July 17, Manchester United reached an agreement with AFC Ajax over the transfer of Argentinian central defender Lisandro Martínez. Manchester United will pay the Dutch side £47 million, plus £8.5 million in potential add-ons.
The transfer is the second of Erik ten Hag’s reign in Manchester. The former Ajax boss, who moved to Northern England just three months ago, will reunite with his 2022 Player of the Year in hopes of revamping the defunct United defense that conceded 57 goals in the 2021-22 Premier League season, ranking 13th in the English top flight.
However, despite the steep fee Manchester United coughed up, major question marks linger over how Martínez will acclimatize to the Premier League. While he is undoubtedly a talented defender, his profile seems incompatible with the English game.
In his defense, Martínez is front-footed and confrontational, and he frequently steps up from the defensive line to break up play. His proactive style combined with Erik ten Hag’s high-pressing setup at Ajax enabled him to frequently win the ball high up the pitch to restart attacks. He will have no problem racking up tackles and interceptions for the Red Devils.
On the ball, Martínez is even more accomplished — this is the most valuable dimension of his game. He was indispensable in Erik ten Hag’s possession-based system as an ambitious ball distributor and volume passer. During his 720 minutes in Ajax’s Champions League campaign last season, he ranked in the top 1% for shot-creating actions and passes attempted per 90, compared to all center backs in Europe’s top-five leagues.
Indeed, his exceptional technical ability, which allowed him to make appearances as a defensive midfielder for Ajax, is among the best in the world in his position and will immensely facilitate Erik ten Hag’s implementation of his philosophy (which requires technical superiority across the pitch).
But despite the consensus on his ball playing and one-on-one defending, the Argentinian’s physical attributes have been the subject of intense debate. Standing at 5’9”, Martínez is very short for a central defender.
This does not bode well for a move to the Premier League, the most physically demanding league in the world and the epicenter of the pace and power revolution in soccer. Indeed, the league’s many physical forwards, including Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Chris Wood and Harry Kane, will tower over Martínez and play with physicality that he likely has not seen before.
Martínez and the Premier League seem far from the perfect match. Rival fans have already discounted the transfer as a nailed-on flop due to his stature — another player that won’t cut it in the Premier League.
However, Martínez’s statistics wholly contradict this conventional wisdom. In the Netherlands, he was actually dominant in the air. His 70.2% aerial-duel success rate in the Eredivisie was the best among all Dutch league players who contested 100-plus duels. Footage that is now receiving fresh scrutiny shows Martínez’s high jumping reach and expertise in destabilizing attackers before aerial duels.
United fans have mobilized this data and footage to defend their signing, insisting that Martínez will fare just fine in England. But just as height does not tell the whole story, neither does aerial-duel success rate in the Eredivisie.
Forwards in England will not just be more physical, but outright better than those he encountered at Ajax. And even if he can more or less hold his own in vertical long-ball situations, defending crosses and set pieces requires a different skill set that more heavily favors the taller man. Failure to do so will highly jeopardize the Manchester United goal.
It is an encouraging sign that Martínez was so aerially adept in the Netherlands, but the different nature of the English game still raises valid doubts over how he will adjust to the Premier League.
For £47 million, you would expect to know that you are receiving a complete defender, but United has opted to take an expensive gamble. Not even Erik ten Hag can know exactly how this transfer will play out. The world will be watching Martínez very closely.