For three months this offseason, Atlanta United fans debated who would be The Nagbe Replacement™, and in the three months since Josef Martinez went down in a heap on the pitch at Nissan Stadium, we’ve wondered who will be replacing the former MVP and Golden Boot winner for the Five Stripes when the season resumes July 12.
But as was the case with the Nagbe debate, the focus shouldn’t revolve around who will replace these stars, but how? As was the case with Nagbe, there is nobody in all of MLS, let alone on Atlanta United’s roster, that can replace what Josef Martinez offers with his combination of powerful running, relentless aggression and composure in the box.
So maybe the most prudent way to make up for Josef’s absence up top is to not even try.
In a post last week, Rob Usry offered a lineup prediction for the MLS is Back tournament that centered around Atlanta playing with a “false nine”—effectively playing without a recognized striker. While there are many styles of No. 9s—no better illustrated than in the stark contrasts between Atlanta’s Martinez and his “backup” Adam Jahn—both players will effectively occupy the opposition cent backs. How Atlanta develops the attack—movement in the final third—is anchored around this 2v1 matchup.
But what happens when you don’t have Martinez, and (no offense to Adam Jahn) you have more talented players than Adam Jahn you can utilize? This brings us to Johan Cruyff, who explained many years ago on some amazing-looking Dutch football show from my wildest fantasies where the panelists all drink wine and talk tactics how he’d play without a top striker in the team.
Cruyff never labels a player during this diagramming session as a “false nine” (that terminology entered the soccer vernacular years later with the rise of Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi’s dominance in the role at Barcelona), but he clearly illustrates that without the presence of a striker like a Marco Van Basten or Ruud Van Nistelrooy, he’d use an extra attacking midfielder—what we’re calling a false nine.
Tactically, a false nine changes the dynamic with regards to the opposition center backs shown above.
Instead of guarding against a player running in behind you or battling you physically to pin you deep, the “striker is now drifting away from the center backs, leaving them without anyone to mark. And center backs know that if they aren’t marking anyone, there are surely overloads happing in other areas of the field. So should they vacate their station at the back to stay with the “striker?” This movement creates confusion, and it could be especially tricky for defenses coming into this tournament after a long hiatus that aren’t fully cohesive and tactically organized.
Personally, I think Pity Martinez is best suited for the role, but thanks to the depth and versatility of the players in de Boer’s team, you can make the case for several players performing in that key spot with others shuffling around the attacking and midfield roles. (I’m placing Remedi at the base of midfield here so I don’t have angry hordes on my back, but I’m still skeptical that he’s best suited nor de Boer’s best option in this position.)
Some of you are thinking: Frank de Boer is a Louis Van Gaal apprentice—not Johan Cruyff—and Cruyff and Van Gaal were diametrically opposed in their tactical philosophies of the game.
This is half true. Van Gaal and Cruyff are often pitted as polar opposites, but this framing is largely centered on their personal distaste for one another. Yes, there were also tactical differences, but here’s how journalist Michael Cox described it in his book Zonal Marking released last year.
Knowing that de Boer played almost exclusively in his prime years at Ajax and Barcelona under Van Gaal, it would stand to reason that the implementation of a false nine might be something he’s not so naturally inclined to do. But de Boer is far from a one-trick pony. He played alongside Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard, two former Barcelona players-turned-managers who De Boer said in his introductory press conference in Atlanta have influenced his tactical approach. And further, it was de Boer who was the one who first brought up the idea of implementing a false nine last season when Josef Martinez was missing during last year’s Copa America.
In my humble opinion, it would be an error to not attempt playing with a false nine. And this is less about the pure talent discrepancy between Adam Jahn and some of his teammates who’d compete for his place in the XI (though that’s certainly a part of it), and more about the tactical difficulty it’d present the opponent. That’s not to say it’s foolproof for de Boer. When playing with a false nine, it’s easy for teams to become stagnant—holding possession for too long in non-dangerous areas (sound familiar?). That said, I don’t think many teams are going to come flying out of the blocks in the group stage of MLS is Back, so methodical, patient play could be the most effective strategy.