July 21, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United players Eric Remedi (left) and Pity Martinez double team D.C. United player Luciano Acosta in a soccer match on Sunday, July 21, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: compton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: compton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Decisions, decisions about Atlanta United’s starting formation

Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer has a first-world problem that he is likely going to have to deal with before Saturday’s game against the L.A. Galaxy at Mercedes-Benz Stadium: will he accommodate Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Julian Gressel, Emerson Hyndman, Brandon Vazquez, Justin Meram and Darlington Nagbe into the same starting lineup?

The short answer is he can’t. 

Let’s start by identifying who isn’t coming out of the starting lineup: Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel and Darlington Nagbe. Eric Remedi also seems to be mostly a lock as a defensive midfielder.

So, of Barco, Pity Martinez, Hyndman, Meram and Vazquez, who are going to be the odd men out?

To answer that, let’s look at the two formations the team has used most of the MLS season: the 4-4-1-1/4-3-3 and the 3-5-2.

In the 3-5-2, the central midfielders have been Remedi/Larentowicz, Nagbe and Hyndman for the three games in which the formation has been used. The wingbacks have been Gressel on the right, with Dion Pereira or Meram, with Mo Adams getting an odd spot start against LAFC, on the left. The strikers have been Josef Martinez, with either Vazquez or Pity Martinez playing underneath.

Neither Barco nor Pity Martinez are wingbacks. I’m sure they could play there for a few minutes, but it’s not a good role. Pity Martinez’s effort on defense hasn’t been consistent. Barco will put in the energy, but the results aren’t always there.

So, that eliminates those two positions for those two players, leaving two more: the second striker and the attacking midfielder. 

Based upon de Boer’s substitutions against LAFC, he views Barco and Pity Martinez as second strikers in the 3-5-2. He subbed in Barco for Martinez in last week’s game, which enraged a good number of people on social media.

They felt that Barco should have either come in for Hyndman as the attacking midfielder, or not at all because they felt Pity Martinez was playing well.

As I just wrote, Barco will try to play defense, but the results aren’t always there. Putting him in for Hyndman in that game against LAFC’s record-setting offense, could have likely exposed Atlanta United’s defense to even more damage. I know that Atlanta United needed goals because it was behind, but it wouldn’t matter if the substitution resulted in LAFC’s chances of scoring also improved.

Remember that neither Barco nor Tito Villalba started for previous manager Gerardo Martino when he switched to the 3-5-2 for last year’s playoffs. 

Turning to Pity Martinez and his role as the second striker, I was blasted on twitter for suggesting that Vazquez would have been a better choice to start over Martinez as the second striker against LAFC. People wrote that Vazquez wouldn’t start for a club in Argentina. He would never be a two-time Copa Libertadores champ, or be named South American Player of the Year. 

I don’t care.

This isn’t video-game soccer.

You need to set aside history. Forget resumes. Forget past clubs. Forget awards. Focus on production and need. This is important because I think they will be the criteria that de Boer will use when picking between Barco, Pity Martinez and Vazquez should he continue to use the 3-5-2.

LAFC was going to press. It did.

Atlanta United was going to try to break the press by playing through it, or over it. It couldn’t consistently play through it in the first half. It tried. When it tried to play over the press with long balls, there was no one there to win those duels. Vazquez is listed at 6-2, 200 pounds. Martinez is 5-7, 155. He’s faster than Martinez. He’s stronger than Martinez. He likely would have won more duels. 

And if you want to argue production, Vazquez has 2 goals on 12 shots in seven games. Martinez has 3 goals on 47 shots in 22 games. 

Martinez is a much-more gifted passer and technical player, but it didn’t matter if Martinez couldn’t either win the ball or get on the ball, which was the problem in the first half.

That’s why I thought Vazquez should have started, with Pity Martinez coming off the bench against LAFC.

So if de Boer chooses to keep the 3-5-2, I don’t think that you are going to see Atlanta United’s three Designated Players of Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco on the field at the same time as locked-in starters. You may if the opponent’s tactics and personnel make for a good fit. You may if one comes on as a sub.

