Expected Narratives: What if it isn't Frank's Fault? / by Ian L.


I tried to wait before doing the whole “What is happening to Atlanta?” narrative, because it seemed exactly like the kind of thing that would bite me in the ass within a week of publication. We’re now seven weeks into the new season and last year’s defending champions and league darlings have been almost entirely terrible since the start of the team’s third campaign. I’m bringing it up today because of a tweet I saw that gave me pause like no tweet other than that one about Darryl and Socrates. I won’t post it here, as I’ve been on the receiving end of a few Atlanta Twitter Zerg rushes and would not wish them on any other human, but it basically claimed that Frank de Boer was actually a GOOD coach, but that his team was pathetically bad. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually heard this take yet. Like most, I was very content to sit back and just say that the new manager was the obvious difference between this year and last year. That given the right alignment of tactics and formation, that the team that was so dominant last year was still there waiting to be unlocked. There was to be a period of adjustment, and then everything would be fine and Atlanta would go back to being irritatingly good. But like, what if?

Seriously! What if Frank isn’t the problem? What if Atlanta’s players are actually bad? What if the truth of the matter is that the Atlanta United of 2018 were frauds and this unmasking has been a long time coming? I mean, it’s possible that people got way overhyped on some superdraft pick like Julian Gressel who was made to look better by Josef Martinez who was in turn made to look much better by getting a million penalties. Maybe, the Nagbe doubters that refuse to go away get to say I told you so AND be right. Perhaps Greg Garza made that backline function, and with Brek Shea there instead, Atlanta’s defense can no longer protect an aging and overrated Brad Guzan. I mean, Eric Remedi certainly hasn’t set the world alight and Jeff Larentowicz and Parkhurst are far from the stage in their careers where they’re going to get better with the passage of time. We were promised the moon and the stars with Barco and so far all we’ve gotten is a vague but sexy scandal and some peak memes. And don’t get me started on Pity Martinez. South American player of the year in 2018 sure, but do any of us actually know if the other players in South America in 2018 were MLS quality? Of course we don’t. We only pretend to follow those leagues.

I mean it sounds crazy, but it would certainly explain a lot. Frank de Boer managed Ajax, and that’s a team in EUROPE that everybody became a fan of last week. How can he be blamed? His resume is simply above reproach if you ignore all of the parts that are, you know,  below reproach. So let’s give Frank the week off, and take a second to see if we can cast the blame on the players. World premiere narrative folks. An xN exclusive.

NARRATIVE: Frank de Boer is fine. It’s Atlanta’s players that are the problem

So I think we have to begin this examination with Josef Martinez. Yes the man of many goals. Last season at this point he had like 150 goals already, and this year he has less than Reto Ziegler.

Josef Martinez (Number in Parenthesis is Open Play Only)

SeasonShots p96SoT p96Goals p96xGp96xG per Shot
Josef Martinez 20183.05 (2.42)1.70 (1.35)0.97 (0.66)0.90 (0.64)0.29 (0.26)
Josef Martinez 20193.34 (2.68)1.17 (0.84)0.33 (0.17)0.64 (0.47)0.19 (0.17)

So Josef is shooting more and scoring less, because the shots he’s taking are not as good. I don’t have to type a lot of analysis here for you do I? Also he’s not getting a penalty every third match or so. If that trend continues that’s going to add up over the course of the season. It’s hard to blame Josef Martinez here. At least for me. Scoring on 0.97 of 3.05 shots over the course of a season is wildly difficult to do. Expecting him to continue to convert chances at a superhuman rate is misguided. Remember over the last two years when people like me were sitting here looking at his conversion rate and going eh…...that’s not going to be sustainable? You aren’t hearing people say that now; the sound you are hearing is the sound of the other shoe dropping. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a regression to the mean. It’s gone a bit farther than that after all, but when everything goes your way for two years, suddenly having practically nothing go your way makes the difference appear that much more stark.

