Manchester United are understood to be close to an agreement to sign Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez. The player is the latest in a series of targets who have either played for De Godenzonen or, in the case of new signing Tyrell Malacia, against them in the Eredivisie. But why has Martinez in particular caught his former manager Erik ten Hag’s eye?
The 24-year-old Argentina international was a key part of the Ajax side that lifted the Eredivisie title in May. Martinez was first-choice centre back, usually alongside one-time United target Jurrien Timber, until a muscle injury took him out of the final eight games of the season. Concerned Reds shouldn’t worry too much about that lay-off. Before that stretch, Martinez had missed just two games in the last three seasons through injury.
Much has been made of the fact that Martinez is 5’9, considered short for a central defender. Showing the physical presence synonymous with being a Premier League centre half, Martinez will actually be the shortest player in his position in the competition if he joins. Cesar Azpilicueta, himself essentially a moonlighting full back, and Nathan Ake are the current shortest at 5’10.
It seems likely Martinez’s height will be offset by pairing him with the aerially-dominant Harry Maguire. Raphael Varane missed 17 games last season through injury and illness while Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof could not stake a claim to a place beside him. The fact that the diminutive Martinez excels in areas that Maguire complements could make this a sensible buy.
So if Martinez can’t cope in the air, what is he being bought for. Many fans excitedly speculated he was actually going to be United’s long-awaited solution to their problems in defensive midfield. It is true that Martinez has played that role in the past, but those occurrences are scarcer than many fans seem to believe. Just one of his seven Argentina caps, a 45-minute appearance against Brazil, came in a midfield screening role. For Ajax he started out in midfield, but did so incredibly briefly. He has not started a game in a defensive midfield role for the Dutch champions since March 2020. There were some scattered experiments with him at left back in 2021 but, considering the club has just bought Malacia and has Luke Shaw, Alex Telles and Brandon Williams on the books, a move out wide seems unlikely.
It feels like Ten Hag has bought his old charge to do exactly what he did under him at the Johan Cruyff Arena; to be a central defender. So what does he offer in that area of the pitch? The graphics below are derived from Martinez’s showings in the Champions League last season.
The first shows that while lacking the vertical physicality of his peers, the 24-year-old gets his tackles away. A marker of 3.13 ball recoveries per 90 minutes with 11.63 speaks to the relentless way Ten Hag sides tend to go about winning the ball back. An adept passer of the ball, his 93% marker shows than not only is he highly capable of winning the ball, but excellent at finding a teammate with it.
The passes Martinez plays are valuable in both a defensive and an attacking sense. A press-resistant defender, the Argentina international averages 7.88 passes under pressure per game. United’s ineffectual nature against the high-press was evident last season, particular in hammerings against Liverpool and Manchester City. Martinez’s 6.13 progressive carries per 90 is also indicative of how Ten Hag wants to play, with the coach favouring teams who get the ball from back to front with speed and quality.
What Manchester United are spending their money on is an unconventional, but highly modern, centre back. What he lacks in physical presence he makes up for in providing the ball progression functions of a deep playmaker. His relentlessness is also an asset in breaking up opposition attacks. It remains to be seen how Martinez will cope against Premier League attackers, but the Champions League provides a good metric of how he can cope in elite competition. Whether this transfer is successful or not is impossible to predict. But you cannot dispute that he fits Ten Hag’s overarching plan like a glove. The lack of such a unified playing vision is what United have lacked until now.
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