Atlanta United fell 4-3 at Los Angeles Football club Friday night, capitulating over a 12-minute period in the first half before coming alive in the second. The biggest story to come out of the game has nothing to do with any of the seven goals or either side’s tactics. The biggest story was the look on Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez’s face as he subbed off for Ezequiel Barco in the 59th minute.
Once again, Pity Martínez was quite upset about being substituted with half an hour remaining. That won't help his strained relationship with Frank De Boer….#LAFCvATL #ATLUTD 👀👀 pic.twitter.com/lI3K1n6sXD
— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) July 27, 2019
Martínez was playing well, and Atlanta was chasing a goal. El Pity appeared bewildered and furious to see his number come up on the fourth official’s Lite-Brite board. It was a replay of the reaction Martínez had when he subbed off during Atlanta’s 1-0 home win against the Colorado Rapids on April 27.
“Pity didn’t play that bad,” de Boer said in explaining the substitution, per video provided by the club. “He did in the second half what everybody did. He was aggressive, but I wanted to make minutes also for Barco. For me, the only position [available] was [Martínez’s] position. That’s why I took him out. I wanted to see Barco, because I think we need him also for the season. He gets fit only [by playing] games — of course, training also — but this kind of game makes him better and fitter.”
That is a reasonable explanation from de Boer, but in need of a goal, it is hard to believe Atlanta’s attack would improve by taking off a player with Martínez’s skillset. Barco played well, but it was a like-for-like substitution that did not change the game. LAFC was struggling defensively in the second half, and trying to contain both Barco and Martínez would have been a big ask.
The move also begs a question: With Barco healthy, does de Boer see Martínez as the 20-year-old’s backup and not his starting-XI colleague?
Earlier this month, Martínez appeared on Fox Sports Argentina radio and criticized de Boer’s tactics and some of the manager’s comments to media about the player. The interview created a firestorm that called in to question de Boer and Martínez’s relationship. Since then, Josef Martínez, an established Atlanta star who has more credit built up to criticize de Boer, has seemingly offered cover for his teammate by disputing the manager’s defensive tactics.
“I think many times we’ve lost the attitude,” Josef Martínez said ahead of Atlanta’s 2-0 win over D.C. United last week. “In two years, even three years, I’ve never seen Atlanta play defensive, so we can’t play defensive, whether we have one forward or two forwards, Atlanta has always played attacking soccer and has to continue that way.”
Pity Martínez went on ESPN FC Argentina this week and confirmed his relationship with de Boer is not good.
That was plain to see Friday night. What started as a headache with Pity Martínez’s comments on Fox Sports Argentina has progressed to migraine status. A fractured team, with players taking the side of either de Boer or El Pity, is a real danger now.
Atlanta struggles to walk de Boer’s fine defensive line
Discussing Atlanta’s defensive outlook in games, particularly in those away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, de Boer regularly says his players cannot drop too deep but also cannot get caught pressing too hard. The Five Stripes have struggled to find that balance all year. Even with a 1-0 lead for the first half-hour against LAFC, Atlanta was second best. It was sitting too deep, allowing the Black and Gold to keep possession in its attacking half.
Atlanta tried to change its mindset and push higher up the field, but that only opened up space between the midfield and back line. The result was four goals in a 12-minute period that essentially sealed the three points for LAFC.
— LAFC (@LAFC) July 27, 2019
“We didn’t do what we should do,” de Boer said of the first half. “We were every time too late in those  minutes. They could every time find the free man, first in the midfield, then somebody has to step out. It was too open. I call it always like a domino effect. One stone falls, and then the other stone also falls, and it was happening in the first half.”
These goal-shipping defensive performances are reminiscent of what happened to the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference final first leg at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last November. The Red Bulls didn’t bunker, and they didn’t deploy their trademark high press. Attempting to defend in a mid-block, New York conceded too much room for Atlanta to start and finish attacking sequences. The Five Stripes won 3-0.
Just as de Boer has recently changed formations and moved to a 3-5-2 that is more comfortable for his players, he may need to find a more comfortable defensive scheme too.
No, de Boer is not on the hot seat
Despite all of the aforementioned doom and gloom, and despite the incendiary reactions on social media Friday night, de Boer’s job is not at risk. And it should not be.
The first half against LAFC was a disaster, and the manager’s relationship with one of his star players is a real problem. But Atlanta was the better team in the second half and did well to give itself a chance to walk away from SoCal with a point.
The Five Stripes sit second in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference after an abysmal start to 2019. They are in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup — something never achieved under Martino. The team is trending in the right direction despite a spate of injuries and Pity Martínez’s season-long struggles to replace the production of Miguel Almirón.
There will be more growing pains in 2019, and it is possible the season ends as a trophy-less disappointment. Whether the Dutchman is a longterm success remains to be seen, but de Boer is not going anywhere this year, and to pull the plug would be a rash overreaction from Atlanta’s front office.