When Josef Martinez crashed to the ground clutching his leg on that crappy pitch in Venezuela in late March, a phrase rang through our collective heads.
“Why can’t Atlanta have nice things?”
It was a brutal blow for Atlanta United supporters,. Martinez wasn’t just the team’s leading goal scorer at the time of his injury, he was taking the league by storm. Within the short span of three games, Martinez bagged a hat trick and picked up MLS Player of the Week and Goal of the Week honors in successive games. He was without doubt the shining light for the franchise.
But as fate would have it, Atlanta finds itself in a better position now – having missed Martinez for 9 weeks and counting – than they would be if he’d been playing the entire time and running away with the golden boot. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, and if Atlanta was sitting on ~12 points and still struggling, I probably wouldn’t be making such a claim. But, they aren’t and that’s kind of the point here. Atlanta has learned to win without Martinez, which has knock-on benefits aside from the improved place in the standings.
Coming into the season, pundits and fans alike praised Atlanta’s front office for bringing in quality players and crafting a starting XI that was very good on paper. But as is the glass ceiling that hurts most MLS expansion franchises, depth is an issue. “Depth” is a vague term that gets thrown around often when describing a team’s ability to play without all of its assets at its disposal. But “depth” really boils down to having a coherent tactical plan and players who feel comfortable filling at least one of the roles in that plan. Look at a player like Jeff Larentowicz. On the face of it, he’s a very average “depth” player — a long-serving MLS veteran, but probably one you don’t want playing 90 minutes too often. But Tata Martino has adapted the style to offer roles to players that suit their qualities. By using Larentowicz as a CDM/CB hybrid, Martino is maximizing his strengths and limiting his weaknesses.
Likewise, the emergence of Julian Gressel on the wing stems from absences of key players. When Josef went down, Kenwyne Jones was the logical player to insert and fill the striker role. But it became clear that the solution wouldn’t be that simple due to the contrasting styles that Josef and Jones employ. Jones, a tall, strong target forward wasn’t able to replicate Josef’s direct, CB-splitting runs. This led to Villalba cementing himself as the backup striker, but with his backup Jacob Peterson injured, it left another hole at RW. Add to this absences of Carmona and Asad from suspensions, and you can see how Martino has had to cleverly juggle the lineup and find the best roles for his players. Gressel now looks comfortable and a major threat down the right side for Atlanta.
Josef Martinez’s absence, though, has directly benefited one player in a significant way – Miguel Almiron. Almiron is a creative, dynamic player, but he’s not one with a reputation for putting the ball past the keeper on a regular basis. To really understand just how much Almiron’s game has changed this year, we need to reflect on the type of player he’s historically shown to be – a supporting midfielder. At Cerro Porteño, Almiron scored 6 in 39 appearances and at Lanús, 5 in 44. That’s 11 goals in 83 appearances spanning three years. Compare that to this season, where he’s already scored 7 goals in 12 appearances. Without Josef Martinez, the team has needed him to be more ruthless and, in a way, selfish when it comes to getting his shot off. It’s taken some adjusting for the 23-year old, as Martino admitted that he had to directly tell Almiron to shoot more. It’s understandable that it’s not in his nature to take strikes at goal, but instead try to set up a teammate. At Lanus, he played as a two way player in a box-to-box type of role. Here in Atlanta, he’s much more relied upon for his attacking output, so he needed to improve that aspect of his game.
It’s important to remember that Almiron, among other players on the team, is still a young and developing player. He’s not just developing his technical skill, he’s developing his character and mental qualities. This experience, in the absence of Martinez, is invaluable for a player like Almiron who, to be frank, had to man up and carry the team (to an extent) to score and create chances.
When Josef Martinez comes back, he will be playing with a better Miguel Almiron than he last saw. When Martinez comes back, he’ll be playing with a better team than he last saw. Because collectively, from Tata Martino to the last player on the roster, everyone has had to step up their games in order to survive such a brutal early-season schedule. MLS is a grinding season, and we’ll probably have another period this season where we are without Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Carlos Carmona, etc. But now this team knows what it takes to handle that kind of adversity. It was all a blessing in disguise.