Born on the sloped streets of Caracas, Venezuela, Josef Alexander Martínez Mencia, usually known as Josef Martínez, learned his trade here, at the local team Caracas Fútbol Club. Now, he is plying his trade at Atlanta United in MLS. In this article, we’ll be breaking down, in a tactical analysis and through his statistics, how and why Josef Martínez is being such a menace to defences.
Despite being the MLS top scorer, he isn’t drawing much attention from European media. We need to be appreciating what he is doing right now though. He isn’t blowing teams away with fancy tricks or impressive goals. Instead, he is getting the basics absolutely perfect, and reaping the rewards because of it.
Some of the best goal-scorers in world football have predicated their whole game on movement. If you get into the right position enough then you’ll get the chances to score goals. Josef Martínez’ first goal against Montreal on 29/7/18 was the perfect example of this.
His initial dash towards near post has been read by the defenders near him, and spotting gap at the far post, he checks his run across the goal into space. The ball carrier at this stage simply needs to get the ball into the box – far enough away from the keeper and high enough to miss the defenders.
Most impressively for this goal, once Martínez checks his run he simply waits for the ball. He doesn’t commit himself to anything. He hasn’t committed to the far post as expected, or near post for a double bluff. Instead, he is central and completely unmarked. The defence simply could not react to his unexpected movement. His composure to not rush and commit, and the awareness to know the gap in the first place is there is perhaps his biggest talent.
The other upside to this is that as the ball gets swung across the box, he has room to run, jump and meet the ball at pace. This enables him to get good power into the ball and effectively beat the keeper.
Runs from deep
He doesn’t just do this within the box though. This type of movement is his trademark. Here we can see the ball is out wide, and he is catching up to play to hopefully receive a through-ball.
We can see at this exact moment he changes direction rapidly, trying to ghost behind the defender. He has chosen this moment because the ball-player has been closed down and is now ready to off-load the ball. In this instance, he doesn’t score, but the intention is there. His plan is to confuse the defender with rapid movement changes to make himself enough room to get a shot on goal.
Martínez’ shots on target percentage is unbelievable at 64.4%. Zlatan Ibrahimović is the next top scorer, and his percentage comes in at 54%. Bradley Wright-Phillips is at 37.4%. If you can hit the target as consistently as Martínez then you’ll be challenging the keeper enough to score a lot. Adama Diomande is almost matching Martínez this season, but even he cannot keep up.
Interestingly, he has missed a few good chances though. He is a poacher, always looking to be on the shoulder of the striker. Atlanta United create a lot of chances for him, with Héctor Villalba and Miguel Almirón creating good opportunities for a poacher.
The True Story
Some goal-scorers will create their own opportunities. Josef Martinez is not one of those though. The true story behind his goals is the team around him.
The cross from Julian Gressel here is absolutely sublime. An early cross in, with the curve on the ball to meet Martinez almost perfectly. Martínez thrives on this type of delivery with his good leaping ability and excellent heading technique.
Again, another cross which is perfect for a poacher. Martinez times his run and Villalba delivers the ball on a plate for him. Dropping the ball behind opposition lines allows Martínez to use his acceleration to get ahead of the defence. This was effective against Toronto’s deep defensive line here.
The timing of runs is a skill in itself. The vision and awareness to know that the ball is coming is key, but the tactical set-up around the poacher is also vital. If you pass the ball around the box and never get through balls or crosses in for a poacher then they will not score. You must set up to compliment your type of striker, and when you have someone like Josef Martínez on your side, you need to be able to deliver quality for them.
Build up play
Martínez is not the biggest player. Standing at just 5feet7inches (1.7M) he cannot hold up against big centre-backs. Despite his obvious talents in the air, this is largely down to good movement and an excellent vertical jump as opposed to strength. As he cannot stand toe-to-toe with many defenders, Martínez will often drop off the defence, leaving defenders with the choice as to whether they follow him or leave him. Types of movement like this can leave gaps in behind for adventurous midfielders to try and exploit.
This is not a new tactic and has been widely used for decades, popularised more recently by Lionel Messi. In this capacity, Martínez perhaps shows his greatest weakness – simple passes. Often times when used as a bounce-board for midfielders, his passes go astray or are miss hit. Similarly, when required to pass through for on-rushing midfielders he will try flicks to achieve his goals. This is to ensure the tempo stays high, but often do not come off effectively. Despite what his 76.9% pass completion percentage might say, his teammates often come under pressure quickly when receiving the ball from him and do well to keep it.
He isn’t in the side to defend, but Atlanta United do play a fairly high pressing game, and that requires everyone to be involved. Martínez does on occasion get involved in the defensive side of the game, but by and large, the rest of the team does it for him. He does chase down loose balls though and make life very difficult for his opponents to clear. Josef Martínez very much picks and chooses his moments to chase down opposition players though.
His main contribution is on defensive corners where his good leap helps him head the ball clear.
In reality, Josef Martínez is in the form of his life right now. This is down to a combination of his qualities as a poacher, the quality of the team around him and the tactics being played by coach Gerardo Martino.
He simply wasn’t this good in Serie A though. Defences in Italy are notoriously tough, but at Torino, he had an xG90 of 0.34 (about average), with an xG90 of 0.21 (below average) and shots90 of 3.00 (above average). He scored just 7 times in the Serie A for Torino, and the stats say he wasn’t a good finisher. This season, however, he is recording an xG90 of 0.97 and his overall xG90 in MLS is 0.84. This shows it shouldn’t be a surprise he is scoring lots when given that much of an opportunity to score – he is outperforming this though with 1.05 goals/90 in his time at Atlanta United.
With all the facts laid out in front, I think he is a good finisher but not spectacular. His movements and team create excellent goalscoring chances, but he does miss a few good chances.
To end on a positive though, Martínez’ goals-per-game is incredible. Atlanta United are great to watch and Gerardo Martino’s style of play, along with the players at his disposal are contributing to Martínez’ amazing run of form.
As an outsider, long may it continue.