Armchair Analyst: Martinez's movement giving Atlanta United their shape

One of the great struggles for any expansion team is finding an identity. That has not been the case with Atlanta United.

They're only three games into their maiden MLS voyage, so I'm not here to crown them just yet. But we can certainly appreciate what they've done in their 270 minutes thus far, and how they've gone about doing it. At this point they've got a 2-1-0 record, and the last two – a 6-1 win at Minnesota United, and a 4-0 home win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday – have been just devastating.

They are also sort of iffy data points as a whole. Atlanta won't finish as clinically as they did in Minnesota every week (remember how many chances they squandered in that 2-1 loss to RBNY in Week 1?), and they won't be playing against 10 men every week, as happened against the Fire.

Still... I don't think this identity is going to change. I think they are very clear about who they are, and how they want to score, and exactly where they're going to put pressure on the defense. In short: Good, hard runs into the teeth of a defense are always a good thing, and for Josef Martinez and Atlanta United, they are the defining thing.

Here is Martinez in Week 1 against New York:

He split the central defenders.

Here's his first goal against Minnesota in Week 2:

He split the central defenders.

Here's his second goal against Minnesota in Week 2:

He split the central defenders.

Here is the red card he drew against the Fire:

He split the central defenders.

Here's his first goal against Chicago:

He split the central defenders.

Guys, I think I see a pattern.

Martinez is far from a one-trick pony – his hold-up play has been dogged and better-than-functional, and his defensive work is outstanding. But it's his relentlessness in making that specific run that's given this team their early shape, and most of their early goals. Even when he's not scoring them, he's still creating a ton of space by going hard up the middle.

Witness Miguel Almiron's strike from Week 2:

Martinez's run doesn't just split the defenders. It also drags d-mid Collen Warner out of the middle, and leaves Almiron all by himself for the finish. That does not show up in the boxscore but it sure as hell better in the scouting report, or you're toast.

We focus a lot in the modern game on hybrid players – playmakers coming in off the wing, or wingers lining up centrally before flaring wide, or false 9s who drift off the front line and become playmakers in order to let someone else, somewhere else, stretch the field. We focus on high pressure, and counter pressing, and diagonals and formations and registas.

We're right to do so, but not at the expense of overlooking the fundamentals, and there is nothing more fundamentally sound than a center forward splitting the central defense off the ball. And in the history of MLS, I can't recall a forward who did so as relentlessly and viciously as the Venezuelan. If Martinez makes that run a million times a game (he does, btw), you have to defend it a million times a game. Doing so means he's rearranging your defense, and making you react to him, and that, more than anything else, is why Atlanta have been so good so far.

Teams better scout that, and learn it, and account for it real quick, because he's not going to stop doing it, and the midfield behind him is clearly more than skilled enough to make that movement pay off. 

Series: 
Topics: 

Stay connected: Receive breaking news, videos, and analysis from North America's best soccer reporters from our FREE mobile app or "The Kick Off" newsletter.