whole other level which is an exciting prospect to think about for anyone associated with Atlanta United.