Atlanta United’s Martinez wants to score, but is working on new role

Josef Martinez still loves and wants to score goals, but he said Wednesday he understands that his role with Atlanta United may be changing, and he is working to adapt.

After setting an MLS record with 31 goals last season, which helped him win the league’s MVP award, Martinez has scored once in five games this season.

He’s had chances, but he’s just not as fortunate this season as he was last season, when everything seemed to find the back of the net. In the past two games, he’s dropped into the midfield and become a facilitator with line-splitting passes.

“Teams are more focused on me,” he said. “I’ve had to adapt my role. I want to get better at making those passes. The best thing is for the team, and that will help us, so it’s something I’m working hard at.”

It’s difficult to keep scoring season after season, especially when defenses have offseasons to plan for ways to slow key players. That’s what make players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi so special. It doesn’t matter what the opponents try, they still score.

Martinez is learning that lesson.

Defenses are gearing to deny him chances by putting two central defenders in front of him and a defensive midfielder behind him. When his teammates get the ball and look for him, the passing angles are acute, if they exist.

For most of the season’s first five games, Martinez was an island amid a sea of defenders. He rarely received the ball in dangerous spots. 

Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer began to tinker with the formations and Martinez’s role, and it has started to pay dividends in the past two games.

Instead of being a lonely striker staying at the top of the formation, Martinez is drifting deeper into the space between the opponent’s back line and the midfield. 

Against Columbus and New England, Martinez came back to the ball, pulled defenders with him, and hit several passes to teammates running through the newly created holes in the defense. 

“Of course, he’s so eager to score, but he played fantastic,” de Boer said. “When he plays like this, his goals and his chances will come. I have no worry about that. He also has some fantastic passes. He worked hard. I’m 100 percent sure they will come if he plays like this.”

It was Martinez’s chipped pass over defenders and down the sideline to a sprinting Hector Villalba that led to Ezequiel Barco’s first goal in last week’s 2-0 win at New England.

“He slips the ball through and drops deeper,” Julian Gressel said. “It adds a little bit more to his game. Now defenders are really going to have not just watch their back shoulders when they make runs in behind, but to go with him in the midfield. If he can make those passes, it adds another wrinkle to his game, I think, where he helps us quite a bit. Every time we can play through him and get the ball to his feet and he lays it off or turns, it opens up so much more to us in the attacking third.”

Martinez said he and the midfielders are sharing roles differently this season compared with last season, when Miguel Almiron was both a playmaker and goal-scorer. 

But Martinez hasn’t become purely a passer.

Against New England, Martinez’s movement caused New England’s defenders problems because it forced decisions and communication. He took advantage of the indecision to break forward and had chances to scores.

Martinez is handling his lack of scoring better than expected. He and his teammates have said in the past that when he doesn’t score he’s not happy, especially if he’s not helping the team win.

But Martinez seemed to be in a great mood Wednesday. After some warm-up pitches as practice for throwing out the first pitch before a Braves game, he was interviewed for 10 minutes and was funny and insightful.

“I’m good, good,” he said. “Happy that other guys are scoring. Right now for me, the ball’s not going in. I know if I keep doing my job, I’m going to start scoring.”

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