There is no doubt that Santiago Sosa is a talented footballer. That’s why he was so prized by Gabriel Heinze when the Argentina head coach arrived at Atlanta United in 2021, and reportedly made acquiring Sosa one of his top priorities. He needed a player who could be – literally and figuratively – his system’s quarterback. A player who could sit deep, receive the ball from the goalkeeper, hum the buildup and even spark the attack himself with long diagonal passes to the wings.
If you’ve been paying attention in 2021, you know exactly who Santiago Sosa is and the assets he brings to the table. But there are headwinds standing in the way of him finding the Atlanta success he seemed destined for back when he was one of the club’s most sought-after recruits under the newly-launched U-22 initiative. implemented in MLS.
Injury issues at the worst possible time
Towards the second half of the 2021 season, Sosa saw some injury issues related to his adductor (groin) which we later learned was a sports hernia that the player was trying to manage. Crucially, Sosa was injured during the exact period in which new head coach Gonzalo Pineda took charge of replacing the late Heinze (Pineda’s introduction to the club was delayed due to a covid test positive), and only ended up playing in 8 of the 14 matches where Pineda was on the touchline. Granted, Sosa has started in every game he was fit to play in, which is crucial information that signals that Pineda indeed appreciates what the Argentine midfielder has brought to the table this season.
Just a week after the final game of the season, a playoff loss at the hands of eventual MLS Cup champions NYCFC, Sosa underwent sports hernia surgery that bound him for a significant period of time. So much so that Sosa would miss much of Atlanta United’s 2022 pre-season, another crucial time to miss where a manager installs a tactical system and trains players to play specific roles within said system.
In this particular instance, it’s important to note that Pineda admitted that he intentionally wanted to keep the tactical system as consistent as possible in 2021 as a way to help get as many points as possible as Atlanta retreated for a place in the playoffs. Sosa was, of course, an important part of this system as established by Heinze. But the manager has moved to a full-back four in 2022, and one can see why that would be a sea change for a player like Sosa, whose initial role Heinze defined was specifically to play as a third centre-back.
It’s hard enough trying to keep your place in the squad given the conditions outlined above, but it’s even harder when your absence allows other players with a similar profile to enter the squad. team and show the head coach what they can do. In this case, that competing player is Franco Ibarra. If in the newly established 4-2-3-1 Pineda was looking for a pure midfielder, Ibarra turned out to be just that.
In fact, when we compare the stat profiles of the two players, you can see exactly how they differ from each other.
(Note: These stat profiles are comprised of minutes played over the past 365 days, not just stats accumulated this season.)
Obviously, Sosa is more determined to find the ball and make passes, while Ibarra is fine letting his teammates do more work in possession while he pressures and harasses his opponents to get it back as quickly as possible. Both players have their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s understandable that a player like Ibarra might be better suited to play alongside a midfielder like Matheus Rossetto, who prefers to be on the ball as much as possible.
Ibarra’s emergence, combined with the injury troubles Sosa suffered last year and this year (he’s missed more time recently with adductor issues) is reason enough he hasn’t been on the pitch for only 325 minutes in 13 games this season.
So the big question is:
What is Sosa’s future?
In the immediate term – Atlanta United’s remaining games in June – it is unrealistic to expect Sosa to return to the starting lineup given his current injury which has kept him out. team of the day since May 8 – a game in which he played 9 minutes off the bench in a 4-1 win over the Chicago Fire.
But looking beyond that into the second half of the season when Sosa will likely be fully fit, it’s impossible to consider this question without the context of the current injury crisis facing Atlanta United’s defence, where the he team lacks two full-backs, it is the star central defender. , and it’s goalkeeper captain (among others) for months or the rest of the season. It certainly seems like an inefficient use of a team’s resources to have such a need for talent in these areas while keeping a player like Sosa or Ibarra on the bench. If that’s the case where Sosa struggles to get into the team, I’m sure that would be frustrating for the player as well.
But it’s not just a question of Ibarra or Sosa in a given formation. While it seems unlikely to see them together as a central midfield couple given their profiles, the question remains whether Pineda could essentially return to the Heinze-style system once again – playing a full-back three that includes Sosa and Ibarra in midfield. It may not be Pineda’s preference, but it may be the only hand he can play given the cards dealt to him by the injury gods.
If Pineda doesn’t see that as an option, would the club consider finding a transfer for Sosa which could open up a U-22 slot? That’s easier said than done for a player who’s been battling injuries for the better part of the last 18 months. And that’s not the position a club wants to treat players from, where you’d only get pennies on the value dollar.
The good news for Sosa is something Pineda told the media after a frustrating defeat in his last match before the current long international break:
“We’re going to regroup and re-emphasize the importance of every game, and anyone who’s willing to play to that standard will start for my team.”
It’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity for every player in the team – especially a player like Sosa given his path to this point in the season.