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When will Atlanta United see the best of Pity Martinez?

Diagnosing the Argentine’s struggles in MLS thus far.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

To put it simply, Pity Martinez has struggled thus far in his Atlanta United and MLS career. In the grand scheme of a player’s career, the current rough patch is very small — so small in fact that Martinez has already endured a similarly rough spell in his career when he moved to River from Huracan in 2015.

Pity Martinez obviously has tons of talent. He’s becoming a regular fixture in the Argentine national team, playing alongside with world’s biggest superstars in the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, etc. While his level obviously isn’t the highest in that squad (ergo in world soccer), he’s clearly an elite talent by MLS standards.

And yet, he’s struggling mightily against the Jack Prices and Keegan Rosenberrys of the world. How do we square both of these facts, which we all know are both undoubtably true? The answer is that... it’s complicated. Many variables play into what a footballer is able to accomplish within the 90 minutes of a game. Some of those things are more apparent than others. Let’s dig into what could be causing the issues for El Pity.

Physical Adaptation

Whenever a player moves to a new league, there’s always an adaptation phase that occurs based on the way the new league is officiated. Major League Soccer is a very physical league, perhaps why it could be seen as a decent crucible for some players looking to break into a similarly physical competition in the Premier League.

Martinez is surely adjusting to the physical nature of the way defenders in MLS try to neutralize him, but he’s also adjusting to the way the league is refereed. Leagues’ officials around the world play a significant role in establishing the physical nature of the competition. Players must adapt and understand what they can and can not get away with, or for an attacking player like Martinez, anticipate how defenders will try to stop him. In Saturday’s win against the Colorado Rapids, fans saw Pity going to ground repeatedly, frustrating the player and fans in equal measure.

But to make matters worse for Martinez, Frank de Boer pointed out that he’s still not at his maximum physical ability due to other circumstances. Martinez had a long season with River Plate culminating in trips to Europe and the Middle East to play the Copa Libertadores final and in the Club World Cup, respectively. He then only had a few weeks worth of an offseason before joining Atlanta United, which had already begun its preseason conditioning.

“I think he has to get stronger physically,” Frank de Boer said of the Argentine star after Saturday’s match. “If he gets back to a full 100% —cause in my point of view he isn’t quite 100% yet — if he comes to that, he will get there. It takes time. I’m convinced that when he gets to 100%, we are going to see a difference and have a lot of fun with him.”

Tactical Adaptation

There remains a question of how Atlanta United is best suited to play tactically with Pity in the side. Without him, it’s quite simple: Ezequiel Barco as the primary playmaker/No. 10 with Julian Gressel and Tito Villalba flanking him on either side behind the center forward, Josef Martinez.

So where does someone like Pity, a player with similar characteristics to Ezequiel Barco, fit in that system? Atlanta’s former No. 10, Miguel Almiron, was easier to fit in alongside some of these other players because his style was so unique. Listen to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez discuss the differences between Miggy and Pity.

“It seems to me that our last No. 10, Miguel (Almirón) was much more explosive,” LGP told media in the locker room Saturday. “Pity is much more of a thinker, assist-provider, that shoots from outside the box, who doesn’t make as many runs into space or arrive on goal as much as Miguel. He has characteristics more like an assist-provider, but he’s a player who can give us a lot.”

Both Pity and Barco like to play with the ball at their feet in tight tight spaces, combine quickly with teammates in the attack, and even have a shot on goal from the edge of the area if the moment is right. But playing these two together means you’re missing either Julian Gressel’s exquisite service and thankless runs beyond the striker, or you’re missing Tito Villalba’s explosive pace that gives defenses someone to think about getting behind them outside of Josef.

Cultural adaptation

This one shouldn’t take much explaining, but I think it does. Think about yourself. You’re a __________ (let’s say you’re an IT consultant). You are very good at what you do and have helped two companies improve at... IT. Hang with me.

You’ve been so good at it that some huge Chinese mega-company with soft political power makes you a godfather offer to move to Beijing. Everything becomes difficult. Forget the IT stuff, you have to navigate Chinese grocery stores and pump your gas and it’s all very difficult and stressful because you don’t know the language and instead of getting premium you put diesel in your car and you have to eat stuff you aren’t used to and even the stuff you are kinda used to tastes weird and you’re trying to get to know people at work and then when all you want to do is wrap yourself in your significant other’s arms after a long and stressful day, you can’t because they are still back in the States carrying on as normal. So you Facetime them and see your child calling your name over a digital screen and all you wanna do is scream.

So you take out these frustrations on the bench, on your teammates, on the coach. It happens.

Thankfully, it gets better. Atlanta United fans witnessed similar struggles firsthand with Ezequiel Barco last year, and it clearly affected his on- and off-the-field decision making. A year later, we are seeing a whole new player — one that looks worth the price the team bought him for, and most definitely the price of admission (when he’s playing in his best position *cough).

So the question now is: What does Frank de Boer do? Should he keep giving Martinez starts, in hopes that the normalcy of playing soccer helps accelerate the adaptation in all three of these phases? Should he run the team as a meritocracy and bench Pity (or any player) who underperforms expectations in a game?

Don’t ask me, I don’t get paid to do this shit.