As the “MLS is Back” big kick-off looms ever larger, the question remains over how Atlanta United plan to cope without star striker, Josef Martinez.
The Venezuelan has been a real force of nature since he arrived at Atlanta United, initially on loan, in their first year as a Major League Soccer outfit.
90 goals in 103 games across all competitions is impressive enough, but Martinez has also been included in the MLS Best XI three years running and was voted as the 2018 MVP — the same year he won the Golden Boot. Moreover, he’s helped a franchise merely three-and-a-half years old win MLS Cup, Campeones Cup and US Open Cup titles.
In short, Martinez is a born winner, the face of Atlanta United and the most feared striker in the United States. So, with the former Torino man sidelined long-term with an ACL injury suffered against Nashville back in February, what are the Five Stripes to do without him?
Atlanta have already made moves to strengthen their attacking options with Mexico international Jurgen Damm joining from Tigres, Tyler Wolff signing on a Homegrown deal and young Paraguayan Erik Lopez heavily linked with the club. However, league rules state Damm will not be eligible to play until after the MLS is Back tournament concludes. The Five Stripes demand nothing less than success, so simply waiting until this competition is over for a coherent plan to form simply won’t do.
However, manager Frank de Boer has been loud in his positivity in the build-up to MLS is Back, insisting he has a number of options at his disposal, including fielding a target man like Adam Jahn to bring Atlanta’s more creative players into the game, or the much-talked-about option of fielding Pity Martinez as a false nine.
“We have Adam Jahn of course, and Manuel Castro,” de Boer told reporters on Friday. “And we have JJ Williams, so we have replacements for Josef.
“So we really, of course, they are different types than Josef. For example, Manuel Castro is a guy who has a lot of energy, who wants to go make runs and that’s important.
“We can play with two 10s with [Ezequiel] Barco and Pity. We can also play with Pity as a false nine. And with Barco up-front and Matheus Rossetto as an offensive midfielder. We can rotate a lot, two up-front, one up-front. So I have a lot of possibilities to use our players.”
Fortunately for De Boer, and as much as Martinez is undoubtedly the frontman of the band, the Five Stripes have plenty of other top-class talents to fill the gaps, as the Dutch tactician alluded to.
During the opening two games of the 2020 season, which now feel like a lifetime ago, midfielder Emerson Hyndman stepped up with the winning goals in each of Atlanta’s 2-1 victories against Nashville and FC Cincinnati, while Ezequiel Barco scored a wonderful goal in the first match and a goal and assist in the second.
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) March 1, 2020
The Argentine was also the only bright spark in his side’s 3-0 crushing at the hands of Club America in the Concacaf Champions League and after a couple of underwhelming seasons, finally looks on the verge of fulfilling his vast potential.
Then, of course, there is the option to field Pity Martinez as a false nine. The 27-year-old impressed only in fits and starts in 2019 but at the beginning of this season, grabbed two goals and two assists as Atlanta eased past Motagua in the CCL and added a further assist in the win over Cincy. What’s more, Pity, alongside Barco, was at the beating heart of everything his side did well going forward.
Can the former River Plate man translate that sort of creativity and those match-defining moments to a new tactical role?
Rather than opposition centre-backs having a physical threat to deal with such as Jahn, or the intelligent runs in behind that Josef Martinez would make, dealing with a false nine would require having nobody to mark.
However, centre-backs would surely know that this would cause overloads in other areas of the field, so, do you go and help out your teammates or stay put? If they move, gaps are then created for quick players like Barco or Manuel Castro to run into. If they stay, the likelihood is Barco, Pity and Co. will create 3v2 situations to work ‘around’ the opposition defence.
With that in mind, Pity Martinez is likely De Boer’s best bet. As can be seen below by his Smarterscout actions map, the Argentina international thrived most last season when drifting into the half-spaces where he could either link with one of his wing-backs or drive inside to commit defenders.
He also has an excellent range of passing and can split a defence with one precise through-ball. Though his propensity to blaze shots over the bar can frustrate fans, Pity is still an undoubtedly adept finisher, too.
Quite how the Five Stripes will adjust to Josef Martinez’s absence as MLS is Back kicks off, only De Boer will truly know. However, Atlanta United have a myriad of options at their disposal and they’re tactically flexible.
“[We] can play against any system and know what we want to do,” De Boer said recently.
According to media outlets such as Sports Illustrated and Wincomparator Magazine Atlanta remain among the favourites to win the competition.
All of this suggests things aren’t quite as hopeless as some outside of Georgia are making it out to be. Given their unquestioned status as “winners” during their three-and-a-half years of existence so far, few inside the game will be writing them off at this point.