Position: Central Defender
2021 League Games: 32 games, 32 starts, 2,880 minutes played (Yokohama F. Marinos, J1 League)
What went right in 2021:
Thiago Martins spent the 2021 season playing for Yokohama F. Marinos, in the J1 League in Japan. He was a workhorse for the club, starting every game he played and remaining on the field until the final whistle pretty much every time, finishing third in the league in total minutes played. Not only was he durable, Martins was also a pivotal player for his club. He finished first on the team in interceptions (59), and fourth in team plus/minus (+39) via FBRef. According to the J1 League’s website, he completed 2,503 passes, good enough for first in his club and third for the entire league.
All of this makes Martins stand out as a key player for a Yokohama F. Marinos side that finished second in the table in 2021. His defensive acumen and technical ability with the ball are undoubtedly at the core of why he’s New York City FC’s biggest offseason acquisition, and why he’s the team’s first defender to be signed as a Designated Player.
What to improve 2022:
Given that our observations of Martins are mostly limited to highlight reels, it’s hard to say with any certainty what he does and doesn’t do as a player. Looking at his passing statistics, and taking into consideration NYCFC’s overall description of the player, Martins will likely play as a tactical central defender who is comfortable with the ball at his feet.
According to FBRef, his tackles won (ten) seem slightly low for a central defender, especially in comparison to Maxime Chanot (18) and Alexander Callens (17). On the other hand, the aerial duels won by Martins (103), put him clearly ahead of both Chanot (95) and Callens (47). It seems Martins is a defender with some technical ability and athleticism, but it is hard to guess what he needs to improve in order to be successful in MLS.
What to expect in 2022:
This is where things start to really get interesting: Typically a player like Martins would fit the bill as the incumbent who will grow into the position and gradually earn minutes as the club looks to move on from regularly staring the 32-year-old Chanot. But with the Designated Player contract comes responsibilities, and it appears Martins should be considered to be in the Starting XI mix sooner rather than later. In addition, NYCFC sporting director David Lee noted when Martins was one of the captains at Yokohama, and that the player brings leadership qualities with him.
Given his advancing age, Chanot seems to be the one most at risk of losing playing time this year. However, this only applies if manager Ronny Delia sticks to the four-man backline he favored last year. With Martins, Callens, and Chanot, the team could use a three-man backline that would allow Malte Amundsen and Tayvon Gray to function as wingbacks. That would create other playing time issues, especially up top in the attack, but it is not something to rule out.
In any event, we will all be watching Martins closely and hope that the club made the right decision in signing the defender to a Designated Player contract.