Lisandro Martinez: Man Utd and Arsenal transfer target has shone for Ajax and offers brains, brawn and versatility | football news

“At first I wanted to go home and cry,” Lisandro Martinez said. It was August 2020 and, in an interview with The nationthe young Argentine remembered his arrival at Ajax a year earlier.

“The first few weeks were horrible,” Martinez added. Training, he said, was “totally different” from what he was used to in Argentina. “Different intensity. Different control. Different passing. Different reading of the game.”

Martinez, new to Europe and only 21 at the time, found himself struggling to keep up. “I’m a player who likes to have the ball, but when they played with one or two quick touches, they killed me,” he said. “It was amazing how off the beat he was.”

It was also amazing how quickly he got through those early fights.

Martinez soon found his place among his new teammates: “I started to feel good after pre-season,” he said, and set about developing the considerable potential Ajax had seen in him as a combative and technically gifted central defender. and Justice in Argentina.

Within a few short months, a player almost crying over the rise in quality at Ajax had become known as ‘the butcher’ by the club’s fans. Aggressive in defense but measured in possession, he was already a key figure for Erik ten Hag.

Three years on, Martinez now finds himself at the center of a tug-of-war between his former manager, who took over at Manchester United, and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. The Premier League calls.

Versatility and study Kimmich

Martínez completed his €7m move from Defense and Justice to Ajax the same summer that Matthijs de Ligt departed for Juventus.

The Argentine was seen as a long-term replacement for the former club captain in central defence, but his success in the Netherlands and his appeal to United and Arsenal are also due to his versatility. Martínez can also play as a left back or as a central midfielder.

Indeed, having started his first season at Ajax in De Ligt’s old position, one in which he had played most of his football as a young player in Argentina, he soon found himself occupying the midfield role he Frenkie de Jong vacated six months earlier. .

“At the beginning of the season we were looking for a brain in midfield,” Ten Hag said at the time. “We knew that Martinez had played in midfield, but could he do it in the Ajax system? We tested him there and we saw good things.”

It is a testament to Martinez’s tactical intelligence that, in an unfamiliar environment and with no knowledge of English, let alone Dutch, he was able to adapt to arguably the most demanding role in the Ajax team, dictating play from the base of midfield. and providing a bridge between defense and attack.

Martinez was helped by his innate technical ability, but his appetite to improve was just as important. Martinez, studious by nature, went out of his way to watch and learn from other players who had made the transition from defense to midfield.

“The club always gives you information, but you yourself have to do extras for a new position,” he added. The nation. “I watch football all the time and watch all the players, in all positions, and watch how they move. I love the details about the players.”

Lisandro Martínez joined Ajax from Defense and Justice of Argentina in 2019
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Lisandro Martínez joined Ajax from Defense and Justice of Argentina in 2019

One player he watched closely was Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich, who started out at right-back before being moved to midfield with great success under Pep Guardiola.

“When he plays in midfield, I like the calmness he has and the way he reads the game,” Martinez said. “A player has to be smart. He has to be confident, of course, but it’s a decision game and decisions are made with the head.”

Martinez soon became known as an old head on young shoulders at Ajax and impressed over the course of that first season, starting all but one of his 37 games in all competitions before the pandemic brought the Eredivisie campaign to a halt in April 2019. 2020.

Height without barrier in defense

The following season proved to be more challenging for Martínez, with Ten Hag initially preferring to use Ryan Gravenberch in the deep midfield role and Daley Blind as his left centre-back.

But after a few months on the fringe, Martinez fought his way back to the team, this time in central defense, where he formed an effective partnership with academy graduate Jurrien Timber.

The switch from midfield to centre-back required Martinez to take on additional defensive responsibility, but playing deeper did not make him any less influential in Ajax’s build-up game.

In fact, last season he averaged more passes per 90 minutes than any other player in the Eredivisie, while only two players directed more passes forward per 90 minutes.

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Those numbers underscore Martinez’s ability to play through opposition lines, but he’s equally adept at turning the game around and picking out teammates from longer distances. At Ajax last season, no player averaged more successful long balls per 90 minutes.

Returning to the centre-back position also allowed Martinez, voted Ajax’s player of the year for his role in the Eredivisie title last season, to overcome any doubts about his physical suitability for the job.

Martinez stands just 5-foot-9, making him small for a centre-back, a relative lack of height that convinced his boyhood club, Newell’s Old Boys, to allow him to join rivals Defensa y Justicia as a young player. in Argentina.

“His natural position is center back but since he’s not tall, his coaches at Newell’s doubted him when he was trying to earn his spot,” said Nicolás Diez, one of his coaches at Defense and Justice, in an interview with The country shortly after his departure to Ajax.

“They were a little worried about the height issue,” Martínez himself recalls, “but it was something I never gave importance to.”

Lisandro Martínez in action for Ajax in the Champions League
Image:
Lisandro Martínez in action for Ajax in the Champions League

Instead, he resolved to make up for it in other ways.

Like his compatriot Roberto Ayala, a former Argentine international considered one of the best centre-backs of his generation despite his small stature, Martinez is deceptively strong in the air and boasts a formidable jumper.

Last season at Ajax, he made more headed clearances (29) than any other player and won 79 of his 112 aerial duels, giving him a 71 per cent success rate and putting him second only to Harry Maguire between Manchester United and the current Arsenal center. -backs.

Martinez can expect to face more demanding opponents in the Premier League, of course, but a good reading of the game helps too. He is known for anticipating strikers’ runs and cleverly positioning himself to make tackles and interceptions.

Those qualities, along with his versatility and technical prowess, make him all the more attractive to Premier League suitors. Whether he ends up at Old Trafford or the Emirates remains to be seen, but Lisandro Martinez has already come a long way.

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