MARIETTA, Ga. — Josef Martínez, the proverbial tip of the spear in Atlanta United’s first two seasons, has a new role in 2019. Martínez still is expected to score goals, but under new manager Frank de Boer, he has adding playmaker duties to his workload.
Atlanta opened the season in a much-discussed attacking malaise. If last Saturday’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution is any indication, this wrinkle for Martínez’s game may be key in the Five Stripes’ attempts to unlock opposing defenses. Martínez playing as a complete forward, and not just a poacher, gives the opposition much more to consider. It led to the first goal against New England. Martínez chipped a pass to Héctor “Tito” Villalba, who raced to the byline and cut the ball back for Ezequiel Barco’s tap-in.
“When he drops in a little bit, he attracts a lot of attention from the defenders,” Villalba said through an interpreter after training Tuesday. “So they have to move up to cover him, and that allows us to run off him and try to make runs in behind their defense.”
De Boer has been working on this strategy all season. It has paid dividends only recently. Earlier in the year, Martínez dropped off the front line or moved out on either flank, but Atlanta’s midfielders and wingers did not make the necessary runs to take advantage of his movement.
“He can drop back when there is movement around him,” de Boer said after Atlanta’s 1-0 win over Monterrey in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals second leg. “Against Cincinnati [in a 1-1 draw], we didn’t do that, to make unselfish runs and create space for somebody else or yourself.”
Martínez attributes the improvement of late to the simple fact that the team has had more time to work together in training. When Atlanta was still alive in the Champions League and playing two games per week, there was hardly any time to practice the tactics.
Making a difference right away 🚢
Barco with his 2nd goal of the season! pic.twitter.com/ICny26LIBb
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) April 14, 2019
“I think we needed time to train,” Martínez said through an interpreter Wednesday. “And we also had a new coach, so we were trying to learn a new system. I think in the beginning, a lot of us weren’t clear with what we were supposed to do. But with more time to train and with less games, I think we’ve improved in that aspect.
“Now, it’s just about continuing to work hard. We’re at the bottom of the table, which is something we’re not used to, so we have to get that winning mentality back so we’re able to win games and climb the table.”
In 2017 and ’18, Atlanta had Miguel Almirón in the center of the field to pull all of the strings. Almirón by himself could take the ball from defense to attack and create open spaces for his teammates. Now that he’s plying his trade in England with Newcastle United, Atlanta’s players must be more fluid to keep the ball moving dangerously.
Martínez does not have much experience as a playmaker, but he appears comfortable with the added responsibilities. Still, he is a goal-scorer at heart. If the Five Stripes are going to put up the sort of gaudy offensive numbers seen in their first two seasons, others will have to be clinical in front of net. Asked whether providing an assist is as enjoyable as scoring a goal, Martínez laughed.
“Yeah, but they have to score for it to be an assist,” he said. “If they score, then that’s great, but if they don’t it’s just another normal pass.”