Real talk though? Josef is fine. He’s probably not going to hit over 30 this season. There is a reason why that almost never happens. That reason is because it is super hard and requires assistance from penalty kicks and staying very healthy ( things which are not reliably repeatable from year to year). If Atlanta need Josef Martinez to score 30+ goals a season in order to be where they want to be, they’re going to find themselves wanting far more often than not.

I’m not going to love trying to make this point, but if we’re going to blame the players, I guess we have to blame Pity Martinez for not being Miguel Almiron. That doesn’t seem fair as Almiron wasn’t even really Miguel Almiron in his first MLS season, much less in his first six matches and you can’t replace Miguel Almiron because even if you could replace Miguel Almiron, you probably couldn’t afford to replace Miguel Almiron unless you were able to find another young player who was on the cusp of becoming Miguel Almiron and fit within your price range which is hard to do, and you know it’s hard to do because nobody else has done it. Anyway let’s dispense with such things, because the fact of the matter is that Atlanta aren’t doing as well because Pity Martinez isn’t as effective of a creator as Miguel Almiron and that’s just a - wait a second hold on here -

Miguel Almiron 2018 xAp96 - 0.33
Pity Martinez 2019 xAp96 - 0.67

Wait. What? Dang. Oh I know what’s happening here. This must include set pieces, I’m sure if we just check open play we’ll see the problem.

Miguel Almiron 2018 Open Play xAp96 - 0.27
Pity Martinez 2019 Open Play xAp96 - 0.60

Son of a - ok look, you know what? Let’s just.. Let’s look at something else.

Pity Martinez32.510.60.781.1866

There’s a bit of a difference here, but it’s not THAT much. I don’t really think that Gonzalo Martinez is the problem here. I mean, he’s definitely not the same player as Almiron, but while he doesn’t yet seem to pose the same goal scoring threat as Almiron, the role that we’re looking at should be generating both xA and xG. So in 2018. Miguel Almiron boasted an 0.83 xA+xG p 96, while Pity is currently sitting at an 0.72. Again, there’s a difference, but considering that he’s still adapting to a new league and a new team, (Almiron’s xA+xG p96 was 0.53 in 2017), I would advise some patience for Pity.

Let’s check off a few more while we’re here on the offensive side of the ball.

Barco is doing marginally better than he did last season, (0.46 xG+xA p96 in 2019 compared to 0.45 xG+xA p96 in 2018), though his numbers have shifted more towards shooting than passing.

Nagbe is just, well, I don’t know how to quantify Nagbe, but he seems to be just Nagbeing at his usual Nagbe pace.

Villalba’s underlying numbers have had a slight regression but nothing I would be terribly concerned about. Gressel is actually up a bit by the smallest of margins, but it’s barely worth noting. He’s shooting a good bit more than he did in previous seasons (up 1.26 shots p 96 since last season), and that may not be exactly what you want Julian Gressel to be doing, but I don’t think we can in good conscience blame Julian Gressel.

Maybe it’s a defensive issue. Atlanta’s xGA is up from 1.11 per game to 1.25 per game, and their goals allowed per game is similarly up a bit from 1.29 per game to 1.33 per game, but that’s really not a huge swing either so, hmm… Let’s zoom out a bit and look at the whole team.

Atlanta Underlying Numbers (Number in Parenthesis is Open Play Only)

201815.1 (10.9)11.1 (7.8)1.97 (1.15)1.29 (1.32)1.88 (1.32)1.11 (0.78)0.77 (0.55)2.03
201914.7 (11.0)9.2 (6.2)0.83 (0.63)1.33 (1.0o)1.47 (1.20)1.25 (0.74)0.23 (0.46)0.83

I’m going to have to call this an offensive issue. But also, hmmm, Those are some fairly stark differences between open play only and the overall total last season. Let’s look at something else.

