Where will Barco play when he returns to Atlanta United?

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino two weeks ago said that there’s a chance that Ezequiel Barco could return this week for Saturday’s game at Minnesota United.

Considering Barco, who sustained strained quad during the week of training for the season-opening game at Houston, had still yet to resume training with the team, the statement may have been based upon optimism.

But, let’s assume that he re-joined the team either last week or this week (there were no interviews last week so I didn’t get to watch the team practice).

Where will Martino play Barco?

The answer isn’t simple.

Let’s start by looking at how Barco could be used in the two formations that Martino has used this season: the 4-3-3 and 3-5-2.

In the 4-3-3, Barco would likely line up as the left wide midfielder. It’s the position he played in three of the team’s four preseason games.

The lineup would be as follows:

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan

Right fullback: Franco Escobar, Sal Zizzo or Julian Gressel

Centerback: Michael Parkhurst

Centerback: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez

Left fullback: Greg Garza

Holding midfielder: Jeff Larentowicz

Midfielder: Darlington Nagbe

Attacking midfielder: Miguel Almiron

Left midfielder: Ezequiel Barco

Right midfielder: Hector Villalba

Striker: Josef Martinez

This formation, albeit with players in different positions, was what Martino used in the 4-0 loss to Houston to open the season. In that game, the central midfield was composed of Gressel, Nagbe and Chris McCann. Martino said after the game that the group may not have had the quickness to recover the ball on defense.

In this formation, the central midfield would be composed of Almiron, Nagbe and Larentowicz. It should have the quickness to handle defensive responsibilities.

Martino switched from the 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 for the next two games, a 3-1 win against D.C. United and a 4-1 win against Vancouver.

In those games, the offense, with one more attacking player in place of one less defender, looked much more crisp than it did against Houston.

It stands to reason that the team will continue using the 3-5-2. How will Barco fit within that formation?

That answer isn’t as clear.

The midfield in the 3-5-2 in the last game was composed of McCann, Almiron, Nagbe, Larentowicz and Gressel. In the D.C. game, it was composed of Garza, Almiron, Nagbe, Larentowicz and Gressel.

Garza/McCann and Gressel have been the wingbacks, or the widest midfielders in the formation. Martino isn’t going to replace either of them with Barco. Gressel has looked outstanding as the right wingback.

So, switching to the middle, Barco isn’t replacing Larentowicz, the defensive midfielder.

Barco isn’t replacing Almiron, a Designated Player who hasn’t looked his sharpest but has still looked good, or Nagbe, a player Atlanta United specifically traded for during the offseason.

So, where would Barco play?

Let’s look at the strikers, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.

I think the most likely scenario, if Martino sticks with the 3-5-2, would be playing Barco as the second striker with Martinez, and bringing Villalba off the bench. Villalba looked outstanding against D.C. He hasn’t looked as sharp in the other two games.

Trying to keep Villalba on the field with Barco, Martinez, Almiron and Nagbe would likely mean playing him at wingback in place of Gressel.

Again, Gressel has played very well as wingback. Villalba’s energy on defense isn’t as consistent as one might want. I don’t think that’s a swap Martino would make except for the game’s final 30 minutes or so.

So, here’s what I think you would see should Barco return and should Martino use a 3-5-2:

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan

Centerback: Franco Escobar or Sal Zizzo

Centerback: Michael Parkhurst

Centerback: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez

Right wingback: Julian Gressel

Left wingback: Greg Garza

Holding midfielder: Jeff Larentowicz

Midfielder: Darlington Nagbe

Attacking midfielder: Miguel Almiron

Striker: Ezequiel Barco

Striker: Josef Martinez