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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Swiss miss: Replacing Tranquillo Barnetta

At season's end, Tranquillo Barnetta will be headed back to Switzerland.
How might the Union replace his sizeable contributions? (AP)

The Philadelphia Union, in a surprisingly and laudably proactive announcement Tuesday morning, revealed that Tranquillo Barnetta will be leaving at the end of the 2016 season to rejoin the club of his youth, FC St. Gallen in Switzerland.

The possibility was long mooted, with Barnetta’s contract purposefully drawn up at 18 months from last summer to offer both club and player the flexibility to escape and the acquisition of Alejandro Bedoya, a player capable of playing the No. 10 role.

Barnetta will be missed, as he’s been an exemplary player over 37 games (plus whatever’s left this regular/postseason) and ambassador for the club. The “why” of the timing is fairly clear, with Barnetta having achieved his objective of an American experience and wanting to have something left in the tank for St. Gallen, but I’ll leave Barnetta to speak for himself if he’s available after training Wednesday.

I’ll stand by the declaration last summer that he’s the most decorated player the Union have ever acquired, and even with Bedoya, Charlie Davies and Ilsinho since joining, Barnetta retains that title with his wealth of Bundesliga, European Champions League and three World Cups worth of experience.

The conversation shifts as to how to replace Barnetta, a discussion we can have now and then shift to the backburner as the Union’s late-season run plays out. When Bedoya was acquired in August, I posited a Barnetta-less future that would seamlessly integrate Bedoya into the No. 10 role instead of the No. 8 that he’s a less obvious fit for. From the blog:
That’s not to say the Union would move on from Barnetta. But if they can't resign him or wanted to divest themselves of a potentially redundant asset, Barnetta could make sense. Or Bedoya could be the starter with some combination of Alberg and Barnetta as reserves or on the wing. And it allows (Derrick) Jones, hailed as the No. 8 of the future, a chance to grow into the job. What better way for him to do that than sandwiched between Edu and Bedoya?
Let’s alter the thinking somewhat. I’ll follow the lead of my colleague, Kevin Kinkead, in this. If you’re replacing Barnetta and have the $700k or so of salary cap flexibility, what could the Union get?

Manager Jim Curtin made a point after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Toronto to mention how difficult it is to play against two forwards, in this case Jozy Altidore and Jordan Hamilton/Mo Babouli. In a league overwhelmingly gravitating toward the 4-2-3-1 like moths to a flame, could the Union exploit this tactical nuance? (I’m trying not to ask if the 4-4-2 is a market inefficiency, but let’s go full on Moneyball.)

So let’s think about this formation:

We can quibble about some of the positional battles (Josh Yaro/Ken Tribbett; Derrick Jones/Warren Creavalle/expansion draft protection). And nomenclature is a little sketchy. You can call this a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 depending on who plays the No. 8.

But in this scenario, you’re looking for a “Player X” who can score, can play off the shoulder of a striker and can offer flexibility. The reality is that since the departure of Vincent Nogueira, the Union have essentially attacked with the front four, and they’ve been efficient at creating chances. So you want someone as Barnetta’s replacement to be a chance creator who can also finish. I think of it somewhat in the Luciano Acosta role at D.C. United: A guy who can get into the box and be dangerous but also pass and pull strings from deeper.

That’s a big ask, I know, though $700k isn’t chump change to find it. But the reason for the flexibility is simple. The player I’m describing kind of sounds like Roland Alberg. It kinds of sounds like something Fabian Herbers can do. And it may be what Kevin Kratz can do. From that established skillset, is there a players that can be a complement or counterpoint?

It’s also easily swappable. Down a goal? Throw Davies (pending his continued presence with the club) in and you make one change to go straight 4-4-2. Need more defense? Push Bedoya inside with Ilsinho or someone else on the wing.

There are a lot of conversations to be had not in the coming weeks but in the weeks after the Union’s season comes to its natural conclusion. While losing Barnetta stings, it’s neither unexpected nor irrecoverable, and it leaves the Union well-positioned to explore new opportunities.

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