Soccer is hard, but Miguel Almiron has made it look easy during his time in Atlanta. He’s created a goal (or direct goal assist) from open play every other game (0.55 G+A/90). These goals and assists are the fruits of a steady stream of underlying attacking output from the Paraguayan that has included 3 open play shots per game and 1.4 open-play shot assists (otherwise known as key passes) per game in MLS. While creating shots for himself and others, Almiron has an elusiveness to him that means defenders are often left in the dust regardless of whether they try to close him down tightly or give him space to operate. This leads to Almiron registering 4 take-ons per game and completing around half of them. He is also good for 3 to 4 defensive actions per game (tackles, interceptions, and blocked passes), often leading Atlanta’s high press from the central attacking midfield role and also tracking back to surprise idling opposing midfielders.
But this isn’t a post about Miguel Almiron. He wants to go to Europe, and by all indications he will eventually. The issue here is if Almiron leaves for Europe, he’s got some pretty big shoes to fill. Soccer is hard and to score goals you have to create shots one way or another. And to get the ball back without the referee handing it to you at the center circle, you also have to roll up your sleeves and disrupt your opponents’ possessions and attacks. A crude (and look, surely flawed) computation would suggest that for Atlanta to replace Almiron’s output, they need to find 4-5 shooting chances per game and preferably they would do that with someone who can also put in a handful of disruptive defensive actions per game.
You knew they were going to look in South America.
And they found the South American player of the year. So that’s handy.
During his time in Argentina’s top flight, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez fired off around 2.5 open play shots per game and created for others at a rate of 1.6 open play shot assists per game, which helped him bag an open play goal (or goal assist) just about every 3 games for River Plate. There are a few players in Argentina that have greater attacking outputs than Martinez, but they’ve won Premier League and Champions League titles and scored golazos in world cups.
Attacking One v One
El Pity has a similar courage to Almiron in the way he looks to create chances off the dribble. While playing mostly centrally but also on the flanks, he took on defenders an unworldly 5-6 times per game and completed nearly 60% of these dribbles.
He also put in material defensive work, logging 3.5 defensive actions per game, a figure which (while comparable to Almiron’s) on the surface does not jump out to anyone scrolling through the statistics, but one that is propped up by the fact his team River Plate had the ball on average 57% of the time, often the highest in the league (meaning he was put in a situation to defend less than average but still contributed in defending from the front).
Not Lost in Translation
The nice thing about recruiting players out of Argentina is that transfers from this competition to MLS typically continue at or above the same level of attacking output once they arrive (sure, there are exceptions). In Almiron’s case, the 22-year-old’s shots and shot-assists expanded significantly upon his arrival in Atlanta and continued to rise throughout this spell to obscene heights, although he is not the only example:
It must be mentioned however that attacking transfers out of Argentina (whether to MLS or Europe) are typically younger players in the 18-22 years of age range. Almiron (22), Yamil Asad (22), Hector Villalba (21), Ezequiel Barco (18), Luciano Acosta (21), Tomas Martinez (21) and Alejandro Romero Gamarra “Kaku” (23) come to mind. And therefore, perhaps some level of output expansion we witness after such a transfer has to do with more with age curves than with levels of competition between the leagues (don’t @ me — I’m not saying that). Anyhow, there is this idea that the brightest Superliga stars are swept up by big clubs in their teens or early 20’s, which might lead one to ask: What’s up with Pity Martinez still at River Plate at age 25? And you can sort of see it (if you scroll up a couple charts) — 3 seasons ago, his numbers look pretty normal (in the center of the nebula) for an attacking midfielder, and then his numbers just sprout, escaping towards the outer edges of the galaxy. One possibility is that he’s simply a late-bloomer.
At the same time, there are examples of players transferring into MLS in their mid 20’s and having success — Nico Lodeiro (26), Sebastian Blanco (28) — improving upon their past attacking outputs in Argentina. Diego Valeri even, a product of Lanus, who in his mid 20’s after some twists and turns in Europe (read: loans) found himself transferring from Argentina to Portland. While one might argue the lack of European interest in Pity Martinez is deafening, another might argue that he is now in the prime of his career and probably licking his chops at the prospect of going 1v1 against Will Johnson and RJ Allen (or even 1v2). If folks were excited about Barco’s dribbling skills a year ago (and they were), Pity Martinez should delight in 2019.
Protect the foot ball in the Major League Soccer league
Of course, when your team has the ball and you intend to shoot at the goal but you have not yet, it is helpful to keep the ball from the other team. I’m going to attribute that to Vince Lombardi or Jimmy Carter. According to Whoscored.com, Almiron is dispossessed or loses the ball from a heavy touch around 4 times per 90 minutes compared to Pity’s 6 per 90 (these figures exclude failed take-ons, which we covered above). And, Almiron completes passes in the low 80%s compared to Pity’s 76%. Without advanced passing models, you can’t just compare those two percentages (like I just did) and gain a lot of insight. Someone who might give us some better context is data analyst Dan Altman of North Yard Analytics, formerly in-house at Swansea City.
