After trading him to the Columbus Crew earlier this offseason, Atlanta United have a Darlington Nagbe-shaped hole in the heart of their midfield. Re-signing Emerson Hyndman is not the solution to this problem.
As modern football has evolved as there has been increasing focus on athletic, high-pressing midfields to control matches even when not in possession of the ball, possessing deep-lying players who have the ability to receive the ball under pressure and play out regardless has become vital for any elite team.
The two best teams in the world at present are built to resist high presses, with players in deep positions who are extremely comfortable on the ball, especially in central midfield. Georginio Wijnaldum for Liverpool and Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho/Rodri and David Silva are built for conducting the tempo of play from deep even when under pressure.
The same trend is noticeable in MLS. Los Angeles FC were the best team in 2019 and their midfield was the most press-resistant in the league, Latif Blessing, Eduard Atuesta and especially Mark-Anthony Kaye possessing the athletic, technical and mental make-up to deal with defenders draped all over their backs.
And the same can be said for Atlanta United, arguably the most complete team in MLS since their inception in 2017. At the heart of the Five Stripes’ dominance, especially in the past two seasons, has been the presence of Darlington Nagbe in central midfield. The former Portland Timbers midfielder is the perfect press-resistant anchor. It is not a coincidence that Atlanta have dominated with Nagbe at the heart of their impressive performances.
So when he was traded away earlier this offseason to the Columbus Crew, Nagbe keen to leave Atlanta and reunite with former manager Caleb Porter, a ripple of concern moved through the Atlanta United fanbase. Nagbe might not be the highest-paid player in the Atlanta squad, he might not be the biggest name or have the flashiest profile, but bar Josef Martinez, he might be the most important.
In an effort to bolster their central midfield, Atlanta United re-signed Emerson Hyndman on a permanent deal from Bournemouth after the 23-year-old made 15 appearances last season after arriving on loan in July.
Speaking about signing Hyndman to a multi-year deal, Atlanta United VP and technical director Carlos Bocanegra said:
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"“We’re excited to bring back Emerson on a permanent deal. He played an important role in our midfield after joining the team midseason and will add competition and depth to our group as we prepare to play in various competitions in 2020.”"
If Hyndman has been brought in for ‘competition and depth’ in central midfield, then it is an extremely astute move from Atlanta. He performed neatly in the second half of last season, largely alongside Nagbe, afforded a little more offensive freedom than his midfield partner, as evidenced by his one goal and three assists in just short of 1000 minutes of action.
But if Altanta expect Hyndman to replace Nagbe as the press-resistant metronome at the base of the midfield, they might find themselves in trouble. Nagbe is a uniquely brilliant footballer. His impact on the team is not easily replicable and Hyndman lacks the size-technique combination to hold off defenders and pass his way out of trouble.
If Atlanta United are to again challenge for MLS Cup, they must fill the Nagbe-shaped hole they currently have in their central midfield. Signing Hyndman offers depth and versatility, but it is not a solution. More must still be done.