Atlanta United was having a strong start on their attempt to regain the MLS title. After being Major League Soccer’s champions back in 2018 and making it to the Conference Finals last year, they won their first two matches of this year’s campaign before COVID-19 pandemic interrupted it. This tactical analysis will try to find solutions to their season-early hurdles.
Unfortunately, they faced an unexpected heavy obstacle to their ambitions in the first game of the season when Josef Martínez tore his ACL. The former Serie A forward, who is expected to miss about 12 months, scored 63 goals in 71 MLS matches in his last two seasons playing for Atlanta. Because of that, the Venezuelan star is a cornerstone piece under Frank De Boer’s tactical display.
In this team analysis, I will explain different scenarios for Atlanta United, aiming to solve the difficult task of replacing Josef Martínez and his impact on the team’s tactics.
Martínez’s role in Atlanta’s tactics
To begin projecting different solutions, it is important to take a look at De Boer’s game model and Martínez role on the team. The former Ajax and Internazionale head coach mostly uses a 3-4-2-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation, being the first one the most used recently. In both cases, Josef Martínez plays the centre-forward position, usually being supported from behind by Argentinians Pity Martínez and Ezequiel Barco.
Regarding his position and movement in the pitch, the Venezuelan is mostly around the central zones of the attack. Below we can see the zonal distribution of Martínez’s opportunities. Focusing on Josef Martínez offensive impact, it is not just his goals what Atlanta will be missing. Martínez is capable to do much more offensively speaking. That is what leads him to score that many goals.
Josef Martínez: the finisher
One of the main strengths of Martínez is that he can create opportunities by himself. He is strong enough to deal physically with most defenders, being capable to hold the ball and turn or to run and go for a 1v1 duel. Below we see Josef Martínez going against two defenders just before scoring. He also benefits from playing alongside two playmakers and wingers that are always looking at him as their first option.
From a technical standpoint, Josef Martínez is a very dangerous striker because he has a powerful shooting ability with both feet and he also scores a lot of goals from head-shots. On the tactical side, he is very good making runs in the box, allowing him to be in good positions to shoot the ball frequently.
In that aspect, as we can see in the picture above, Josef Martínez manages time and space well. He accelerates just on time changing his direction to anticipate the defender marking him.
The other situation where the Venezuelan striker is a big threat is on the offensive transitions. He reacts and runs fast and his teammates throw quick passes to him to the open space behind the defensive line, like in the picture below. Most of the times, he is in between the opposition two central defenders, making it difficult for them to defend him. After being MLS 2018 top scorer, Martínez finished last season third in goals (28) and xG per 90 (0.69).
What Atlanta already have in their roster
Replacing arguably the best player of your team might not be easy, but at first sight, that task has come on Adam Jahn’s hands. Frank De Boer has trusted on this former Phoenix Rising (plays at USL Championship) forward to be the starting centre-forward after Martínez injury. Jahn’s main attributes are his physical power and his scoring ability. He is tall, has a solid heading technique and is also good shooting the ball. It is a player that requires attention when he is in the box, as he has skills to make damage when he has an opportunity to score.
In the picture above we see how the central defender in the box is not aware of Jahn’s position because his visual range is focused on the ball when the cross is taken. After an easy header, Jahn scored. We can see the same outcome below, but in this case, Jahn stayed outside while the defenders were running in the opposite direction.
On the other side, his lack of speed prevents him to make runs with the ball. He will try to hold the ball and keep things simple passing it to a teammate. If Jahn is on the pitch, Atlanta will need to change their approach in the offensive transitions, as it is not smart to throw Jahn’s a pass to the space behind. That makes quite a difference between him and Martínez, as Jahn is too slow to gain an advantage from it. In this case, the opposition’s defensive line can reduce space running forward without being too worried on a possible defensive transition after losing the ball.
Jahn finished last season with 0.39 xG per 90 minutes, but having similar stats than Martínez’s in other aspects such as offensive duels (6.30 and 6.38) and touches in the box averages (4.26 and 4.29).
To backup Jahn at the centre-forward position, Atlanta United acquired former Columbus Crew forward JJ Williams.
Possible transfer targets
Because of their title ambitions, Atlanta United may try to target a high-calibre centre-forward in the transfer market. Despite some MLS contract restrictions, in this part of this analysis, I will discuss some “realistic” options they could find.
Juan Ignacio Ramírez – the 23-year-old Uruguayan striker has been already linked with some Liga MX clubs. He finished last season as Uruguayan league top-scorer. His heatmap shows centre-forward range of movement. Ramírez is a skilled-finisher who can score in many ways.
During 2019, he had 0.57 xG per 90 minutes, close to Martínez’s 0.69. Ramírez could fit as Atlanta centre-forward because despite not being as physically strong as Josef Martínez, he can adapt well to Martínez role on Atlanta’s tactics.
In the picture below, we can see Ramirez’s ability to get free from multiple defenders in the box and score.
Nahuel Bustos – this young 21-year-old forward is playing for Talleres in Argentinian Superliga. He can stretch the defensive line and run to the spaces behind as a centre-forward, and he is also able to move into the midfield zone to create plays with his dribble or passes. Bustos is a very complete player who could complement well with Pity Martínez and Ezequiel Barco.
In the following image, we can see Bustos running from behind to the empty space which is usual for him.
Ricardo Márquez – Actually playing in Colombia’s Unión Magdalena, this 22-year-old centre-forward has also had international appearances for Colombia’s U-23 squad. He is a classical striker type of player, constantly working against central defenders and trying to gain an advantage of his physical conditions. His height (187 cm) don’t avoid him from being quick. His range of movement is pretty similar to Josef Martínez’s in Atlanta United.
Below we see how the Colombian striker is in between the central defenders making runs, something that Josef Martínez does very well.
Juan Ignacio Dinenno – this Argentinian striker is maybe the most difficult to get for Atlanta, as he has recently been acquired in January to play for Pumas UNAM in Liga MX. His understanding of the offensive game makes him a very dangerous forward. He has a great quality to finish plays, with excellent heading and shooting technique. Another thing that stands out of him is his capability to position himself in the box, he is always at the right place and he will take advantage of any mistake made by the defenders.
His heatmap shows his influence on offence and his 0.52 xG per 90 in 2019 makes him the other one close to Josef Martínez. Below we see him moving smartly behind the defender to score in the Colombian’s Cali teams derby.
Rodrigo Aguirre – from this analysis, Aguirre is the most physically alike to Josef Martínez, while also having similar game styles. The Uruguayan 25-year-old striker is playing for Liga Deportiva Universitaria Quito in Ecuador. He is a strong forward that makes things difficult for the defenders playing against him. He can make runs with the ball with his dribbling ability (5.21 dribbles per 90) or without the ball using his quickness and strength.
In the image below we see the former Serie A player acting as a centre-forward making a run to the space behind the defender before scoring in a Copa Libertadores match.
Replacing a player with the value of Josef Martínez and his relevance to Atlanta United’s tactical display is not an easy task. It is clear that if Frank De Boer wants his team to compete as a title contender on this year’s MLS, he will have to take a look at any chance to bring some talent to Atlanta at the forward position.
During this tactical analysis, I tried to make a progressive understanding of the Atlanta United unexpected situation and how they can resolve it. I have gone through three different phases of this process. First, analyzing Josef Martínez role, then taking a look at Atlanta’s roster to see if they have enough to replace his top-scorer and finally arriving at some affordable, possible players that can adapt pretty well to Atlanta’s tactics.
We will have to wait for MLS to resume its activity to see if Atlanta can find a solution and be an animator once again.