If Martinez is making more penetrative passes in the final third, his completion percentage would naturally be lower, though it’s also possible Almiron is simply a better passer. I haven’t scouted Martinez, and the house-music YouTube reels don’t show you this. It will be interesting to see what sort of freedom Pity is allowed in order to take risks and make-things-happen. Personally, I was overjoyed in 2017 to watch Yamil Asad create and destroy with clever vision and a unique boldness, but having just watched the 2018 version of Atlanta, I can appreciate the idea of replacing him with tidier passers and dribblers, and we’re still waiting to see what Frank de Boer’s spin on the Five Stripes looks like.
Also, Pity crosses the ball a lot
I’m not going to say a whole lot else here, it’s just — no one on Atlanta United crosses the ball this much — not even Gressel. And as you can see, crosses are often not successful. It will be interesting to see if this is a feature of de Boer’s Atlanta United, or if Pity will have to shelve it.
He shoots a lot, but only 38% of Pity Martinez’s shots are taken inside the penalty area, and that’s not great. While he’s definitely scored some bangers from Kratz Country™, in the long run, shots from outside the box become goals less and less often the further out you take them. And as a result, some of the fancier stats don’t love his shot selection. Almiron, a player who some might’ve said was a little shot happy from range still took over 50 percent of his shots in the box in MLS. The good news? Slowly but surely, Pity appears to be inching those shots forward. Hopefully this is something he’ll continue to improve in Atlanta.
Oh, he’s also left footed. All of his goals have come off the left foot. So those of you who couldn’t sleep because Almiron was too left-footed and “easy to mark” or whatever that was supposed to be, I’m sorry.
If everything goes right?
I should say, the most likely outcome here is that Pity is a success. In a season of great change for the defending champions, nothing is assured and a whole host of things could go wrong playing in several competitions — things can go wrong that can be planned for or avoided, and stuff can just happen. But that all being said, the overall thesis here was that Atlanta United needed to bring in some attacking output and defensive contribution to replace what will likely be lost when Almiron is transferred, and it certainly appears that they’ve done this. Martinez has put up a higher volume of shots and shot assists than really any other recent transfers out of the Superliga. Further, recent history would suggest that attackers in the Primera division generally translate well to attackers in MLS. On paper it appears to add up, and the highlight reels give a glimpse of a truly exciting and energetic talent — but one that won’t have to carry the entire load with a host of other talent welcoming him into a championship winning side.
If everything goes wrong?
When I think about things going wrong, I’m reminded of the Memphis Depay transfer to Manchester United. Memphis Depay was absolutely lighting up Eredivisie for PSV Eindhoven. He was a darling not only of scouts, but of analysts as well. He had it all. He was a shot monster, had high shot-assist numbers and dribbled by defenders at will. His attacking output jumped off the page (even more than Pity’s), and he was sold to Manchester United for big money — a Manchester United side helmed by Louis Van Gaal, Dutch master of clockwork orange possession football, and as Atlanta United’s newly hired manager would describe, the single greatest influence on Frank de Boer’s career as a player and coach. Memphis largely struggled at United before being sold to Lyon (where he is lighting it up again). I’ve always found this article persuasive as it relates to what went wrong with Memphis in Manchester — specifically the idea that his elite stats in Holland were the result not only of an elite talent, but also of a purposeful plan of his team to get him the ball and let him create (i.e. he had extremely high “usage”).
When I think about how things might go wrong for Atlanta United, I think about a potentially high usage player like Pity Martinez coming from a River Plate side that, while loaded with talent, does appear to have fed the ball to the playmaker fairly often. And I think about what could happen to Pity’s output when he’s absorbed into a very “Louis van Gaalian” de Boer clockwork orange-type possession setup, with plenty of other attackers who want to score and create as well. Will he be allowed to consistently take risks, to dance past the Ben Sweats of the world in the hopes of creating high-value shots on his left foot? Or will he have ball retention and dominance through possession on the mind. There’s a lot still to learn both about Martinez and the 2019 iteration of Atlanta United FC.
Lastly, you may have seen something about Kaku’s agent Gustavo Casasola getting very upset after only a year in MLS ... something about Red Bulls failing to ... pay for some furniture, and to pick up an Uber tab for the player and demanding his client be transferred to Club America among other things. Casasola also represents Pity Martinez. So if things start going wrong, this agent guy might accelerate the goings wrong.
Note: Nearly all statistics in this post came from Whoscored.com.