When Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez walked out of arrivals he was greeted by some unfamiliar faces in red and black shirts.
“I think we landed around 5 a.m., so I wasn’t expecting people to be there, but it was a very nice welcome that the fans were there,” he said through a translator at his introductory press conference.
His transfer from River Plate to Atlanta United had been a protracted affair. Martinez confirmed he would be moving to MLS in December, but the deal (a record for both Atlanta and MLS) was not officially confirmed until January 24.
“He’s a player who had to deal with the pressure of wearing the #10 and playing for River Plate over 150 times,” technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “He’s a player that has quality to change the game with a goal or to give the final pass.”
Miguel Almiron was ready to leave for Europe and Martinez was seen by many as his replacement. Unfortunately, what followed Pity’s big arrival was a difficult beginning. The 26-year-old said in early March that he was not fully fit and cited Atlanta’s preseason training regimen as part of the problem; stating a personal requirement for more conditioning work.
Even now, questions over the player’s fitness remain. Martinez has played 18 league games for Atlanta this season, but only completed a full 90 minutes four times. His frustration at the situation manifested during the home game against the Colorado Rapids in late April when Martinez was seen to kick the back of a chair after being substituted in the 71st minute.
“I think he has to get stronger physically,” coach Frank de Boer said afterwards. “Then he can deal with the other things that I mentioned previously—if he gets back to a full 100 percent, ’cause in my point of view, he isn’t quite 100 percent yet.”
As well as struggles with fitness there have been concerns about how the 26-year-old fits the team tactically. This past weekend saw Martinez start the 3-3 draw against the New York Red Bulls before being withdrawn in place of striker Brandon Vazquez.
When explaining his decision, De Boer said, “We have to win duels, and in my point of view, he did not do enough to avoid giving someone an easy long ball. You saw, Brandon [Vazquez] came in and it was a different story. I want not 10, or 9, or 8 men who work very hard, everybody has to work hard, especially in these kinds of games.”
De Boer tried to give Martinez as few defensive responsibilities as possible by placing him high up the field alongside striker Josef Martinez. His role was to serve as an outlet for Atlanta in transition, and it saw him assist Justin Meram for the opening goal after 10 minutes.
As the Red Bulls began to press in the second half, however, the tide turned, and the freedom afforded to Martinez went from being a blessing to a burden. Atlanta were forced into playing long balls, and although Vazquez failed to win a single duel, he did stop the Red Bulls returning those long balls with ease (he also helped Atlanta retain possession and win the corner that would lead to Josef Martinez’s equalizer).
So far this season Martinez has two goals and four assists in 18 games. Upon further inspection, there remain legitimate concerns over Martinez’s shot selection, which is often wasteful. That said, as a chance creator, his return is solid, even if that’s not reflected in the assists column.
Unfortunately, a ‘solid’ return does not match the expectation that was placed on Martinez, especially when compared with the output of Almiron. When Atlanta entered the league they found instant success with their choice of Designated Players, and that has made Martinez’s struggle all the more pronounced.
The emergence of Ezequiel Barco in the 10 role this season (as well as the recent arrival of Emerson Hyndman), has further complicated matters. De Boer will need to find the best roles for his two Argentine playmakers, which may force him to change his steadfast approach.
When Martinez joined River in 2015 he endured an equally slow start before emerging into the player that lifted the Copa Libertadores.
If things are to work for him at Atlanta then it will likely take a change from both him and the team; otherwise, Martinez’s loud entrance will be replaced by a quiet exit.