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Was Josef Martinez actually better in 2017?


MLS: Chicago Fire at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Josef Martinez is having the year of his life. First, he broke the MLS career hat tricks record, then it was the single-season goal-scoring record, and he’s only one game away from breaking the consecutive-scoring games record by stretching his streak to double digits. He’s having the year every MLS striker dreams about.

But was he actually playing better last season? The advanced statistics say maybe, and Tata Martino said he was basically unlucky to to be having a record-breaking season in 2017.

“He would’ve broken the record last year if he didn’t have injury problems,” Martino said in a report by John Rojas in AS.

And the numbers bear that out. Last year, Josef scored 19 goals in 20 appearances vs. this year’s current tally of 28 in 26. Last year’s goals to appearance ratio was worse, but having dealt with injuries meant he only 17 of those 20 league appearances in 2017 were starts. If we look at goals per 90 minutes between the two seasons, the numbers are virtually identical: 1.12 g/90 in 2017 vs. 1.15 g/90 this year. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg (and includes penalties) when it comes to evaluating his production between the two seasons. Let’s take a closer look with advanced metrics courtesy of American Soccer Analysis.

Let’s focus on the top section—the goals, the finishing. ASA has helpfully excluded all penalties from these metrics as to give us the best possible window into his open play performance. Here, we can see that Josef was scoring from open play at a higher rate last year on worse chances. His average shot attempt this season is much more likely to find the net based on location and service, yet he was scoring at a higher rate in 2017. Essentially, Josef was a more ruthless finisher of chances last season, and it makes sense considering some of the great goals he scored.

The argument you can make to say that he’s been better in 2018 is his consistency, pointing to his current 9-game scoring streak that matches Diego Valeri’s MLS record. In fact, Martinez has scored in 14 of his last 15 games played and in 10 consecutive road games (every Atlanta United road games sans the first two of the season vs. Houston Dynamo and Minnesota United). Martinez has scored in all but seven of his 26 starts so far this season. Last year, he also failed to score in seven starts, but he was only in the starting XI a total of 17 times. Last season, Martinez only scored in one road game, but context is key here. Atlanta played a huge percentage of its road games last year during the time when Josef was injured. He only played a part in six of Atlanta’s 17 road matches in 2017 and only started four of those game. We didn’t see how effective he could’ve been in many of those matches (but we know now).

You can make an argument, looking at Martinez’s finishing statistics, that his consistency this season is down more to improvement in the team and the service he’s getting, especially on the road, than his ability to find the back of the net. Tata Martino has said explicitly this—that he doesn’t foresee Martinez’s goalscoring rate dropping due to the way the team is performing around him.

So what say you? I can imagine what the responses to this will be, but it’s easy to overlook how good Martinez was in 2017, all while battling multiple lower-body injuries.