Football Features

Lisandro Martinez to Manchester United: is the centre-back too small for the Premier League?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:43, 18 July 2022

Manchester United have made it a short king summer by agreeing a deal to sign Lisandro Martinez from Ajax.

The Argentine centre-back will cost United £48.5m in a guaranteed fee with £8.5m in potential add-ons. He is due to have a medical and confirm that he meets visa requirements to work in the UK but once those formalities are out of the way, he’ll be a United man.

And what a man! All 175cm of him!

For that is the big story around Lisandro Martinez: his height, or lack of it relative to his position on the field. Where centre-backs are usually the tallest players in the side, standing 5’9″ Martinez is set to be the shortest one in the Premier League.

Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said of his right-back Gary Neville: “If he was an inch taller he’d be the best centre-half in Britain,” which meant that, according to the great manager, Neville standing 180cm (or 5’11”) made him too short to play in central defence.

What would he think of Martinez, then? Well, until someone asks him, we can but speculate.

We know full well what Twitter thinks of Martinez, though, because the jokes have been flying high. But is all the furore over Martinez’s height making a mountain out of a molehill? Let’s have a look.

Lisandro Martinez is short

The shortest centre-back in the league!

Erik ten Hag likes a small chap, apparently.

He’s only 3’5″ according to his Wikipedia…

Could the FA’s new guidances on heading help save Martinez from embarrassment?

David Moyes’ dream come true?

Too short to make it.

A bit of wordplay from the lads:

And, of course, the inevitable Simpsons meme:

MYTHBUSTING:

Well, firstly, the FA have been looking into the detrimental impact heading can have on players. A year ago they introduced new laws that specified how many “high force” headers could be carried out in training per-week. They also banned the introduction of heading in training at all levels from U11 and below.

Moreover, yes: Lisandro Martinez is short. There’s no doubt about that. However, he’s also an excellent well-rounded defender. He is robust in the tackle and a commanding presence on the field. Jurrien Timber has spoken about how Lisandro shouts at him to stay focused, and being usefully and authoritatively vocal is a trait not shared by any of United’s current centre-backs.

Moreover, criticising a centre-back because he’s short is absolutely baffling. Not only because it completely overlooks their technical qualities as a player but also because it’s been proven to be wrong over the course of history.

Numerous great centre-backs have stood under 6 feet tall. Samuel Umtiti is 5’11” and he was one of the best centre-backs in the world back in 2018, helping France win the World Cup before a knee injury curtailed his career.

The last centre-back to win the Ballon d’Or, Fabio Cannavaro, was another short king. The Italian is 5’9″ just like Martinez and that never stopped him from being one of the most revered and respected centre-backs of all-time.

Martinez is is a phenomenally well-rounded centre-back whose aggressive style and desire to play on the front foot make him an ideal part of any Erik ten Hag XI. Martinez’s passing and ball-carrying allow him to start attacks every time he’s in possession.

Over the last two seasons in the Eredivisie, no centre-back has completed more passes per 90 minutes than Lisandro’s 77.8 while only Ajax team-mate Jurrien Timber has completed more than his 0.96 take-ons per 90 (Timber has 1.2)

A Toney centre-back

Of course, others made more specific jokes. Such as people focusing on Manchester United’s pursuit of Ivan Toney being related to the recent capture of Martinez, where they intend to buy Toney just so he can’t hurt Martinez.

But here’s the thing: Lisandro Martinez has already taken on bigger and better strikers than Ivan Toney. Take, for example, Darwin Nunez. The gigantic Uruguayan is leading the line for Liverpool now but last season he was a Benfica player when Ajax dominated the Portuguese side across their Champions League round of 16 clash.

Benfica did eventually win, and thanks to a Darwin goal at that, but it was from a set-piece where the Uruguayan escaped Martinez and ran onto and utterly dominated Jurrien Timber in the air.

This came after the group stages where Lisandro’s Ajax side absolutely devastated Borussia Dortmund. They thrashed them 4-0 in Amsterdam then went to Germany and won 3-1. Goalscoring monster Erling Haaland was on the field in Amsterdam but the gigantic Norwegian was marshalled superbly by little Lisandro.

If he can handle Haaland, he can probably handle Toney.

Fighting the farmers?

In 2021/22, Lisandro Martinez won 79 aerial duels while United’s Harry Maguire, who is a good seven inches taller than Lisandro, won 75. Now obviously Maguire had a bad season, but that is still impressive. Well, not to some fans.

Well now, is this a good point? Leaving aside the Champions League where Lisandro Martinez handled the 6’5″ Erling Haaland and the 6’2″ Darwin Nunez, let’s look at Eredivisie strikers that Lisandro would have faced.

There were 10 strikers who measured 189cm (6’2″) and taller in the Eredivisie during 2021/22. Of those 10, only six registered a goal or assist. Of those six, the best was Lisandro’s team-mate Sebastien Haller with 21 goals and 7 assists, leaving five. Of the remaining five, only four actually played against Ajax.

Looking at those four:

  • Carlos Vinicius (190cm): Played Ajax once for PSV and lost 5-0. When PSV did beat Ajax in the Dutch Cup final later in the season, he didn’t get off the bench.
  • Henk Veerman (201cm): Played Ajax once for Heerenveen and lost 2-0.
  • Michiel Kramer (196cm): Played Ajax twice for RKC Waalwijk, losing 5-0 and 3-2. However, he did score in that second game, though it involved racing behind the defence to slot home, rather than dominating Lisandro aerially.
  • Jorgen Strand Larsen (193cm): Played Ajax twice for Groningen, losing 3-0 and 3-1. He did score in the second game, but Lisandro wasn’t playing as he had a muscle injury.

Switching our attention to the Premier League, there were also 10 strikers measuring over 189cm and higher in the division. Two of them combined for just 12 minutes total while the other eight did at least all score or assist, although only five did so with their head and two of those play for the same team so if Erik ten Hag is really concerned all he has to do is rotate Lisandro out for the games against Crystal Palace and the only other contests to really worry about are Wolves (Raul Jimenez) and Newcastle (Chris Wood).

But, again, Lisandro has handled big boys in the Eredivisie all season. Sure, they might be “farmers” but a big farmer is still big, so Lisandro should have been at a disadvantage but he didn’t seem to be at all.

One season is a small sample size, sure, but suffice to say on the evidence of 2021/22, Lisandro Martinez is a true Short King and has no problem dominating and controlling strikers who are much, much bigger than him. If he does struggle to adapt at Manchester United it will likely be inconsistency from his defensive partners and lack of a holding midfielder that does him in, rather than any height-based issue.

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