I think, based upon most opponents other than LAFC, de Boer would go with (/=or):

Guzan

Escobar, Robinson, Gonzalez Pirez

Gressel, Nagbe, Remedi, Hyndman, Pereira/Meram/possibly Barco (if opponents are going to bunker)

Vazquez/P. Martinez/Barco, J. Martinez

I like the idea of Pity Martinez being used in a QB-style role in place of Hyndman as an attacking midfielder, but I’m not sure that de Boer does because of his past comments about Martinez’s effort on defense.

March 17, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (right) gets five from Darlington Nagbe after heading the ball into the net past Philadelphia Union defender Haris Medunjanin to tie it up 1-1 during the second half in a MLS soccer match that ended in a 1-1 draw on Sunday, March 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Turning to the 4-4-1-1/4-3-3, which is what the team used for most of the league season until the lack of fullbacks forced the switch to the 3-5-2.

In the 4-4-1-1, Pity Martinez and Barco were tried at various positions across the midfield and underneath Josef Martinez. Barco seemed to thrive with four goals and one assist in eight games. Pity Martinez’s stats have been noted. Vazquez was injured most of the time. Hyndman had yet to join the squad on loan from Bournemouth.

Taking into consideration the things I’ve heard say de Boer says he wants, I don’t see Pity Martinez being a locked-in starter within this formation, either.

I think, based upon most opponents other than LAFC, de Boer would go with:

Guzan

Escobar, Robinson, Gonzalez Pirez, Bello/Ambrose

Gressel, Nagbe, Remedi, Barco

Vazquez/P. Martinez/T. Villalba

J. Martinez

I once advocated a 4-1-4-1 with Barco and Pity Martinez playing underneath Josef Martinez, Gressel on the right and Nagbe on the left. Remedi would be the defensive midfielder. That was before Vazquez got healthy and Meram and Hyndman were added.

Guzan

Escobar, Robinson, Gonzalez Pirez, Bello/Ambrose

Remedi/Nagbe

Gressel/Villalba, P. Martinez/Hyndman, E. Barco, Meram/Pereira

J. Martinez

I still like the formation but have concerns about its defense up the middle. Of course, Nagbe has no cemented role so I think this is a nonstarter. Also, Hyndman, who de Boer seems to like, isn’t in the lineup as a regular starter.

Turning back to Pity Martinez.

I can’t explain his lack of success with Atlanta United in MLS. I only know what I see: a player who is technically gifted, but who isn’t fast enough to get away from defenders (the run Barco made late in the game at LAFC isn’t something that Pity can do) and whose defense is inconsistent at best. 

For every fantastic pass Martinez makes, such as the beautiful one to Gressel in the second half against LAFC, he loses the ball just as often, such as in the few minutes before that pass when he had two turnovers. 

Martinez has curbed his tendency to take low-percentage shots from outside the penalty box. But he’s not putting himself into position to score as consistently as expected. He did once against LAFC and missed a chance to give Atlanta United a 2-0 lead. His goal against D.C. United snapped a scoreless streak of five games. 

Martinez does look like he is starting to figure out how to play with his teammates because he has three assists in the past five games. But it’s still not clear that de Boer has figured out how to get the best out of him. I do know that de Boer wants players who will play within the system. 

People post on social media that Pity Martinez must start and play 90 minutes.

No, he doesn’t. I understand the fervency, but the results aren’t there to justify the decision.

People post on social media that I don’t like Pity Martinez. Also, not true. I simply point out what I observe. Unfortunately, there has been more negative than positive this season. When he has played well, I’ve written stories highlighting that. The only exception is when he hasn’t made himself available to be interviewed.

People who disagree say that I know nothing about soccer. That’s fine. It’s a reflection of today’s society in which there are no gray areas in regard to debates. Those people are welcome to start their own soccer blogs. I’d love to read their takes. Send me your url. Let’s have a conversation.

But if you are going to tell me I’m wrong, at least have the courtesy and take the time to tell my why you are right. Email me at droberson@ajc.com and let me know your preferred Atlanta United formation and the players within. I’d love to read your ideas and I’ll post them in a blog, with your permission.

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About the Author

Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson
Doug Roberson covers the Atlanta United and Major League Soccer.
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