Football Features

Lisandro Martinez to Man United? Erik ten Hag’s “pitbull” is bad news for Harry Maguire

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 13:52, 5 July 2022

Manchester United are trying to rebuild under new manager Erik ten Hag and the former Ajax boss is understandably looking to the Eredivisie for talent.

The Red Devils have confirmed the signing of Tyrell Malacia and they are reportedly now turning their attention to Ajax centre-back Lisandro Martinez, who played 120 times for Ten Hag during a successful working relationship in Amsterdam.

According to reports, Martinez has informed Ajax of his desire to play in the Premier League, but as far as the Dutch club are concerned there is no incentive to sell unless they receive an offer which simply cannot be refused, with his current deal not expiring until 2025. That’s why technical manager Gerry Hamstra got in front by setting a guaranteed sum of €50m — well above Martinez’s true valuation — as enough for signature.

United’s interest follows Arsenal but the Gunners are unlikely to be Martinez’s destination. Both clubs have made bids, with United recently submitting an offer of £43m which understandably was turned down. It’s clear Ten Hag is driving this recruitment, which raises questions for another day, but it’s understandable given how well Martinez has performed under him in the past.

A dream Premier League move comes off the back of Martinez enjoying his best European season in 2021/22. A near-ever present in Ajax’s successful Eredivisie-winning campaign, Martínez did sit out of the final seven league games due to a troublesome muscle injury, but his work by then was done. Exemplary performances throughout saw him named as Ten Hag’s star pupil.

Martinez picked up the club’s ‘Player of the Year’ award, subsequently becoming the sixth defender to win this prize since its inception in 1993, after Cristian Chivu (2001 and 2003), Maxwell (2004), Jan Vertonghen (2012), Daley Blind (2013) and Davinson Sánchez (2017).

From being Tagliafico’s successor to LCB via DM

Getting this far — on the cusp of a big move to England — was never anticipated. Martinez was initially brought over from Defensa y Justicia in July 2019 as compatriot Nico Tagliafico’s successor at left-back. Expectation was Tagliafico, who earned admirers during Ajax’s unexpected Champions League semi-final run, would be moved on but he instead remained. Martinez subsequently began playing in defensive midfield. His passing and ball retention ability made him a perfect anchor in Ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 system. However, it wasn’t a fixed position as Ten Hag would alternate fielding Martinez at left-back and in central defence.

It was at the latter where he felt most at home, in turn seeing Tagliafico gradually lose his spot in Ajax’s first team as Daley Blind moved over to left-back allowing Martinez to become first choice left centre-back. In the season just gone Martinez forged an impressive central defensive duo with Jurrien Timber, another linked with Ten Hag’s new club but many observers expect the young Dutch international to stay put as there’s a place in Louis van Gaal’s World Cup squad at stake.

If anything, they were a prototypical Ajax centre-half pairing, one which played a key role by constructing from the back. In the Ten Hag system, which draws heavily from the Cruijffianen and Van Gaalisten Schools, the centre backs provoke the opponent, invite them forward, then if the opponent applies quick pressure the ball goes to the other central defender who then makes a vertical pass.

“In Holland central defenders are judged in another way,” as Mark Wotte once said. They’re expected to combine the art of defending with playmaking and Martinez – although Argentinian — fits that mould. Not the tallest, which has somewhat become a talking point since his name has been linked with United, this apparent shortcoming for a centre-back hasn’t always been a factor. You could say Martinez is cut from the same cloth as Fabio Cannavaro and Carles Puyol.

Martinez should be on the plane to Qatar, and has played seven times for Argentina including six caps since moving to Ajax, winning four and drawing two (losing on his debut). The 24-year-old is a Copa América winner, part of the squad that ended a 28-year wait for silverware, though he featured once in that 2021 success, playing the full 90 at centre-back as Lionel Scaloni’s men ran out 4-1 winners over Bolivia. In fact, six of his seven appearances for Argentina have been at centre-back, with the sole exception a goalless draw against Brazil in World Cup qualifying where he came on after the break and played the entire second half alongside central midfielder Rodrigo de Paul.

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Be afraid Maguire

A favourite among Ajax supporters, Martinez earned the nickname ‘Butcher’ but as far as he is concerned it’s a moniker which does not paint a fair representation of him.

“When I’m on the field, I forget the world around me and want to win at all costs. Yet the comparison is not entirely correct,” he told Ajax Life.

“I also have to rely on my technique. I will never consciously injure an opponent. In Argentina they called me the pitbull. That covers my playing style better. I bite into my opponent.”

For example, last season Martinez committed 18 fouls while completing 1,746 passes (ninth best). His tenacity moving forward was best illustrated by winning possession 95 times in the middle third.

Harry Maguire, the world’s most expensive defender, has come under heavy scrutiny in recent times and given the prior Martinez-Ten Hag connection he will be on the back foot heading in next season. That’s another major reason why United are interested. Martinez, simply put, has excelled in Ten Hag’s system.

His speed and passing ability made Ajax more flexible when defending with a high line, as this is exactly what Ten Hag’s philosophy demands, while Maguire is relatively slow by modern centre-back standards. Can you really blame Ten Hag for wanting to implement this approach in his new surroundings? It has proven to be a successful model, whether it remains that way in England remains to be seen, at the very least it’s an interesting experiment to watch from afar.