What Lisandro Martínez will bring to Manchester United’s defence

United have their new man. It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive a season Lisandro Martínez had in 2021/22. He ranked among the top 5% of centre-backs in Europe in a plethora of useful metrics. He is a defender with a phenomenal number of strings to his bow.  

Trained in his native Argentina at Newell’s Old Boys, his stock has skyrocketed in the famous red and white of Ajax. United have agreed a deal worth around £50million, securing the South American for the next five seasons. He joins a backline of first-teamers Harry Maguire, Rafael Varane, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly; Martínez however offers something very different.

We look at the reasons he has gained such a glowing reputation from his time in Amsterdam, why his new manager sought him out so keenly and what he can offer to his new team.

Martínez has seven caps for Argentina and will likely feature in this year’s World Cup in Qatar. (Photo by skysports.com)

He’s a defender first – and a very good one

Martínez does not let his short stature of 5’10” (contrary to countless reports ridding him of an inch) detract from his defensive duties. He stood out last season for the number of tackles and interceptions he performed, an impressive total of 5 per 90 minutes.  

A front-foot defender who hounds his opponents, he is anything but passive. A significant proportion of his tackles (1.13 p/90) happen in the middle third of the field. This suggests Martínez is a genuine risk-taker in the tackle. He steps ahead of his teammates and takes immediate charge of a defensive action, contesting opponent dribblers an Eredivisie-high of 2.25 times per game last season. 

In Erik Ten Hag’s high pressing system, Martínez’s positivity and front-footedness may help his team win the crucial midfield battles. Here we look at a potential counter-attacking shape United may use next year.

Erik Ten Hag used a highly-fluid 3-2 defensive system during his time at Ajax.

Martínez could be utilised as a fluid defensive-midfielder and provide dogged, intent pressure on opponents’ playmakers, safe in the knowledge that three defenders and a fellow defensive midfielder will provide him with cover. Likewise, when his teammates provide the aggression, he is more than capable of covering. Crucially, he has the intelligence and awareness to know the difference. He recovered a league-high 11.63 loose balls per game last year. 

A similar example of Ten Hag’s utilisation of Martínez in a defensive-midfielder/centre-back hybrid role during the 2021/22 Ajax season.

Ten Hag has shown glimpses of this fluid 3-2 hybrid back line in pre-season so far. His Ajax side last season saw a similar style employed. It is from this position that Martínez’s true strength can be showcased. 

He’s a genuine ball-playing defender 

Manchester United have struggled to play the ball out from the back in recent years. A fruitless affair which across the city in East Manchester seems so effortlessly performed. The fact is United have signed a top ball-player; one who crucially is left-footed. No one in the Eredivisie completed more passes than Lisandro Martínez. Very few defenders in Europe come near his 80 or so passes per game. 

The ability to resist the opponent’s press and the vision to pick out attackers, two key components to a Ten Hag defender, are there in droves with Martínez. His progressive passing distance, 544 yards p/90, ranks him at the elite level and showcases his style.  

A modern centre-half with total football on his mind, Martínez takes responsibility for his team to progress forward. Last season, he completed 15.13 long passes a game on average. With his team in comfortable possession, he loves to join in with progressive plays, mustering over 60 touches in the middle third every game.  

The value of a left-footed left-sided centre-back is clear. They have the ability to play passes through the opponent’s press and forward to the attack-minded players. A right-footed defender, like Harry Maguire, playing on the left of a defensive pair would naturally be inclined to play the ball to his left where his options are limited to left-sided players. Martinez’s strong left foot means he has a lot more options to resist the press of the modern game when playing in this position.

Final Thoughts

Martínez fits the convention of a modern regista/half-back. He is a tried and tested centre-back with impressive tackling and marking statistics. His energy, agility and pace allow him to excel in the art of the defending.

An emotional Martínez is embraced by then-and-now-manager Ten Hag during Ajax’s league title celebrations. (Photo by teamtalk.com)

Joining up with the squad in the final leg of the tour, it seems Martínez will have a few weeks to get used to his new teammates and surroundings. United’s final pre-season friendlies are against Crystal Palace (19/07), Aston Villa (23/7) and Atletico Madrid (30/7) a week before the first game of the season against Brighton.

Time will tell whether his manager will employ him as part of a back 3, 4 or in the midfield line. He is, unquestionably, an exciting and progressive signing who could become a poster-boy for the Manchester United on the modern era and beyond. 

Author: Sam Talbot

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