In each of the two preseason games, Atlanta United’s starting 11 has listed two defensive midfielders: Chris McCann and Darlington Nagbe.
It’s not a surprise and something you may see against Minnesota on Wednesday in the team’s third preseason game.
Last year, the team also employed two DMs: Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona.
Except this season, while Nagbe is listed as a DM, when the team is moving forward he is much higher up the pitch and much more involved in circulating the ball on offense than Carmona was last year.
That’s by design.
Manager Gerardo Martino seems to want Nagbe, acquired in a trade with Portland in the offseason, to serve the role that Miguel Almiron had last year as the quarterback of the offense. Doing so frees Almiron to interchange with Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martinez or Hector Villalba to create numerical mismatches.
“We kind of did it last year with Jeff and Carlos, as well, but even more so this year with the more attacking players we’ve got,” McCann said.
That’s why, against Nashville for example, Nagbe went on a 40-yard run up the middle of the field that eventually resulted in Brandon Vazquez’s goal. It’s why, against Columbus on Saturday in Charleston, Almiron at times played as the striker alongside Martinez, or by himself with Martinez on the left and Barco moving from left to right. They could do so because Nagbe would receive the ball from McCann, or Larentowicz, and find those passes.
McCann also has the ability and skill to drop into the backline, similar to what Larentowicz would do last year. That allows centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, as well as the fullbacks on either side, to wander up the field and get involved in the offense. That happened a few times on Saturday.
“For me, it was about staying in that spot and keeping the shape,” Larentowicz said. “Carlos was free to roam and win the ball.
“I don’t think it will be much different than my role. Darlington will for sure be pushing higher.”
McCann said having one defensive midfielder who tends to hang back more hasn’t weakened the defense. When teams are playing in Atlanta United’s half, Nagbe retreats to a more defensive position. The players are also still working on their responsibilities.
The team was a bit rusty with the press against Columbus, which is partly how the Crew escaped it a few times.
“The other night we made mistakes yes, but there were a lot of positives,” McCann said. “If we continue to work on them like we worked on them today the errors will be cut out pretty quickly.”
When the team is pressing, which typically starts with Martinez or Almiron, McCann said everyone must join.
“If they go, you can’t just be sitting back because the teams will play around you and that’s how you get killed,” McCann said.
McCann didn’t play a lot as a defensive midfielder last season. He either played slightly higher or as a left fullback. He was slotted in by Martino the past two games because the team sold Carmona and Larentowicz moved to centerback in place of Michael Parkhurst. He was being held out for precautionary reasons and is expected to return, possibly as early as Saturday against Charleston.
Should Parkhurst move back into the starting lineup, Larentowicz will likely move back into the defensive midfielder role and he will pair with Nagbe in the middle of the field.