YearOpen Play GoalsPenalty GoalsFK GoalsCorner GoalsOpen Play xGPenalty xGFree Kick xGCorner xG

Ok, so. That’s interesting. In 2018 Atlanta were suffering fouls  at about 11.3 per game and in 2019 it’s 10.2. That’s not a HUGE difference, but probably worth noting, although I don’t think anybody would suggest that even at their best last season that Atlanta were some kind of set piece conversion machine. A far more stark difference, was that they were taking about 0.4 penalties per game in 2018 which was, a whole, whole lot. Thus far in 2019, they are taking a far more normal 0.2 penalties per game

I know this going to irk some Atlanta fans, and I’m not trying to say that the only reason Atlanta was good in 2018 was because of penalty kicks, but let’s not pretend they didn’t help. Statistically speaking, we’re talking about the difference between an almost guaranteed free goal every other game or so, compared to this year, one every four games or so. I’m looking at a team that’s scoring about half the goals they were scoring last season, and look at that, they’re also getting about half the penalties as well. Maybe it isn’t related, but that’s a tough sell for me considering how high the return on penalty kicks are. If you think a few penalties here and there wouldn’t make a difference, consider that of the six matches Atlanta haven’t won, half of those could have been turned from zero points to one, or one points to three with a single goal. This early in the season, three or four more points and we’re not even having this conversation.

So let’s wrap this up.  It isn’t the players’ fault. It just isn’t. Yeah Josef Martinez is actually human, and you’re probably not going to get 30 goals out of him, but you’re probably not going to find a better striker either. Yeah, Pity probably hasn’t lived up to the hype, but that hype may have been a tad bit much. Brek Shea is Brek Shea. Has DeBoer got everything wrong? I don’t think EVERYTHING, but I’ll admit that Atlanta do seem a bit more plodding, a bit more deliberate, but whether that’s a tactical design or a style that just needs a bit more time in the oven, only time will tell. Barco seems to be improving, and if Pity settles in, and Atlanta can go out this summer and find a solid defensive midfielder, well… they could be really good again.

If Atlanta is the first soccer team you’ve followed, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that following a soccer team is like spending every day at Disney, but my sweet children of summer, winter always comes. Even in Atlanta’s short history, seven matches is but a blip. Atlanta’s underlying numbers look good, and I expect them to turn things around. Are they going to be as dominant as 2018 Atlanta? You know what? I don’t know, but maybe not. Dynasties are hard in a league like MLS, but the good news is that no team in the Eastern Conference seems to be all that interested in running away with things, so there’s still time for last year’s champs to salvage 2019. I think it’s fair to say that in Atlanta’s short history they’ve had a fair amount of good fortune to go along with all of the great work that was done in launching the franchise, So far in 2019, things haven’t exactly broken their way. Between that, a new coach, the loss of Almiron, and Josef playing like a regular professional soccer forward, it’s really not surprising that things are looking kind of awful at the moment. The season isn’t long, but it’s long enough. We don’t have to go very far back in time to see examples of MLS teams punting the first three months of the season and then making a great run to MLS Cup glory. That’s part of the charm I guess.

The lackluster start to 2019 isn’t entirely Frank DeBoer’s fault. It isn’t entirely the player’s fault. It isn’t entirely the fault of any one person or any one thing. I’m reminded of this movie called “We Bought a Zoo”. At least, I THINK it was We Bought a Zoo. Honestly, it was years ago and I was pretty drunk, my recollection is that it wasn’t a very good movie, but one of the things that I remember happening was that there was a long, terrible rainstorm that made it hard to make a good zoo. It was kind of a funny conflict to happen in a movie, because the characters couldn’t really do anything about it.  What’s the only countermove you have for the rain? You wait for it to stop. I think that there are certainly some tweaks that Atlanta could make here and there to improve things, but mostly the thing they need more than anything is patience. It worked for Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in that movie about the zoo. Man, how did they get Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson anyway? Wait. Cameron Crowe directed that movie?

Taking it to the Corner

The article is already too long so I’m not doing one of these this week. We’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about.