“The King” has returned in 2018 to claim what is his but can Josef Martinez stay healthy enough to bring home the glory?
Okay so nobody(so far) calls him “The King” but me, however there are signs and surely some justification behind it becoming protocol. Brought on loan from Torino with a cheap option to buy, Josef Martinez arrived in MLS last February as one Atlanta United’s final few signings for their inaugural season. At the time it was thought to be a depth piece, one to back up Atlanta’s first ever signing, and now happily retired Striker, Kenwyne Jones. Yet Josef Martinez quickly became a household name in MLS scoring 5 goals in his first 3 games, including a hat trick in the snow against fellow expansion side Minnesota United. Atlanta United would announce just days after Josef’s brace against Chicago that the option to buy the 24 year old striker from Torino had been taken and the move had been made permanent. However, smiles quickly turned sour as that night, playing in a World Cup Qualifier for Venezuela, Martinez would limp off early with a pulled quad injury that saw him sidelined for nearly 4 months. Unfortunately, injuries would be a big headline surrounding Martinez’s first season in MLS as he missed time during 3 different stints due to injury throughout the season as it became difficult for him to find consistent form. Nonetheless, Josef would return slowly but surely show everyone what they were missing as he would catch fire and it became a situation where Atlanta United went as Josef Martinez went. During a span of 8 games in just 21 days, Josef Martinez would make up for lost time including a week where he scored a hat trick in back to back games vs New England and Orlando City. His performances garnered attention from the MLS pundits as Atlanta United became the talk of MLS and American Soccer. Riding this wave of Five Stripe euphoria, Martinez would collect plenty of MLS honors such as two MLS Player of the Month and Week awards, while being named to MLS Team of the Week four separate times. Josef Martinez finished the season with 19 goals in just 17 starts and 3 substitute appearances, collecting 3 hat tricks and making MLS history as his 0.95 goals per game ratio in 2017 marks third all time in league history.
Josef’s 2017 MLS season can best be described as a roller coaster ride. He arrived to an MLS expansion team thinking he would just be the backup and depth to Kenwyne Jones but instead he exploded into the star goal scorer for one of the most exciting teams in MLS. In just his first season, Josef managed to become one of, if not the most efficient strikers in MLS. Josef Martinez set the league alight, scoring 19 goals in just 17 starts and 3 substitute appearances. Yet among MLS players that made at least 15 appearances in 2017, Martinez averaged 1.1 goals per 90 minutes(via whoscored.com), that ranks first in MLS. He was also very accurate when given the opportunity in front of goal. Martinez averaged a total of 3.9 shots per 90 minutes played, of that total he put 1.9 shots on target and 0.8 were blocked, but these numbers are no coincidence. Attacking Football IQ and Positioning are probably Josef’s best traits and make him nearly irreplaceable. Josef Martinez creates havoc for defenses when he makes sharp, unapologetic, defense-splitting runs into the opponent’s penalty area. He always manages to split the central defenders and when he makes a cut toward goal, with or without the ball, he affects the gravity of the play. Whether he intends to receive the ball or not, when he splits the defenders, they have to follow him or else they leave him open because when teams leave Martinez open in front of goal it is a prescription for bad news.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 12, 2017
What’s that about splitting the central defenders?…
Martinez vs. Orlando City: Being in the stadium and seeing Josef score his hat trick with 70000 other people was something I had only dreamed about as a kid. A brilliant finish to cap a historic night. pic.twitter.com/03DQhVKUIC
— ⌬ Christian Candler (@Candlerbility) December 29, 2017
Even when teams follow his runs, the run creates space in behind him for players like Almiron, Gressel and now Nagbe or Barco to receive a pullback pass in a dangerous area. Though the intent from Villalba in the below video wasn’t to find Almiron, the run from Josef created space for the scenario that occurred to prosper.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 12, 2017
Below you see, Martinez create his own space, thanks to the quality of his own run to take a 1-0 lead in a tightly contested battle where Colorado were determined to take away any space Atlanta could capitalize on.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) June 25, 2017
Josef once again uses his intelligence and the explosiveness to create space for himself to take the edge off with an early goal against Los Angeles.
— HiperChip (@HiperChip) September 21, 2017
Finally to showcase how the gravity of the play is affected by Martinez’s near post run but what a beautiful dummy(Garza must have called for him to leave it) to let the ball go and see Greg Garza slot it home to round off a beautiful move making it 3-0 ATL in the party at the Benz.
