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  • Writer's pictureSoccer Down Here

Pressure Plus Time Equals Saba

Surprises are fun.

Er, well most of the time.

Provided you are not ordering from ACME

But since we do not concern ourselves with catching small birds or live in a non-descript desert, let us focus on the good in Atlanta United's 2-1-0 record so far. There are absolutely things to improve upon, as Manager Gonzalo Pineda himself would attest to however the Five Stripes have a lot going for them and one of those things has been Georgian winger Saba Lobjanidze.

Saba strolled into town at the end of the 2023 Summer Window and provided three goals in eight appearances as he contributed to a revamped attack that saw Atlanta make the 2023 playoffs. His ability to stretch back lines and generally terrorize MLS was a welcomed sight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That part was expected. The surprise has been the follow up.

By now you are aware that Gonzalo Pineda asks a lot of his attackers. They want to score all of the goals and take great offense to moments where they do not have the ball. Whether it is successful or not, they will counter-press teams and cause all sorts of fresh hell doing so. It is a tiring style that can create opportunities and takes a lot of work to pull off. None of this is to suggest that Saba Lobjanidze would not hustle and try to terrorize defenders throughout North America, but it has been the way he has done it in 2024 that is striking.

Saba ran himself in the ground in Columbus. Then he led the team in sprints during the 4-1 victory over New England, according to Sportec. He did not get on the score sheet in that game, however that hustle was rewarded in the Orlando victory with a goal and plenty of defensive actions -- along with Giakoumakis and Xande Silva -- that kept a tired Orlando team from playing direct.

Saba knows that it can still get better though.

"Honestly I feel like I have improved my defensive skills and I know I'm helping the team," said Lobjanidze. "But I'm still not fantastic so I need to improve and get better."

Saba's own criticism aside, his manager has been impressed with the progress he has made.

"Both sides of the ball is something he has been working really, really hard at, and I have to give him credit there," said Pineda. "Sometimes last year he was getting close to the opponent, but not really putting pressure on the opponent, and that led to him not really affecting the opponent. This year he has been great for us, been more aggressive, regained the ball in better areas, and been back-pressing much better, so tactically and mentally he is improving big time on the defensive end."

There will always be room for improvement for the Five Stripes and they will continuously be asked to defend from the front, but if Saba's progression is any indication, the grit and misery they inflicted at times on Orlando will be more of a feature than a bug.

Photos provided by Sophia Cupertino

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