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Atlanta United attack scuffles with Pity Martínez struggling to assimilate

Apr 27, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) dribbles the ball against the Colorado Rapids in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Atlanta United won on Saturday, but grumblings from fans and media about the team’s attacking struggles continue.

Seventy-four minutes passed before Julian Gressel scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Five Stripes put a single shot on target in the first half, a long-range effort from centerback Leandro González-Pírez, and home supporters booed when referee Alan Kelly blew his halftime whistle. Colorado entered the game with Major League Soccer’s worst defensive record, having allowed 23 goals in its first eight games.

In his postgame press conference, the first question manager Frank de Boer received was whether he was concerned with the performance. De Boer was taken aback. The team had won, and the manager seemingly expected a more upbeat chat with reporters. Games against defensive-minded teams that “park two busses in front of their own goal,” as Colorado did, are difficult. De Boer was proud of his team for finding a way to take all three points.

It is true, as de Boer argued, that even the best attacking teams can struggle against opponents who bunker. (Remember Atlanta’s 1-1 draw against Seattle last season, or its three losses to lowly D.C. United in 2017?) The bigger issue for the Five Stripes right now is the lack of production from Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, who still has not adapted to his new country, league and team, and who, according to de Boer, still is not fully match fit after a short offseason and an injury layoff last month.

De Boer and his players who speak with media often take questions about Martínez. The answers are always the same: He needs more time, and when he is comfortable, they are confident Martínez will show the skills that made him a superstar in Argentina. That may be true, but until then, Atlanta will struggle with Martínez in the lineup. He is meant to be the playmaker in the center of the field, and right now, he is not making plays. Martínez took one shot against Colorado. It landed in the stands. He completed 63 percent of his passes, the lowest percentage among the starting 11.

Replacing the production of Miguel Almirón, perhaps the most electric player in MLS history, was always going to be difficult. It is impossible to do that with a player who is in a poor run of form.

With El Pity scuffling and frustrated, his teammates appear unsure of themselves. It looks as though no one knows when or where Martínez will play the ball. Atlanta won against Colorado, but it looked more dangerous in the 2-1 loss to a defensive FC Dallas side the week prior. Martínez did not start that game, nor Atlanta’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution.

There is no easy solution for the Five Stripes. Sitting Martínez would do nothing to help his confidence and would only slow his assimilation into the team. De Boer must count on Martínez, and thus his team, improving each week.

“Every time I get the ball, I’m looking for him,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said after the Colorado game. “Obviously we want to get out talented guys and our playmaker, our No. 10, on the ball.

“We know what he can do. We’ve seen him in training, and we’ve seen him at River [Plate], and I think he’s just getting started here. So, I’m confident in him and giving him the ball every single time. It’s just a matter of time until everyone sees what he can do.”

Before the season began, de Boer said that while he has a specific philosophy regarding how his team should play, he would always prioritize results over style. Atlanta looked good in the loss to Dallas, but it won ugly against Colorado. The manager will take the latter outcome every time, and until Martínez is able to showcase his skills, supporters should forget about beautiful soccer and enjoy the victories when they come.

Tito Villalba, super sub

Héctor “Tito” Villalba believes he is a starting-11 player, but he is a great weapon off the bench for de Boer. Tired defenders face a tall task in keeping up with the winger’s pace and shifty dribbling. Villalba’s substitute appearances were vital for the Five Stripes during their playoff run last season. Saturday night against Colorado was no different.

With just 17 touches, Villalba created two chances and hit a shot off the post. Atlanta came to life when he entered the game in the 71st minute.

Going for broke pays off

Another issue Atlanta has faced this season is a lack of attacking influence from its fullbacks as injuries have ravaged the depth chart. The Five Stripes were reliant on dynamic wing play in 2018, but that has been mostly non-existent this year.

The problem continued against Colorado until de Boer made a double substitution in the 71st minute. Villalba and Eric Remedi entered for Martínez and Brek Shea, respectively. The changes allowed Ezequiel Barco to slide into the role of center attacking midfielder, where he has excelled this season. Remedi filled Darlington Nagbe’s holding midfielder position, and Nagbe replaced Shea as an advanced left back.

In the first half, Shea and right back Franco Escobar were in line with Nagbe and Jeff Larentowicz, alternately joining the attack. The formation looked like of 2-4-4 in possession that was well suited to prevent counter attacks from Colorado. De Boer went for the win late, pushing both fullbacks high up the field in sort of a 2-2-6.

The decisive goal came when Nagbe won the ball back in Colorado’s defensive third, went on a direct run into the penalty area and played a good ball to Julian Gressel. It was a decisive, aggressive action, the kind of move Atlanta had been lacking. Sending a player of Nagbe’s quality out on the wing to close the game was the winning adjustment.

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