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Opinion: What can Lisandro Martinez provide at Manchester United?

“See the lights flashing bright above
Electrify the night.”

– Jag Panzer – Harder than Steel.

After a couple of weeks of negotiation and back and forth, recent reports say that Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez has reached an agreement to sign for Manchester United in the coming days. The English is going to pay the Netherlands giants a fee that could rise to 50 million euros if Martinez fulfils all his add-ons, with the Argentinian set to join his new teammates in preseason in the coming days.

Despite having played at Ajax for three years now, Martinez is not that known in the grand scheme of things, so there is genuine interest in finding out why new manager Erik ten Hag made such a huge effort in getting his former pupil back. Well, in this article we are going to address some of the key points and traits that Martinez is going to provide to this United side.

A left-footed centre-back

Martinez operates mainly as a centre-back (I’ll address that “mainly” part later on) and that is, in theory, the position that he is going to occupy in the current United setup. I have just two words for that:

Daley. Blind.

The Dutchman was the last left-footed player to play centre-back on a regular basis at Man United and we have to go all the way back to the 2015/16 season with Louis van Gaal as our manager. To put things into perspective, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States.

Now, having a left-footed centre-back is not a guarantee of success, but it is certainly important in an Erik Ten Hag system. The Dutchman has taken a lot from Pep Guardiola, who he happened to work with at Bayern Munich for a while, and one of those things is having a left-footed centre-back to add more width to the passing range, as the player is naturally going to be much more suited to passing to the left side of the pitch.

This element of width is instrumental in modern football to open the pitch and forcing the opposition to having a lot more ground to cover in terms of possible passing option. This is something where Lisandro Martinez could come very handy.

It is also worth pointing out that Harry Maguire is the only centre-back in the current squad that can play comfortably on the left side of the defence. Victor Lindelof, Raphael Varane, Eric Bailly and even the likes of Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe… they all prefer playing on the right side. Having another option that can play there can be very useful.

Ball-playing abilities

Ball-playing abilities are no longer an added value to a football team–they are a must. In a game where pressing is becoming common currency, it is a lot more demanded of every player on the pitch to be good on the ball to bypass the pressing and distribute properly. So if you are exceptional in this area, you certainly bring something special to the table and that is the case with our Argentinian protagonist of today.

Maguire and Lindelof are very capable progressing with the ball and they also have very decent passing, but there has been evidence of them being run into the ground, not to mention questions, albeit exaggerated (from my perspective), about their consistency. Martinez is an extremely gifted progressing and passing with the ball, so he brings something that can only be beneficial to the team and adds a very decent challenge to Maguire, Lindelof and Varane, especially when you consider the latter’s injury record.

Ten Hag likes to build from the back and wants his centre-backs being capable of progressing passing and helping with the distribution of the ball instead of just heading it long or passing it to the full-backs or the midfielders to do the job. Bringing a centre-back that is excellent at that and who knows the Dutchman’s methods and approach to things firsthand is a logical move.

A familiar face

Erik ten Hag looking to sign former pupils of his has become a running joke in this transfer window, with the constant links with Ajax players and the saga with Frenkie De Jong, but there is a degree of logic with that approach: he is looking for players he knows he can rely on.

Even though I was personally very critical of Ralf Rangnick’s tenure as interim manager, the reality is that this group of players didn’t cover themselves with glory in that period and there were a lot of questions about their capacity to adapt to the demands and the playing style of the new manager. While I think those questions have been somewhat exaggerated in typical United fashion, there is a degree of validity to them and that is why I understand the manager looking to get his men on board.

The former Ajax manager knows he can trust Lisandro Martinez. According to reports, they have a very positive relationship and Martinez turned down Arsenal in favour of United mainly because of Ten Hag, so you can tell there is a special connection there. You know that this is a player that is going to play and fight for him and not going to turn his back on him.

Plus, Martinez can also help his new teammates to understand how Ten Hag works, his approach to things and overall adding an element of familiarity to a new environment. Having someone of that ilk is always valuable.

