Finishing seasons next step for Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco #8 dribbles during the round one playoff match against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Sunday November 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta United)
Caption
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco #8 dribbles during the round one playoff match against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Sunday November 21, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta United)

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

Ezequiel Barco is coming off the finest of his four seasons with Atlanta United.

The midfielder notched career highs in goals (7), assists (8) and minutes (2,138).

So, why do I get the feeling that it could have, or should have, been much better?

I spent a lot of time thinking, talking and messaging people about Barco yesterday.

I described him and Marcelino Moreno as, basically, game-plan killers for their performances in Sunday’s season-ending 2-0 loss at NYCFC.

I said that because we understood that part of the game’s tactics was to be to move the ball quickly from side to side to alleviate the pressure. Manager Gonzalo Pineda and some of the players said that before the game. Pineda said it again after the game.

Instead, when it came to the attacking players, we saw attempts by Barco and Moreno to dribble through NYCFC’s defense, even though doing so is almost impossible because the tiny pitch puts defenders every few yards. There is no space to be consistently clever.

Barco’s dribbling stats in the game (11 successful) were great, but that’s seeing the trees instead of the forest.

Based upon what we were told, that wasn’t the game plan.

That got me to thinking about Barco’s play while with Atlanta United and, looking at the stats, I noticed something.

Barco consistently plays well in the first few games for a new manager.

After that, the production falters.

Take a look:

2018: He finished with four goals and three assists in 26 games. Three of those goals were scored in the first seven league games under Gerardo Martino.

2019: He finished with four goals and three assists in 15 games. Three of those goals were scored in the first five league games under Frank de Boer.

2020: He finished with two goals and three assists in 15 appearances. The two goals came in the first two games under de Boer, who was fired mid-summer. Stephen Glass took over and two of Barco’s assists came in the first five games of the new manager.

2021: Barco finished with seven goals and eight assists in 25 appearances. He scored one goal in the first two games under Gabriel Heinze, who was fired mid-summer. Barco notched three goals and three assists in the first five games under interim Rob Valentino. He then added three goals and two assists in the first four games under Gonzalo Pineda.

While the starts are great, the finishes typically are not as productive:

2021: He finished the season with just two assists and no goals in the final eight regular season games, including the playoffs.

2020: Zero goals, zero assists in the final five games of the regular season.

2019: Zero goals, two assists in the final eight games of the regular season.

2018: Zero goals, one assist in the final six games of the regular season. He had already lost his starting spot because he had posted no goals and just one assist in the eight games prior to that.

If you think it’s unfair of me to single out Barco, I would counter with he’s a Designated Player, which comes with an expectation of consistent production, and he’s the only DP he has been available for most of the past four seasons.

Why the good starts and poor finishes?

I can only offer theories.

First, that’s how it is. The other team is trying to win, too.

Second, bad luck.

Third, good scouting by opponents.

Fourth, Barco isn’t adjusting to what opponents are doing.

Fifth, he’s played for six different managers. That’s a lot of messages and messaging.

Whatever it is, there does seem to be a “Barco Bounce” under new managers, followed by a regression to a mean.

Think about Barco’s first games under Valentino and then Pineda. He was electric. He was making the right choices with his passes. When that started happening, opponents were at his mercy.

And then ... the regression. A lot of dribbling. Poor choices with passes. A lack of tangible results.

If Barco isn’t sold by the club and returns, and he can improve how he finishes the 2022 season, he will become an elite player in MLS. He’s already a very good player, but there is another level.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 vs. Sporting KC, 3 p.m.

March 5 at Colorado, 6 p.m.

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