Eduard Atuesta returned for LAFC in their second leg against Club Leon. He once again proved that he is the cornerstone piece of Bob Bradley’s team.
Some would argue that defensive midfield is the most important position on a football pitch. It is not a completely foolish argument. Just looking at the most successful teams in world football, very rarely do you see one without an elite defensive midfielder to anchor the set-up.
In Eduard Atuesta, Los Angeles FC have the best defensive midfielder in Major League Soccer. The Colombian was stupendous in 2019, anchoring the LAFC midfield. He provided deep-lying distribution to instigate attacks, protected the back four when the team implemented its suffocating high press, and was the master puppeteer of the best team in MLS history.
Upon the start of the 2020 season, LAFC travelled to Club Leon in their first-ever CONCACAF Champions League outing last week. There were tentative hopes that the Black and Gold could finally establish some pride for MLS teams in the CCL.
They would have to do so without Atuesta. The midfielder was deemed short of match fitness, with new signing Francisco Ginella starting in the anchor role in his place. Ginella was one of the better performers on the night, conducting play neatly from the base of the midfield, but LAFC as a whole struggled, especially regarding their distribution.
Bob Bradley’s side actually engineered some real openings to exploit, but their decision-making was atrocious, the players proving their poor quality as they lacked the necessary vision to see the pass that they should make — incidentally, if you wanted to end the debate that MLS teams are poorer quality than their Mexican counterparts, this was not the game to show them.
But on Thursday night, Atuesta returned to the starting XI. He was there to anchor the midfield and pull the proverbial strings from deep. It is not a coincidence that LAFC produced one of the best performances from any MLS team in CCL history to come from two goals down and stun Club Leon with a brilliant 3-0 victory.
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If there is one thing that Atuesta excels at, it is finding the right pass at the right time. In his 82 minutes on the pitch, he was instrumental for LAFC, knowing when to press forward and play the more testing passes that split the Leon ranks and recognising when to turn, hold onto the ball, and simply maintain possession.
He maintained a 90% pass accuracy rate, a sign of his metronomic distribution, but he also provided progressive passes as well. What makes Atuesta so influential is that he keeps hold of the ball while also progressing the play up the pitch. He does more than just pass the ball from side to side. He makes it work for the advancement of the attacking play.
He also very rarely makes the wrong choice. While LAFC spurned far too many openings in the first leg to spring counter-attacks and exploit the open spaces that the Leon defence were struggling to contain, Atuesta knew precisely what pass to play at the right time to hurt the Mexicans the most. This was an exemplary performance in deep-lying playmaking.
As LAFC look to dominate MLS once again and make their charge at the CCL for the first time in their history, Atuesta will continue to anchor the midfield. And if Atuesta is in the most important position in football, this team might just have a chance to enjoy a very special season indeed.