What makes Josef Martinez's penalty style so unstoppable?

Alex Bono had been in this perilous situation before, standing 12 yards away from Josef Martinez as the reigning MLS single-season goal king delicately placed the ball down for a penalty kick. 

Throughout his personal experience and dedicated film work for this very moment, Bono couldn't have possibly been more prepared. He knew of Martinez's wonky run-up, starting with a crouch and punctuated by an exaggerated hop just before contact — which certainly will not feature in any coaching manuals.

Be patient, stay in the middle as long as you can before making your move. 

None of it mattered. Martinez did what Martinez does; score goals.

"After the penalty he came to me and said, 'I knew you’d go that way,'" Bono told MLSsoccer.com in March. "I shook my head and wondered how? I’d studied his penalties all week, which way he goes, and he still knew where I was going.”

The Venezuelan has scored 11 of 12 attempts from the penalty spot for Atlanta United, the latest of which came against Bono on Decision Day presented by AT&T in 2018. What makes this penalty run-up so unstoppable?

Penalty kicks have a high return on investment for attacking teams, with a spot-kick resulting in a goal about 75 percent of the time worldwide. There is no shame for 'keepers in the situation, as every save is a bonus rather than expectation.

An isolated event, PKs are simple to study. Film work reveals tendencies for regular penalty takers, which is taken heavily into consideration heading into a match. 

Martinez, though, has varied his run up multiple times, sprays the ball to all parts of the goal from 12 yards out and now leans on an entirely idiosyncratic run-up.

“It throws off any goalkeeper," Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake admitted to MLSsoccer.com. Blake, who has conceded three penalties to Martinez, added, "It’s hard — he waits for you to move. That big hop at the last second is when you’ve gotta move if you’re gonna make a move. It’s a tough one. If you move too early, he’s going to switch. If you don’t, and he gets enough precision, you’re never going to get to the ball.”

Move too early, Martinez rolls the ball to the other side of the net. Move too late, he still can generate enough power to smash his shot into the corner. 

“It kind of gives him a window to kind of read the goalkeeper and pick his side, or middle even, if he sees him [dive] too early," said Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who conceded a PK to Martinez in 2018 while with Orlando City SC. "It’s difficult. You have to be patient with it and that’s the part that makes it really hard.”

All the while, the 'keepers are telling themselves to wait, wait and keep waiting, then find the perfect time to begin their own movements. 

“It’s hard. You have to take your own jump step right before to generate power," said Matt Pyzdrowski, a goalkeeper for Varbergs BoIS in Sweden and analyst featured in a number of soccer publications. "You have to time his jump, which is so unnatural. Normally you’re waiting for the plant foot to go. Also, you can tell yourself ‘be patient, be patient, be patient.’ But it’s one of the hardest things to do.”

Bono echoes that sentiment.

“It’s awkward. His run-up is slow and choppy, and then he gets up to the ball and he takes this weird hop," Bono said. "And it’s so hard to keep your ground as he approaches the ball and takes that hop. A lot of times he sends you the wrong way.”

Josef Martinez sends JT Marcincowski the wrong way | USA Today Sports

The run-up is technically legal, but brushes into the grey area. 

“By the laws of the game, I guess it’s legal because his motion continues and he doesn’t come to a full stop," Bono said. "I think it’s difficult to execute."

Martinez pulls it off with relative ease, able to strike the ball without looking. 

“As a goalkeeper, of course I think this should not be allowed," Pyzdrowski said with a chuckle. "From a striker's perspective, I get why you’d try to use the interpretation of the rule to your advantage.”

He added a suggestion to alter the rule, taking interpretation out of the equation, to mandate that every run-up must be at the same pace, but Pyzdrowski admitted that he understands why that'll never happen, though. 

“It’s smart and creative," Blake said. "You can’t take anything away from the guy. For us as goalkeepers, we have to see if we can figure out a way to get around it. We just have to work even harder to see if we can stop his penalties.”

“I think it’s very smart," Bendik added. "Through all the penalties he has taken, he has created an extremely difficult situation for all goalkeepers because when he hops, now you can’t cheat: If you move too early, he puts it the other way. I love it, he’s a great penalty taker.”

Josef Martinez hops | USA Today Sports

Bono's logic on Decision Day was sound: stay down the center, wait as long as you possibly can to not tip your hand, then dive where the data suggests he is most likely to go.

Pyzdrowski would have done the same thing.

“I’ve noticed when he does that jump, he almost always goes to the goalkeeper's left," Pyzdrowski said. "It’s hard when you’re jumping to also twist your hips at the last second to bring the ball across.”

Yet, somehow, Martinez knew. How?

“That’s what makes it so remarkable," Pyzdrowski said. "When you see if from the 'keepers perspective, Josef is never looking at the ball. He knows his step, he knows his jump and he’s watching, waiting for the keeper to move. It’s so unique. I would never, ever teach someone to do it.” 

Just like his steely gaze when scoring goals in lieu of a celebration, it's a Josef specialty.


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