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Pity Martínez, Frank de Boer disconnect a headache for Atlanta United

The star player and manager back one another, but they are not on the same pages

Mar 17, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer walks before the match against the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — In Atlanta United’s continued quest to establish itself as a Big Club in the global footballing community, and experience all aspects of Big Club existence, the Five Stripes endured their first manager-player dust-up this week. Thursday afternoon, Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez, Atlanta’s marquee January signing from Copa Libertadores champion River Plate, spoke to an Argentine radio station and aired some of his grievances regarding the manager.

Martínez negatively compared de Boer’s tactics to those of Marcelo Gallardo, his previous manager at River. Martínez also took issue with de Boer for criticizing the player in front of Atlanta press after a recent 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact.

In his postgame press conference on June 29, de Boer told reporters he had subbed Martínez off in the 68th minute because the Argentine was making too many mistakes that were “a danger for the team.” Martínez was not happy about that comment and said on Fox Sports Argentina the manager should have addressed him before speaking publicly.

The interview lit up the soccer media-spheres in Argentina and Atlanta. Friday morning, Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra met one-on-one with Martínez and then called in to a local radio station in an attempt to smooth things over.

“Each of them were a bit frustrated,” Bocanegra said on FM-92.9 The Game. “Frank made some comments after the game, Pity made some comments, but there’s nothing malicious to it, both guys are over it, looks like the Argentinean press looking to start up a fire.”

De Boer and Martínez spoke in individual media sessions following Atlanta’s Friday training session. Each touted a good relationship with the other. But de Boer did not back off the previous sort of criticism he has made of Martínez, and Martínez reiterated his point regarding that criticism.

“One thing, I have to be very clear: If I say something like that, then I already said it to him first,” de Boer said Friday when asked if he regrets the way he has talked about Martínez with reporters. “It’s not that I’m saying that behind his back. Everybody knows I take players out when I see they are injured and they are at that moment a danger for the team. 

“That can happen after 60 minutes. That’s why normally you see a lot of coaches make changes after 60, 70 minutes, because you see somebody is tired, doesn’t do his job anymore, what you expect. That’s also normal.”

Mar 17, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) dribbles against the Philadelphia Union in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Mar 17, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United midfielder Gonzalo Martinez (10) dribbles against the Philadelphia Union in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Martínez sees things differently.

“We talk often, but that comment that he said after the game, he didn’t have a chance to tell me,” Martínez said through an interpreter Friday. “So those are just things that happen, but as I said, it’s done, and we just have to move forward.”

Martínez said he would have preferred de Boer’s comment to have been made “behind closed doors”. De Boer said he would like this sort of problem to “stay in the locker room.” The two may have a good relationship, but if this reads like a “he said, he said,” story, it is. There is a disconnect here. 

Atlanta’s South American players have freely spoken this season about the differences between de Boer and former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, in regards to both tactics and personality. Martínez was not with the Five Stripes last season, yet he seems to be the player who finds the Dutchman’s on- and off-field style most jarring. Everyone is adapting, but the fact that Martínez also is adapting to new teammates, a new league and a new country makes the process more difficult.

Under Gallardo at River Plate, Martínez played in a free-wheeling, high-pressing system, similar to that deployed by Martino. De Boer preaches defensive responsibility and a rigidity in shape first and foremost. This situation is not as extreme as an attack-minded midfielder such as Paul Pogba playing for Jose Mourinho, but it is on the same side of the spectrum.

“From what I saw watching the games last year and from talking to the guys, they played a different style, and I’m also coming from a different style,” Martínez said. “Frank is the coach, and we all as players have to adapt to a new coaching style. It’s challenging, but as players, we have to be up to the challenge and be ready to do what the coaching staff asks of us.”

De Boer said his tactical game plans have evolved this year. He started with a basic defensive structure as the foundation at the beginning of the season and has been able to add new attacking wrinkles over time — he used a metaphor describing options being added to a base-model car.

“If everybody understands his role, then we are executing the plan that everybody is behind,” de Boer said of his team’s tactics. “So I’m not concerned.”

It cannot go unnoticed that Martínez’s primary complaint in this saga is exactly the activity he engaged in Thursday. He had a problem with his manager, and instead of talking about it in private, he went to the media. Martínez did not see this as a hypocritical move, and he claims he was not attempting to send a message to de Boer.

“No, no, I have always respected him,” Martínez explained. “I say what I think and how I feel as he does. I think what he said about me, he has to say to me first before [the media], and I understand it’s his job, but it’s not that about paying him back with his own coin. This was just a back and forth. 

“He’s sincere and so I am. I think that’s it, and this is a step to the side, and now we will move on.”

De Boer is not going to change his ways as manager, and it sounds like he has no intention of revising the way he speaks about his players to the press. Martínez seems to understand and accept those facts. Nevertheless, the majority of Friday’s media availability, ahead of a big game at the Seattle Sounders, was spent hashing out the kind of story everyone in the organization would like to avoid. 

Better communication between de Boer clearly is needed, but it might not be easy for the two to stay on the same page.

“I’m someone who always says what I want to say,” Martínez told reporters. “I think it is good to talk. It always helps, especially when it’s two intelligent people.

“Talking can only help — but not talking too constantly, because then you just get a lot in your head.”

De Boer said his No. 10 will start Sunday against the Seattle Sounders. Martínez’s interview Thursday was not an earthquake moment, and it has not cracked Atlanta United apart. But there is a fault line. All parties should be wary and take the necessary precautions to avoid a disaster.

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