Darlington Nagbe’s production on offense for Atlanta United in the past two games may not be just a blip.
His first goal with the Five Stripes in the 5-0 win against Houston on Wednesday and his assist on the game-winning goal in a 2-0 victory over D.C. United on Sunday are the result of one of the things that manager Frank de Boer wanted from the formation switch to a 3-5-2 two games ago.
“It’s something he spoke to me about,” Nagbe said. “I have more cover in the back. He asked me to get up a little higher. Use my pace to push the ball forward.”
Blessed with quickness, dribbling ability and awareness, Nagbe long has been considered one of the better center midfielders in MLS. Facing his own goal, he’s almost impossible to press because he has an almost Houdini-like ability to shimmy his way into the smallest spaces and either get rid of the ball to an open teammate, or continue his dribble.
The knock for many seasons on Nagbe has been he doesn’t use those skills as much when he’s facing the opponent’s goal. His assist against D.C. United was only his second this season. His goal was his first since Aug. 23, 2017, when he scored for Portland against Colorado. He hasn’t reached five goals since 2015 and hasn’t surpassed five assists since posting seven in 2014.
But those moments were then, and this new formation that includes five midfielders and three centerbacks instead of two, and the license it has given Nagbe, may change a few things, continuing with Friday’s game at LAFC.
“It changes (our offense) a lot,” midfielder Justin Meram said. “He can get on the ball and drive at the opposing defense. That draws one of their defenders and creates space in behind. When you have a guy like ‘D’ who is so fluid on the ball and such electric pace, for us, now he’s higher up the field. He’s making the right passes. You’ve seen the past two games playing that position, it’s shown his level at another step.”
Nagbe thanked his parents for his physical abilities. He thinks watching a lot of film and spending hours upon hours training with the ball have given him a skill set that is rare in MLS.
LAFC is sure to press Atlanta United on Friday in an attempt to win the ball as closely as possible to Atlanta United’s goal. When past opponents have attempted this, Atlanta United, first under manager Gerardo Martino and now under de Boer, look to Nagbe to break the press.
“Lot of center-mids around the world that make it look so simple, I think, because of their awareness,” Nagbe said. “They do certain things and awareness is such a big part of the game, as well as being technically aware.”
Using the game-winning assist as an example, Nagbe made a run away from defender and positioned himself in the space between two D.C. United defenders near the right corner of the penalty box. Julian Gressel split the defenders with a pass. Instead of touching the ball as it arrived, Nagbe looked over his shoulder to check one defender and let the ball roll into space in the penalty box, seemingly surprising the defenders who had to hesitate to see what he was going to do. Nagbe then ran onto the ball and touched it. As he reached the end line, he hit a perfect pass into space for Pity Martinez to run onto and head into the goal.
“I’ve known him for many years, played against him in college, drafted together, in MLS Cup,” Meram said. “For me, now playing with him I have greater respect for the type of player he is. He’s one of the best 6, 8’s in MLS, for sure.”
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