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Talking Tactics: The Two Sides of Pity Martinez

Frank de Boer put his star in position to succeed against the Red Bulls. But the results were mixed.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding Pity

Pity Martinez’s time in Atlanta has clearly been subject to heavy scrutiny. Some have lambasted the Argentinean for falling short of the high hopes created by his price tag and accolades with River Plate. Others have praised him for willing to try the spectacular, and his ability to create chances for his teammates in the final third in doing so. So is Pity “good” or “bad?” Well, as often is the case, the answer is somewhere in between.

On the one hand, Martinez has undoubtedly fell short of expectations after being bought for roughly €12 million in hopes of filling the void created by the departure of club legend Miguel Almiron. Simply put, Pity’s two goals and three assists through 18 games have not been what was expected. And Frank de Boer has criticized his big name signing publicly at times.

On the other hand, a deeper look into Pity’s performance shows one of the league’s better chance creators, and he leads the team in key passes and dribbles.

But aside from the numbers, we need to understand Pity Martinez’ uniqueness as an attacker in the modern game. The former River Plate man is not a striker, but he also prefers to remain high up the pitch when his team is forced back defensively, often looking to start the counter attack with the opposition’s midfield committed forward. This lack of box-to-box style from a winger or attacking midfielder is far less common in the modern game, as players are far more fit and versatile than in previous eras.

To be fair, Pity is far from the only one of his contemporaries to employ this style, with names like Mesut Ozil or Paulo Dybala coming to mind. These players can be incredibly difficult to deal with for opponents, as they are incredibly dangerous in space, something that can be found when the opposition moves forward in attack. By the same token, these types of attackers can hurt their team’s defensive play, as their style of play typically results in one extra player in addition to the striker staying forward in attack at all times.

We saw Frank de Boer try and adapt to Pity’s style against New York Red Bulls last weekend, using him as an outlet against the vaunted high press of the visitors.

The team released the starting 11 as a 4-2-3-1 shape with Pity sitting underneath Josef Martinez. But instead, Atlanta played in more of a 4-4-2, with Pity roaming and playing the role of “press breaker,” looking to find spaces in between the lines to receive the ball and turn with NYRB’s midfield caught forward in their aggressive high press, whether that meant playing underneath, or even alongside Josef Martinez.

The tactic worked well to open the match, leading to Justin Meram’s opening goal, and creating chances. But as the match wore on, NYRB began to force Pity to play more negatively and Atlanta to defend deeper, making his advanced role less influential, and leading to FdB opting for a more physical presence in his stead in Brandon Vazquez.

Early Success

Pity showed us early on that his manager had instructed him to play as a second striker with little responsibility, as he prefers. Watch straight from the kick off as Pity doesn’t join Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe defending in the middle, instead staying up top close to Josef Martinez.

Pity is clearly looking to stay forward as NYRB push up, leaving themselves exposed for a counter.

We saw the strategy strike gold on the opener.

Watch Atlanta’s No. 10 before he gets the ball to start the break. Pity moves side-to-side with the ball - not coming back to defend but instead anticipating where the space will be once his teammates win it back. Once the ball is at his feet, he’s off to the races with the entire NYRB midfield caught forward, and he finds Justin Meram, who does the rest.

But these moments became increasingly few and far between as the half continued.

At times, Pity’s quality was found wanting. Below we see him sitting in almost the exact same space from where he started the first goal, but he misses badly on his return pass to Martinez.

Other times, NYRB simply deserved credit, watch below how the defender doesn’t allow Pity to turn, instead forcing him and the Atlanta attack back towards its own goal and into a non-threatening position.

In the second half, NYRB took over the match. Scoring the go-ahead goal and creating many chances. After less than 20 minutes, de Boer had seen enough, and subbed Pity. So, what happened? For starters, NYRB’s press began to force Atlanta into more direct, long balls, as we see below.

Needless to say, these aren’t the types of passes that play to Pity’s strengths. Who prefers the ball played to his feet, as we saw in the first 45 minutes.

Then, as NYRB continued to push forward, Pity’s lack of defensive impetus became a true liability. Watch below how he moves with the ball rather than tracking Cristian Caceres, leaving the center midfielder unmarked to pick out a through ball to Brian White.

Enter, Vazquez

And that’s when de Boer sprung a surprise. The gaffer removed Pity for Brandon Vasquez, who took over the role of “press breaker.” The Dutchman explained his decision afterwards.

“We have to win duels, and in my point of view, he (Pity) did not do enough to avoid giving someone an easy long ball,” de Boer told reporters after the game. ”You saw, Brandon (Vazquez) came in and it was a different story.”

We got an idea of the manager's rationale soon after Vazquez came on. Watch below how while he doesn’t win the header, his size and challenge makes the header equally difficult for the NYRB defender, ultimately resulting in a throw-in and allowing the home side to relieve itself of pressure.

In isolation, the above play doesn’t seem that important. But if you compare it to the previous challenge we watched from Pity on an aerial ball (which again, is not his strength), the difference is crucial. NYRB are now unable to win the ball back as cleanly with Vazquez up top, which was previously forcing the Atlanta defense deeper and deeper with Pity on the field.

While he wasn’t a physically dominant force, Vazquez did enough of a job with direct balls to make a difference. Watch below how similarly to the previous clip, his size helps him fend off the defender after a long ball, helping Atlanta retain possession and win the corner that would lead to Josef Martinez’s equalizer from the spot.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Pity Martinez’s uniqueness as a free attacking player can be a luxury. But it can also be a liability. And we saw both of these sides last weekend. When Atlanta were on top early, Martinez was a force that could be used to break the NYRB press and start attacks, or play alongside Josef Martinez to help the striker from being isolated.

However, as the momentum shifted, we saw him become quite ineffective in this role, as Atlanta were forced to defend deeper and deeper with Pity unable to carry the ball consistently out of the midfield and into attack.

The future for Pity is uncertain. But one thing is for sure, Atlanta United need to see more of what he provided in the first 20 minutes against NYRB on a consistent basis. If we see more of what we saw after those 20 minutes, an early substitution from the manager, or even a place on the bench, could become the norm for Atlanta United’s No. 10.