Kenwyne Jones exudes a coolness about him that makes him incredibly likeable. The long dreadlocks, his impressive size, his Caribbean twang, the willingness to put himself out there on social media — it all adds up to, in this case, a player that fans desperately want to see in action.
Except, he’s not. Why? His career is impressive for any professional soccer player, let alone a non-Designated Player in MLS, having plied his trade in the Premier League for a number of years and scored his fair share of goals. He’s 32, which makes him an older player by modern standards, but certainly not past his expiration date. And in the few minutes he’s played this year, he’s been good! For the most part, he’s come in and done as much as possible to help the team finish the game. But with Josef Martinez out the last two weeks, why haven’t we seen him in the starting lineup?
Kenwyne Jones’ strengths
As we’ve all witnessed this season (and preseason), Jones is not a very mobile player, at least not at this stage of his career. That’s not to say he doesn’t have quality, because he clearly does. He’s a player with a big body that can hold the ball well and bring other players into the game. He’s composed and doesn’t give the ball away cheaply for a striker. There’s tactical value to these qualities also. In the games in which he’s appeared (except against NYRB) Jones has done exactly what was needed of him to help the team. He talked to the media about this at the training facility Wednesday:
“You need to do what the game requires sometimes. The way the game is set up, you may need to try and get behind teams or you may need to hold the ball up to keep possession more so you can give your team a little more of a hold on the game. As a player you have to be adaptable to what's needed.”
And he’s done exactly that. Here’s some examples of his hold up play against Toronto.
This is great play from Kenwyne, no doubt. But this is the only way we’ve seen him impact the game. We have not seen him run past defenders. So, with that in mind, how would Kenwyne’s ability affect the way Atlanta plays?
Tata Martino’s preference for fast strikers
Matthew Doyle, mlssoccer.com’s lead columnist, wrote an article specifically about Atlanta’s match last weekend against Toronto, calling it the game of the season. In that piece he specifically talks about how “pressing teams don’t like to be pressed” and he’s spot on. It’s a high-risk approach at times, but it can be effective if done properly. It even works outside of MLS, in leagues that don’t have the same kind of parity. For example, Mauricio Pochettino had relatively great success during his time at Espanyol against Barcelona employing his trademark pressing tactic. In 9 games, Espanyol won once and drew three times. (It’s important to remember that this was during Pep Guardiola’s peak at Barca, an era in which Messi & Co. were running riot through La Liga and UEFA Champions League). Sure, his team lost against the Catalan giants more often than not, but by putting pressure on Barcelona — Sergio Busquets in particular — the team had a fighting chance to win. Pressing teams don’t want to be pressed
In the match Saturday night, Toronto’s press proved effective in theory, but it didn’t provide cover for its center backs, facing one of the fastest players in MLS in Tito Villalba. Atlanta struggled to build from the back, but the team still nabbed two goals on long, direct play through the middle to Villalba running in behind.
Perhaps this is the reason why Martino wants a fast striker up top. It’s natural to expect Atlanta to take time in adapting to Martino’s preferred style, and this probably isn’t the last time we’ll see them struggle to pass the ball out of defense. The antidote to this, however, is to have a player like Villalba or Martinez who’s ready to strike quickly on the other end. This forces the opposition center backs to drop deeper (in effect creating wider spaces in midfield for Atlanta to play through), or leave themselves extremely vulnerable to long, direct passes to the striker.
And speaking of Martino’s preferred tactics, it’s important to remember that Jones signed with Atlanta before Tata Martino joined the club. Would Jones have been signed if Martino was already there? Does it even matter? Only time will tell.
The cost of keeping Jones on the bench
I’m not talking metaphorically here, I’m talking literal dollars and cents. Kenwyne Jones is rumored to be one of Atlanta United’s top earners in the $400k-$450k per year range. To have a player earn that much money and see the field as little as Jones has so far is a huge waste. On the other hand, if Jones were to have played every minute for Atlanta and the team had struggled to score goals, that would be an even bigger waste. If Darren Eales and Paul McDonough are to continue to build a squad that squeezes the maximum value out of every dollar they spend, something has to give. Either Jones needs to be used more in the squad (especially during times like these when injuries and suspensions are mounting), or they need to find a way to get him off the books. I think all of us Atlanta supporters would prefer the former, but it can’t be at the expense of the team’s performance.
What do you think? Will Kenwyne finally get a start this weekend while Yamil Asad serves his suspension? You’d think it would be the ideal time, but we’ve said that before...