ATLANTA — Atlanta United saw two important returns in its 3-1 decision day win over the New England Revolution at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ezequiel Barco is match fit and started for the first time since sustaining a muscle injury in the U.S. Open Cup final Aug. 27. Josef Martínez returned to the starting XI after a two-game injury layoff. Both players will be vital in Atlanta’s quest to repeat as MLS Cup champion.
There was one noticeable absence Sunday: Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez did not play a minute. Asked if the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year could be outside the starting XI come playoffs time, manager Frank de Boer did not give a firm answer, only saying “everyone has to be on top” and ready to play when their name is called.
When Pity Martínez signed in January, it was unfathomable that he might not be a key component for the Five Stripes in the playoffs. Looking at Sunday’s result, it is hard to imagine de Boer will be itching to reinsert El Pity.
Barco and Hyndman link up
Barco and Emerson Hyndman played in support of Josef Martínez, a lineup configuration that had not been used before Sunday. They performed well, creating four chances and rarely missing on their passes in the buildup toward the final third. De Boer has talked about the necessity to keep possession until the attacking phase in order to prevent dangerous transitions by Atlanta’s opponents. In a one-game knockout scenario, the manager will be even more wary. While Pity Martínez has glittering playmaking ability on his best days, he is a liability in possession on his worst. Barco brings similar ability without taking as many risks in the middle of the field, and his defensive work rate is higher than his compatriot’s.
In MLS games season, Pity Martínez has completed 72 percent of his passes while Barco has completed 82 percent, per Who Scored. Barco draws 2.7 fouls per game, and Pity Martínez draws 1.8. Both players regularly look for contact, but Barco gets more respect from referees. The advanced stats favor El Pity as an attacking threat: His 0.62 expected goals-plus-expected assists per 96 minutes bests Barco’s 0.49, according to American Soccer Analysis. Still, the two Argentines are similar players who can execute the winning pass or shot.
Meanwhile, Hyndman is not a playmaker of Pity Martínez or Barco’s caliber, but the Bournemouth loanee is active in the attacking third. More importantly, he completes 84 percent of his passes and does not take many risks on the dribble.
A difficult choice for de Boer
After Sunday’s win, Barco said he feels “comfortable” moving up from an attacking midfield role to second striker in Atlanta’s 3-5-2. Hyndman said substituting Barco for El Pity in that position does “not really” change the team tactically. It is a like-for-like switch.
“We all just do our jobs,” Hyndman told Pro Soccer USA. “I know my job, just try to be dynamic, try to link up with whoever’s up front and in the midfield. They’re both good at linking up, linking up with the striker, linking up with the midfielders, so whoever’s there, my role doesn’t change.”
It is possible Pity Martínez’s exclusion Sunday was some tactical gamesmanship from de Boer. The manager knew his team was likely to face New England again in the playoffs. Leaving El Pity out gives Revs manager Bruce Arena something more to contemplate ahead of their first-round rematch. However, de Boer values stable, secure buildup in possession, and it is just as possible that, with Barco available, he sees too much risk in starting Pity Martínez for a knockout game.
It would be a cruel twist of fate for El Pity should he find himself outside of de Boer’s plans in the coming weeks. The No. 10 has steadily improved this season. He has provided moments of magic and was a big part of Atlanta’s run to two trophy wins during the month of August. But de Boer often says he is paid to make difficult choices, and with all of his attacking pieces healthy, it seems he now has a difficult choice to make.
Atlanta has a few guarantees in the starting XI. When they are available, players such as Josef Martínez, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Miles Robinson are locks. Going into the postseason, Pity Martínez is a question mark, and that raises bigger questions about his future in Atlanta.