That dummy from @JosefMartinez17 👀
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) December 20, 2017
Thanks to the talented team he plays in, whether the ball is coming from out-wide or down the middle, the ball will find the open man, meaning Josef’s run is never wasted. He is a very dynamic striker blessed with explosive athleticism and while he isn’t the most physically imposing individual in the world, Martinez managed to hold his own in the air last season. According to whoscored.com, Martinez won just over 50% of his aerial duels last season, winning 1.7 of his total 3.2 duels per 90 minutes played, not too bad for a 5’7 striker.
While I cannot find a specific statistic for this, it seemed as though Martinez’s headers found their target at a surprisingly high rate. As the year went along he became a threat in the air from open play but shouldn’t be the main talking point when discussing Josef.
“The Ultimate Machine”
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) January 13, 2018
As you can see though, 2017 proved Josef Martinez has it all and to be frank, he is probably too good for MLS. However I am not gonna complain because Atlanta are the ones reaping the benefits as he is arguably the best striker in MLS. Yet questions become obvious, with no clear backup striker option for Atlanta United, can Martinez bear the burden of playing all 35 MLS games without injury? Yes, in 2017 we saw Tito Villalba fill in for Josef Martinez both diligently and productively but I don’t feel comfortable asking Tito to do it all again in 2018. For starters, Tito played all 35 games and over 2800 minutes last season for Atlanta United which is excellent, especially for a young player, but it’s unlikely to happen every year. Health becomes a concern playing that many minutes and if he picks up an injury, Atlanta loses both its backup striker and starting right winger. What does this have to do with Josef?…he missed 15 games last season due to injury and if he goes down often again, that becomes a worry because Atlanta United are not the same when Josef Martinez is not in the lineup. Matt Doyle said it best last season, “Atlanta United are great without Josef Martinez but they become elite with Josef Martinez.”
The final third of 2017 saw Atlanta United become the scariest team in MLS when Josef Martinez got a clear bill of health and a steady run of games. Yet whenever injuries are involved with such a pivotal player, they create a best-case and worst-case scenario regarding the expectations. The great part for Atlanta United and its fans is that it doesn’t get much worse than 2017 because of how often Martinez was absent. Missing almost half the season and still managing a 0.95 goals per game ratio tells you all that you need to know about Josef’s efficiency. The only real knock someone can have on Josef Martinez’s 2017 season is his fitness but that is hardly something he can help. Other than staying off of dodgy pitches in Venezuela *cough cough* and listening to the Atlanta United Medical Team, there is nothing much Josef Martinez can do to avoid injuries that keep him out of the lineup. Surely there are other areas for improvement such as creation numbers for Josef but that isn’t the main area of focus among Five Stripe stakeholders. Even if Martinez manages to start 25-30 games for Atlanta in 2018, bookkeepers have to start keeping an eye on MLS record books because of the explosive goalscoring potential the Venezuelan possesses.
Let’s take a closer look at the 0.95 goals per game ratio in just 20 games we discussed earlier and make some adjustments for Josef’s 2018 MLS season. Obviously assuming he sustains such a ridiculous goalscoring efficiency and avoids injuries in 2018 which are both arduous tasks for any player. All things considered, say he stays healthy enough to start or play in 30 games, statistically Josef Martinez is scheduled to score 28 goals in 2018…an MLS Record. That is not even considering the possibility Atlanta United creates even more chances for Martinez to pounce on this season which is a very reasonable shout. The additions of Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco might create more space for Josef Martinez not just on the counter but in possession, to break down deep-lying back lines teams often employed against Atlanta last year to slow down their attack.
So…dare I say it…in 2018, thanks to the sparkling new additions in Atlanta’s attack, it becomes a very real circumstance that we could see Josef Martinez’s 0.95 ratio rises to above 1.0 goals per game.
The math, the numbers, the science… all become obvious. Records start to be broken, Five Stripe Mania starts to run wild on you, Twitter as you know it crumbles and Planet Earth begins to scorch because Josef Martinez is a man on fire.
While that is the absolute best-case scenario and isn’t totally far-fetched, it is more likely Josef Martinez’s 2018 MLS season finds the middle ground of the two situations. Realistically I think 2018 sees Josef Martinez stay healthier than in his debut season but seeing a very slight dip in goalscoring efficiency. Starting around 25 games and making a handful of substitute appearances, I think Martinez still sneaks up close to that MLS single- season goalscoring record of 27 but falling just short. Bagging 25 goals and maybe even contributing 5 to 6 assists, I think Josef Martinez still grabs the MLS Golden Boot award as the league’s top goal scorer and impresses where he didn’t last season, the MLS Playoffs. I believe Josef will grab clutch goals in each round to lead Atlanta United to an MLS Cup triumph. “The King” Josef Martinez will claim not just the crown for himself but for Atlanta United and the city of Atlanta.
Matt Fowler | @Mattianta