Capacity to play in multiple positions

This is something that has been mentioned a lot since the Argentinian has been linked with a move to Old Trafford: the ability to play in multiple positions. As he has shown since his days in small Argentinian side Defensa y Justicia, Martinez can play as a centre-back, left-back and defensive midfielder, adding elements of versatility to his game.

Now, this can be a very interesting argument in favor of this signing because United have been consistently hit with injuries and they rarely have the squad depth to cover all positions of need, so having a player that can cover all three is certainly useful. This is something Daley Blind excelled at during his time as a United player and perhaps his now former teammate can do likewise.

There have been some fan theories that he is coming play in midfield, but I don’t think so, at least not on a regular basis. Ten Hag did play him in midfield during his first season at Amsterdam, but the results were not very positive and the former Go Ahead Eagles manager never played him there ever since, so I personally think we’re only going to see him in that position during very specific situations, such as injury crisis.

However, it is an option that I think is worth having and that it can prove to be quite useful for Ten Hag, especially if he wants to try out different formations. Versatility is never a bad thing and Lisandro has that in spades.

The proverbial mentality

Mentality has gotten a bad reputation over the years in social media and is depicted as this useless trait that can’t make a difference in a player’s success or failure. Nothing further from the truth. While you obviously need a lot more than just mentality, having the right mindset and an ambitious approach to things is necessary and Martinez has shown that throughout his career.

Let’s remember for a second that Lisandro joined Ajax from Defensa y Justicia, a small football club in Argentina. While that team has done things well in recent years, they are not at the level of a Boca Juniors or a River Plate–not even close. So making the leap from that side to a European giant such as Ajax was definitely a challenging one and Martinez not only adapted, but also thrived and became an important part of Ten Hag’s squad, even being chosen as the team’s player of the year last season.

South American players are usually praised for the mentality, aggression and passion and Martinez certainly has that, which shows in his playing style. He is very technical with the ball, but he has no qualms about tackling or getting involved in quarrels with the opposition. He grew up in Argentina where you need to back your football with some fighting spirit and that could prove to be monumental to the current United squad.

What are the potential drawbacks?

It wouldn’t be fair to discuss this transfer without considering the potential issues that may arise. So, what are the potential drawbacks of Lisandro Martinez at United? Let’s find out.

His height has been a running discussion among United supporters and rightfully so. While there are some examples of shorter centre-backs thriving in the game, such as the legendary Fabio Cannavaro, the reality is that you cannot plan based on exceptions. Sure, there is a good chance that Martinez might thrive despite the height handicap, but there are valid concerns about him being pushed around physically against more imposing players in the Premier League.

There is also the matter of the transition from the Eredivisie to England. Let’s be honest here: Ajax are not attacked very often in the league and they can comfortably play with their defensive line in the middle of the pitch because most rival teams are sitting back in their own areas. This is an important factor to consider when analysing Martinez because the type of defending that he is going to do here is very different, especially when you consider David De Gea’s shortcomings when moving off his line.

The Argentinian is also going to have to adapt to a quicker pace, which in return is going to give him less time on the ball and less time to think. This is something that every player has to deal with when joining the Premier League and while he has a lot of positive technical attributes, his speed of thought is going to have to adapt to the demands of this competition in order for him to do what he can do.

Conclusion

Lisandro Martinez is a very sensible signing by United in the sense that they get a very technical player that the manager knows, someone that can play in different positions and a footballer that has proven to have the right mentality in terms of playing style and determination to thrive in his career. Going from Defensa y Justicia to Manchester United in the space of three years is an example of extreme determination and dedication.

I also think a bit of patience is necessary. Martinez needed time to adapt to Ten Hag’s system and European football as a whole when he made the leap to Ajax, so is only natural that he is going to need the same jumping from the Netherlands to England. There is going to be a learning curve for the Argentinian, especially when you consider that this is a new project starting out and there are a lot of questions marks at the moment.

A very interesting signing that may go under the radar when compared to the likes of Frenkie De Jong or Christian Eriksen, but a player that has the potential to become a fan favourite if things go well.

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