The signing of Tranquillo Barnetta in the summer of 2015 was one of - if not the - biggest splash that the Philadelphia Union had made in the transfer market in club history to that point. Since then they made Alejandro Bedoya their first seven-figure player, but a player with plenty of Champions League and World Cup experience was nothing to ignore.
Barnetta brought creativity, quality, and pace that was welcomed by anyone that witnessed the Cristian Maidana experiment (that ended with Chaco being shipped to Houston with Andrew Wenger). The Swiss international joined Philly from Bundesliga side Schalke 04, where he appeared in 22 games in 2014. Prior to joining Schalke, he had stints with Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen, Hannover, and his hometown club St. Gallen in the Swiss Super League, where he is set to return to in 2017.
After a somewhat slow start in his first half-season in MLS, Barnetta hit the ground running in 2016. In just over 2,400 minutes, the Union No. 10 netted five goals to go along with four assists. Numbers aside, Barnetta had a bigger impact on the field and in the locker room.
Even after C.J. Sapong’s goal scoring form dried up, Barnetta showed a propensity to play the “killer pass” from the run of play or set pieces. According to WhoScored, the linchpin of the Union attack averaged 2.3 key passes per game, higher than any other player on the team by a significant amount.
stumble run into the playoffs, Barnetta announced his decision to return home to his Switzerland to join his hometown club, St. Gallen, where his career began. “The entire soccer community here was so welcoming, and I'm so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated.” Barnetta said in regards to his decision not to extend his time in MLS. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can't resist.”
It’s hard to be mad at a guy for wanting to return home, especially to a club that gave him his start. After all, they made his prolific career that spanned across Switzerland, Germany, and now the United States possible. With that said, the Union will be tasked with the difficult task of once again filling the vacant No. 10 role.
Looking at the current roster, it’s clear that Jim Curtin has no out-and-out creative midfielder to call on. Roland Alberg had spent significant time there in 2016 due to injuries and Vincent Nogueira’s departure that briefly pushed Barnetta deeper in the midfield. Bedoya has also spent time in the position during his time wit Nantes as well as the national team, but the Union splurged in the summer transfer market to bring him in to replace Nogueira’s void at one of the defensive midfield positions.
Alberg, while lacking the creativity and passing range of Barnetta, showed that he has the capability of being the difference between winning and losing with 9 goals despite just 13 starts. During his first season in MLS, the 26-year-old averaged a goal just over every 128 minutes. A player that can create his own opportunities to score goals is something that the Union have lacked in recent memory, making Alberg a welcomed addition, but his inability to consistently create for others makes him a question mark at best as a long-term solution in that role.
The other obvious option is Bedoya. While this would cause Curtin to once again shuffle the midfield to find the right balance, the U.S. international has shown the ability to play further up the field than he was deployed in his first half-season in the league. While certainly different than Barnetta in terms of technical ability, Bedoya would give you the added dimension of his work rate to press higher than the Union has in the past. Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, and others have made high-pressing a bigger part of the modern game in recent years abroad, so to think that it hasn’t crossed Curtin’s mind would likely be a mistake.
While it seems odd to talk about the defensive acumen of a player in an advanced position being a game-changer, all you have to do is take a look at Liverpool to see Daniel Sturridge on the bench in favor of Roberto Firmino to see an example of where it’s paid dividends. Now, let’s make this clear. I’m not comparing Bedoya to Sturridge or Firmino, and I’m certainly not comparing Curtin to Klopp. However, the high-tempo, high-press that Klopp has deployed has been and will continue to be mimicked by other coaches all over the globe. Could the next one be Curtin? Let’s wait and see.
Neither Bedoya or Alberg is a sure thing at No. 10. Alberg moving into the starting XI gives the Union a whole lot less fire-power off the bench and Bedoya moving into a more advanced role leaves a question mark deeper in the midfield of a team that had well-documented defensive struggles down the stretch. If Maurice Edu can return fully fit and avoid injury in 2017, that could lessen the burden of the decision for Curtin and his staff.
With all of that said, everyone knew what they were getting out of Barnetta on a consistent basis, and replacing a player of his quality is never an easy task. Nonetheless, it’s one that the technical staff is faced with heading into 2017.
What would you do to fill the void left by the latest departing midfield star? Let us know in the comments below.