Atlanta United matches in 2017 might resemble track meets due to the speed of its players and their playing tempo. In Miguel Almirón and Tito Villalba, the team already had two flyers. Adding Venezuela’s Josef Martinez today gives them three of the fastest players in Major League Soccer, who will likely form a midfield wall of speed that will strike fear in the hearts of their opponents.
If Tata Martino deploys Martinez on the left as many expect, he will have speed on both sides and through the middle with Almirón. Teams will have to respect the pace of the Atlanta United midfield, or they will be left in the dust. You often see teams back off of players with speed in fear of them getting in behind the backline. How do you defend against a team that can beat with you speed in every area of the field?
FIFA 17 is not the greatest source of scouting, but it can point you in the right direction. Last year upon its release, Tito Villalba was listed as the 8th fastest player in the entire database, and the fastest player in MLS ahead of Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh. Martinez and Almirón are not far off from Villalba in the speed ratings.
Is speed alone going to win Atlanta United games? No, not at all. However, in a game that is evenly matched technically and tactically, this wealth of speed with give United an ace in the hole that no team in MLS can match. Combine it with Tata Martino’s system of play that prioritizes moving the ball forward quickly and efficiently, and Atlanta will present quite a few match-up problems for opponents.
Michael Cox of ESPN and Zonal Marking described Martino’s mentor Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao teams in this way:
“That’s how Athletic plays on the pitch — the buildup play is slow at the back, and then higher up there’s a sudden transformation with quick movement to try to get in behind the back line.”
This is a trait that Martino also uses in his teams. The changes in pace of play are what often fool the opposition and create chances. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen of Martino’s teams at Newell’s Old Boys is from the Spanish site “En un momento dado”upon his hire at Barcelona:
“In fact, Martino’s Newell’s well could be defined as a team with two speeds, and very pronounced. A slow and calmed first one when the team starts from behind, and a vertical and impatient second one once the boundary has been crossed.”
This will be fascinating to watch in Atlanta. It is doubtful that Martino has ever had this sheer wealth of speed to utilize. There are other elements to the system of play that will need to develop in order to unlock all that the Red and Black can be. However, these three speedsters will give Martino a dangerous weapon even when everything else is not working at its full capacity.
You’ve seen teams figure out ways to shut down one speedy player like Fabian Castillo or Cobi Jones in MLS. However, how will they combat speed on both flanks and through the middle? Martinez’s addition to United will have coaches around the league heading back to the drawing board.