Saturday night inside Bobby Dodd Stadium felt like a glorious culmination of a talented group of players who have finally settled into a coherent plan and are playing as more than the sum of their parts.
Then you remember, holy s***, Atlanta has figured out how to play well and get results without an MLS Golden Boot candidate. Josef Martinez was lighting the league alight prior to a thigh injury he sustained during international duty with his native Venezuela. In the three matched he played, he netted an incredible five goals including a hat trick in one match and an MLS Goal of the Week in the other. It wasn’t just about the amount of goals he was scoring, but the way he was so effectively able to beat offside traps, round keepers, and generally do what the best strikers do – score goals.
Atlanta United undoubtedly struggled without him, but the team is now finding its form just as Martinez is beginning his comeback to return to the team. The question now is what happens when he’s finally able to return to the starting 11. I’ve seen some… creative lineups thrown around on social media and in the comments about how we can possibly fit all of our best players into the lineup (most of which aim to oust Tyrone Mears, understandably). But pragmatically speaking, there are basically two options -- drop Tito Villalba or Julian Gressel from the starting lineup.
Julian Gressel’s season has been rejuvenated by Tata Martino’s decision to move him to the wing. Our own Josh Bagriansky dove into the tactical reasons why he’s been so effective in that spot, and it was highlighted yet again Saturday with his second goal in as many weeks. But his upturn in form hasn’t been solely down to his goal threat. On the right, Gressel has effectively linked up with creative teammates like Almiron in the middle of the field and helped confuse and manipulate opposing defenses. His play has created not just opportunities for himself but for his teammates as well, and the attack has looked much more fluent in the last two weeks.
You can make an even better argument — one I’d certainly agree with — that the reason the team is playing so much better recently is down to Villalba playing at striker. Villalba is the player in the team who can best replicate the qualities Josef Martinez has with his speed and movement off the ball. With Martinez obviously reclaiming his spot in the 11, upon his return to the lineup, will Martino move Villalba back to the wing or will Gressel get the nod during his run of good form?
Benching Tito seems harsh, for sure. While his play isn’t always the prettiest, you can’t deny his productivity this season. Also, and maybe more importantly when it comes to optics, is that Tito Villalba has that shiny, gold-plated “Designated Player” title draped around his neck. To many, this disqualifies him from being dropped from the lineup. If you’re an MLS team and one of your DPs isn’t good enough to make the starting XI, you’re basically admitting failure, right? Not in this case. Remember, Villalba is a “Young Designated Player,” which not only signifies that he’s a player who still has lots to learn and growth ahead of him, but he also doesn’t carry the cap hit that a regular DP does. In fact, according to MLS player salaries that were released earlier this season, his base salary isn’t even as high as non-DP Carlos Carmona. So while being a DP doesn’t permit his stay in the starting 11 in perpetuity, criticizing him if he is dropped isn’t really fair either. Soccer players get dropped from the lineup sometimes. In fact, it’s a good thing and speaks to the quality in the team that this is a legit possibility.
What Martino ends up deciding, I have no clue. What would I do? If the decision were to happen right now, I’d keep Gressel and drop Tito. By changing the team shape and pushing the fullbacks so high up the field, it encourages the wingers to drift inside and combine and play creatively off of each other. I think Gressel suits this style better than Villalba, who is pacier and more direct. With Tito on the bench, you have a player that can suitably fill in for Martinez or Gressel when they tire after the 60-minute mark. He’s one of if not the fastest player in the league. Imagine how much more effective he would be coming on fresh and running at defenders who have an hour of running in their legs? It’s a terrifying prospect.
Here’s an image to keep with you until Josef returns. Good God.