Atlanta United has a Pity problem.
For the second time in as many home games, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer chose to sub off Pity Martinez, the most expensive transfer in MLS history, because he was lacking.
The first time, in what turned into a 2-1 win over Montreal two weeks ago, de Boer said he took off Martinez because he was making decisions that were putting the team in danger.
The second time, in what turned into a 3-3 draw with New York Red Bulls, de Boer said he took off Martinez because he wasn’t winning enough duels, and then continued his thought to say that he wants 11 players who will work hard.
It was a damming verdict and raises the question of what will de Boer do with Martinez when Hector Villalba and Ezequiel Barco return from injury and join a glut of midfielders that includes Julian Gressel, Justin Meram, Darlington Nagbe and the recently signed Emerson Hyndman?
Martinez has two goals and four assists this season. He has shown rare flashes of the vision and technical ability that made him the South American Player of the Year last year. He has shown that he will play defense, but not consistently. He has shown that he will hustle, but not consistently.
That inconsistency is part of the problem.
I’ve been accused on social media of “having it in” for Martinez. It’s an accusation made by people that I don’t think understand the role of journalists, nor want to believe what they are seeing from Martinez.
As I cataloged on twitter the numerous errors made by Martinez (and others) during a 10-minute spell on on Sunday, that accusation of disliking Martinez was made again.
A few minutes later, de Boer pulled Martinez.
I’m not making stuff up, folks. I will post what I see, good and bad.
Minutes after that, de Boer said this when asked specifically why he subbed Martinez:
“We have to win duels, and in my point of view, he did not do enough to avoid giving someone an easy long ball. You saw, Brandon (Vazquez) came in and it was a different story. I want not 10, or 9, or 8 men who work very hard, everybody has to work hard, especially in these kinds of games. These are very difficult games. I had the feeling that we have to win those duels, and that is also why I put Jeff Larentowicz in. After we put Jeff in, we get chance after chance. And you can think, ‘Hey, that’s defensively,’ but first you have to win those duels, and we did after that. You saw every time we won those duels it was in open space with Justin (Meram), or Josef (Martinez), so I think it was good for us that we did it. I had the feeling that at that moment we were losing grip on the game, and that is why I put those two in, and we turned it around.”
The stats showed that Martinez won five of his 10 duels. Vazquez won none of his five.
But Vazquez showed hustle. I think that’s what de Boer was referring to. Too often Martinez won’t try to engage in a duel.
A lack of hustle is something that de Boer has shown he will not tolerate.
So, going back to my original question, what will de Boer do with Martinez?
De Boer has tried Martinez on the left, on the right, which worked OK for a while, and then put him back in the middle on Sunday. Martinez assisted on the first goal. It was a perfectly weighted pass.
But that was the highlight.
Nothing seems to be working for him right now. Dummied passed end up at the opponent’s feet. Free kicks are hit at the goalkeeper or out of bounds. Dribbles are lost. Shots aren’t on goal.
When Barco returns, which could be as early as Sunday at Seattle, and if Gressel is healthy, I think de Boer will chose to not start Martinez.
De Boer needs midfielders who will stay wide, which is why Meram and Gressel were on the left and right against Red Bulls. (That, and putting Martinez against Kemar Lawrence was a mismatch in New York’s favor, in my opinion.) Putting Martinez in the middle makes sense because Martinez likes to drift inside when he gets the ball anyway and hasn’t shown an ability to beat defenders one-one-one in spaces on the outside.
But when he’s in the middle, he has to win duels and he has to maintain possession of the ball so that he can create scoring chances. He lost possession 18 times on Sunday. Only Mikey Ambrose (27) lost the ball more but his came from a full 90 minutes.
When Barco returns, I think he will slide underneath Josef Martinez and become the playmaker that Pity Martinez was supposed to be against Red Bulls, with Meram and Gressel wide. Villalba will spell either of them when needed during this glut of games. Pity Martinez will become a spark off the bench, if needed.
As I wrote last week, and tweeted again yesterday, I think Martinez will finish the season with at least 10 goals and 10 assists.
Go back and watch his highlights at River Plate.
The man can play soccer. He can play it very well.
But something is going to have to change because what’s being tried hasn’t worked and isn’t working.
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