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Josef Martinez: La Pantera

Why the star striker is the one that makes the attack tick.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

And then the fire sprung up from the chutes behind the befallen form of Tim Howard. It had been a frustrating afternoon for the red and black of Atlanta, with chances only coming in spurts. Colorado were very happy to sit back and weather the storm, but it only took one chance for Josef Martinez to make his mark. He jumped up on the ledge of the geyser of fire to celebrate, surrounded by his teammates. The sold out crowd chanted his name.

Josef Martinez is showered in scarves after scoring the game winning goal against Colorado in a 1-0 win at Bobby Dodd.

Josef Martinez has quickly become a fan favorite here in Atlanta following his move from Torino. Nine goals in nine appearances with only six being starts is a phenomenal record. He leads MLS with 1.36 goals per 90 minutes of play. Any striker would dream of that sort of conversion in any league. Right from the beginning of the first match against New York Red Bulls, I remember my father looking at Josef and say, “He’s special. I like him a lot.” This is a man that isn’t too familiar with soccer yet, but Martinez gives off that aura of confidence to the world around him that he knows he is going to score goals.

What makes Josef Martinez so special though? I’m glad you asked, enthusiastic reader. The Atlanta United #7 combines blistering pace, intelligent movement, and clinical finishing with a surprising aerial prowess for the 5’6 striker. Get it in the box, and Josef will find a way to score. The bullish nature of his play means that defenders are always on the back foot against him. His intelligence lends to him finding the space in the box half a step in front of his defender, and he has the technical ability to finish what comes his way. He’s a handful for defenders. Seeing Josef Martinez run towards your back like as a defender must give you nightmares. He’s like a panther during matches; prowling and waiting for the opportune moment to pounce on his prey.

Atlanta United have been extremely successful during their inaugural season, and Josef Martinez has been an integral part of that success. However, injuries have limited his first team appearances so far this season. Playing in just 9 of the first 24 matches, Atlanta have had to improvise when he has been out. As a team, Atlanta creates more chances, scores more goals, and in general just looks like a better team when he is in the squad. His sample size is smaller than a lot of other MLS strikers, but when he is playing he is a top 5 striker in the league. If Atlanta United want to be a force when it comes playoff time, they’re going to want a healthy Josef Martinez.

Josef’s influence can be most accurately measured by the passmaps provided by the amazing twitter account @11tegen11.

Atlanta United with Josef Martinez:

Atlanta United without Josef Martinez:

To the untrained eye, passmaps can be hard to read, but once you get the hang of them, they become as clear as Josef Martinez finishing a chance that comes his way. Really the biggest difference between the two are the passing lines. With Josef in the team, Atlanta United passes the ball with a lot more fluidity, as seen by the thicker passing lines. Also, looking at the outside back’s positioning shows that when Josef is in, the wing backs feel freer to attack. Josef demands attention from the back line, which in turn means that Atlanta can press higher up the field. In the San Jose game, Garza was higher up than Yamil Asad, and in the Colorado game, Larentowicz was further back than Gonzalez Pirez! The dynamic of the players changes in these almost intangible ways when Josef is placed into the team.

On an individual level, Carmona seems to take the biggest hit when Martinez isn’t playing. His circle of influence greatly diminishes when Josef isn’t in the squad. (He had a bigger circle in the Orlando City match, but this is due to what Josef does normally during matches by pulling the midfield back.) Even Jeff Larentowicz has more influence when Josef is in the team. His high pressing abilities keeps the opposition from straying too far foward, which in turn frees Larentowicz and Gonzalez Pirez to have the structure that they look for in a match. Josef scores goals, but he’s able to influence the game in the intangibles as well. He affects the mentality of the team when he is there in the best possible way for Atlanta United.

Keeping Josef Martinez healthy has to be priority number one for Atlanta United in the future. After only playing just 9 games with him, Atlanta will be looking to add him to the squad way more often in the future. La Pantera is waiting to strike again when he makes his return at DC United.