Already a firm fan favourite, Lisandro Martínez has kicked off his Premier League career with Manchester United like a duck taking to water. The Argentinian defender has started all but one match this season under Ajax ally Erik ten Hag.
But how did this defender – viewed by many as too small to succeed in European football – end up being one of the first names on the team sheet for arguably the biggest club in the world?
Deemed as surplus to requirements by his academy club, Newell’s Old Boys, Martínez was sent to Defensa y Justicia on an initial loan. Martínez only managed one senior appearance for his boyhood club as a mere result of it being the final fixture of the 2016/17 League season.
But his resolve to even just debut for Newell’s highlights the winning mentality that has stuck with him until today.
Speaking to Clarín, Martínez emotively recalled ‘When I went to Newell’s, I knew I was going to be a footballer.
‘When I had to play near the First Division fields, I repeated to myself that one day I was going to be there . That’s how it was. I was there for a short time, but thank God I was able to debut.’
The two clubs agreed that, if the loan were to be successful, there could be a purchase for 50% of Martínez’s rights for $1million (which was, of course, finalised at the end of the season). It was at this point, this in-between stage, when Ajax first took notice of Martínez.
Playing for Argentina under-20s against their Peruvian counterparts in 2017, Martínez’s first scouting report was compiled by his future Dutch club. Concisely making note of his name and a brief comment on his standout qualities, the scout scribed, ‘[Martínez] plays as a left centre back and has a good technique with pinpoint short and long passes.’
This short piece of information would serve as the first of many more detailed reports to come.
Yet, it only required one game for scouts to notice the then-teenage defender’s outstanding passing ability. Martínez currently averages 6.05 progressive passes per ninety minutes, placing him in the 99th top percentile amongst fellow defenders regarding this statistic.
The scout can look at this incredible number and point proudly back to his first report.
April 2018 was the next time Martínez shone in front of the Amsterdam outfit’s watchful eyes. Playing against South American giants Boca Juniors, Defensa y Justicia battled tremendously to win 2-1 away from home within a notoriously hostile atmosphere. Boca Juniors held 72% of the possession that day. But the defence – consisting of Martínez as a key component – remained resolute and took home three points.
The Ajax scout report about Martínez’s display in this hard-fought fixture described him as having ‘Great kicking technique and [being] extremely versatile. He leads the field, is tough as nails and plays with grit.’
It is this strength in character which Erik ten Hag was determined to bring into his new club.
Following Martínez’s arrival at Old Trafford, Ten Hag underlined this ‘grit’ which Ajax spotted back in 2018. Speaking ahead of United’s friendly match against Melbourne Victory over pre-season, the Dutchman stated ‘He’s a warrior and I think the fans will admire him. He has an attitude, fighting spirit.
‘He brings aggressiveness in the game, in a good way. I think we need that. But also he’s very skilful and he can deal with the ball and he’s left-footed.’
It is this combination of ‘tough as nails’ character and ‘aggressiveness’ alongside his highly skillful technical qualities which persuaded John Murtough and Richard Arnold to bid for the 24-year-old centre back.
United had originally intended on pursuing somewhat long-term target Pau Torres of Villarreal on the advice of their recruitment department. But given Ten Hag’s impassioned support of Ajax’s player of the season and United’s adjusted transfer strategy following a backroom exodus, Murtough and co. instead committed to backing their new first-team manager.
Ten Hag has already used the word ‘grinta’ to describe Martínez’s personality, a piece of Italian vocabulary introduced by legendary coach Arrigo Saachi roughly translating to ‘acting with resolve’. It’s a term that highlights Martínez and Ten Hag’s mutual desire to ‘get stuck in’.
The next scout report compiled by Ajax arrived in September 2018 when Defensa y Justicia faced Banfield away from home. Martínez’s side won 2-0 in a game which saw United’s no.6 fielded unusually as a right-back. He assisted the second goal. As Defensa were beginning to feel the pressure during the dying embers of the game, the ball bobbled to Martínez in his right-back position following failed attempts to clear a throw-in.
Like the composed defender with whom United fans have already become acquainted, Martínez held his clearance for a moment, poised his aim, and booted the ball into Banfield’s half accurately into the path of Ignacio Aliseda. Aliseda caught the lobbed ball in his stride, went through on goal, and took the ball past Banfield’s goalkeeper before smashing it home to secure victory for the Buenas Aires-based club.
Ajax’s consequent scout report read ‘He has a sturdy build, is physically strong and his agility is good. His jumping power and speed are also excellent.
‘Almost two-footed with a functional technique.
