Tata Martino, like he has since the start of preseason, will have two striker options ahead of their match against Minnesota United on Sunday. Josef Martinez certainly fared well against the New York Red Bulls and forced Jesse Marsch to adjust to him after halftime. If not for a great save by Luis Robles on Martinez, Atlanta United would’ve gone into the break with a 2-0 lead rather than the 1-0 advantage that eventually dissipated in the final 15 minutes of the match. He’s fast, dynamic and a proven preseason finisher. I don’t want to discount the chaos Martinez could stir up if he’s ultimately in the starting eleven on Sunday, but Minnesota United could be Kenwyne Jones’ break-out match in MLS if Martino decides to utilize the Portland Timber’s style of play that worked so well.
Fanendo Adi and Kenwyne Jones, on paper, are very similar players. Both are tall, physical target forwards who have demonstrated they play well with their back to goal. Adi was a nightmare for the two Minnesota United center backs, Francisco Calvo and Vadim Demidov. On three occasions, Adi influenced one or both center backs in manners that resulted (or should’ve resulted) in goals.
In the 12th minute of Portland’s 5-1 win over Minnesota United, the Timbers played a short corner that eventually led to a cross into the box. Adi positions himself in front of Demidov in order to receive the cross. His physicality and positioning led to Demidov dragging him down to avoid conceding an open header right in front of net. The referee thought about awarding the penalty - even had the whistle in his mouth - but allowed play to continue. On replay, it’s clearly a foul inside the box. Tall, physical players are dragged down or fouled on corners more often than speedy, dynamic ones.
In the 47th minute, the Timbers turn Minnesota over at midfield and work the ball up the right flank through their right back, Alvas Powell, who is taking the space available. Adi has the attention of both center backs as he runs up the field with the play. Adi stops at the top of the box, turns, and receives the ball from Powell right outside the 18-yard box. Both Demidov and Calvo are drawn toward the forward leaving Diego Valeri alone with Jermaine Taylor. Adi finds Sebastian Blanco on the wing, who then crosses the ball into the box in the vicinity of Valeri. Taylor, who is behind Valeri, and Demidov, who is rushing back into a better defensive position after being drawn forward by Adi, are both caught out of position and give Valeri a free header that leads to the second Timbers goal. It’s Adi’s hold-up and back-to-goal play that allows Valeri to take advantage of a free header in front of net.
In the 81st minute, Adi forces Demidov to foul him in the box, this time drawing the penalty kick from the referee. The play starts with Powell receiving the ball on the right side and playing a cross into Adi, who is running into the box in front of Demidov. Before the cross is even played, Demidov is already beat. All the while, Calvo is caught in no-mans-land marking no one. It gives a tall player like Adi more than enough space challenge a ball in the air cleanly. With Demidov already beat, the cross is played in and the only hope for the center back is to pull his arm and disrupt his timing. Penalty kick. 3-1. It’s much harder to defend direct passes into the box than passes into space, whether inside the box or not. This is a perfect example.
The two goals Adi actually scores I’m not as confident Jones could recreate. Jones is, however, very capable of creating the same issues on the two Minnesota center backs Adi was so successful with last Friday. Jones’ height, stature and physicality would all play a role in drawing the two center back’s attention. Hold up and back-to-goal play is much more specific to Jones rather than Martinez, who is seemingly more prone to play balls passed into space. Playing Jones up top could potentially allow Atlanta United’s speedy midfield the opportunity to play off him and create shorter through-ball opportunities rather than the long over-the-top balls that weren’t quite on point against the Red Bulls. Tito Villalba, a player who was forced to chase long balls down the wing all night, would benefit from this kind of play because his runs would go more directly to goal rather than to the corner flag. The same would go for Asad on the left.
Whether Jones starts or not depends on his fitness and Martino’s faith in his back-to-goal hold-up play is at an effective level. Against Chattanooga FC, Jones dropped back considerably, sometimes below the midfielders which would negate much of the reason to have him start up top to begin with. Martinez’s speed and dynamic presence would present its own set of issues for the Loon’s backline, but might not require the attention of both center backs in certain situations. Martino must also consider whether changing personnel and style of play after one match would hinder the chemistry already built by the attacking players against the Red Bulls. More than anything, Martino is looking to give Atlanta United its first win. He’ll choose whichever lineup he feels accomplishes that goal best against Minnesota.