‘In possession of the ball, he participates well in the build-up and is always available. Lisandro wants the ball and is always on the move even if he doesn’t receive the ball.’
This last sentence is most likely why Ajax saw the option to play the versatile Martínez in midfield during his first season. The confidence and awareness to position himself in spaces in the central area of the pitch where he can actively be involved led Ten Hag into deploying him as a defensive midfielder on 22 occasions.
Martínez’s versatility was further utilised during the following season in which he was played as a full-back on eight occasions.
The Banfield scout report continued: ‘When the opponent has possession of the ball, he can play with space behind him and is strong in one-on-ones.
‘Lisandro is sharp, fierce and rock hard when needed. He has a real winner’s mentality, stays calm but quickly hits the switch when things need to be brighter or sharper.
‘Always everything at one hundred percent.’
The conclusion of this glowing review highlighted the scout’s enthusiasm for Ajax to pursue this hidden Argentinian gem.
‘Continue to follow emphatically and review again as soon as possible. This may well be the second Nico Tagliafico; a real defender who knows what’s what.’
With inferior financial backing and larger clubs to battle, Defensa went hand in hand with Racing until the end of the season before ultimately finishing runners up three points behind the winners. It was during this season run-in when Ajax scouts began to up their ante regarding their Martínez campaign.
Making notes about fixtures in March 2019, the scouts specified Martínez’s outstanding qualities even further, saying ‘Martínez is a player who reads the game and plays with insight. He is proactive, dares to cover and anticipates balls that are played.
‘A player who makes the right choices and has excellent touch with his left foot. He also likes to dribble into midfield.’
Martínez has continued to excel in this last department. The defender averages 5.17 progressive carries per ninety minutes. This places him in the top 92nd percentile when compared to his peers in Europe.
The scouts even approached the future ‘Butcher of Amsterdam’ after a game in a ploy to gauge the then-21-year-old’s off-field personality and attitude. They simply commented ‘The player appeared calm and confident and is eager to take the next step in his career.’ This maturity and drive continued to resonate with Martínez after his move to one of Europe’s most iconic clubs in the Netherlands.
One year after his transfer, he discussed the psychological demands young players who move to Europe must impose upon themselves, saying ‘I can say that everyone who comes here has to be disciplined and work very hard, because this is top level and every detail becomes big.’
In April 2019, the scouts signed off their dossier on Martínez with a laconic yet resounding endorsement: ‘Technically and insightfully, a player who can play at Ajax’s Champions League level.’
Martínez’s continuous and commendable drive to expand his technical qualities and footballing insight was made clear when he revealed that he studies Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich.
‘I watch football all the time and I observe all players, in all positions, and look at how they move. I love the details about players,’ he explained.
‘When he [Kimmich] plays in midfield, I like the calmness he has and the way he reads the game.
‘A player has to be intelligent. He has to have confidence, of course, but it’s a game of decisions and you make decisions with your head.’
By studying the games of players ‘in all positions’, Martínez’s willingness to develop his multi-faceted skills as a central defender can be to some extent explained, while this unabashed thirst for more knowledge highlights his desire to match his world-class peers.
Ajax completed the purchase of Martínez for €7 million two months after the final April scout report. Following three seasons of growth under the tutelage of Erik ten Hag and Mitchell van der Gaag, Martínez became a local legend and was attached with the epithet ‘Butcher of Amsterdam’. This nickname – which admittedly sounds like a Quentin Tarantino character – not only describes the ‘grinta’ which Martínez holds, but also the stellar performances he must have shown for the fans to award him such a powerful moniker.
Indeed, Martínez finished his Ajax career by being voted as the club’s Player of the Season on the back of their second consecutive Eredivisie trophy. This personal accolade followed dominating, consistent performances such as when pitted against Erling Haaland in the Champions League group stage. Ajax won the tie by a resounding 4-0 with Martínez nullifying the Borussia Dortmund striker to only one scoring chance.
A young player who Newell Old Boy’s deemed as insufficient commanded a €60 million fee from one of the biggest clubs in the world just five years later. In similar fashion to his career so far, Martínez has met the grand challenge of the Premier League and the sometimes overwhelming pressure of Manchester United with open arms and was consequently voted the club’s Player of the Month for August.
A player with inspiring capabilities displayed even when he was finding his feet as a professional footballer in Argentina, Martínez continued to embark on this progressive road to eliteness during his time in Amsterdam.
United are already reaping the rewards of what Ajax scouts signalled as early as 2017.
Still only 24-years-old and full of grinta, Martínez’s talent ceiling is only getting higher under the encouragement of the Stretford End.
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