“At first I felt like going home and crying,” said Lisandro Martinez. It was in August 2020 and, in an interview with the Nationthe young Argentinian remembered his arrival at Ajax a year earlier.
“The first few weeks were horrible,” added Martinez. The practices, he said, were “completely different” from what he was used to in Argentina. “Different intensity. Different control. Different passing. Different reading of the game.”
Martinez, a newcomer to Europe and only 21 at the time, struggled 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 unbelievable how late I was.”
It was also incredible the speed with which he overcame these first difficulties.
Martinez quickly found his feet among his new teammates – “I started to feel good after pre-season,” he said – and set about realizing the huge potential Ajax had seen in him as a combative and technically gifted centre-back with Defensa. y Justice in Argentina.
In a few months, a player almost reduced to tears by the rise in range of Ajax had become nicknamed “the butcher” by the supporters of the club. Aggressive in his defense but measured in ball possession, he was already a key figure for Erik ten Hag.
Three years later, Martinez now finds himself at the center of a showdown between his former manager, who took over at Manchester United, and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. The Premier League beckons.
Versatility and Kimmich’s study
Martinez completed his €7million move from Defensa y Justicia to Ajax the same summer Matthijs de Ligt left for Juventus.
The Argentine was seen as a long-term replacement for the former club captain at centre-back, but his success in Holland and his appeal to United and Arsenal are also down to his versatility. Martinez can also play at left-back or central midfield.
Indeed, having started his first season at Ajax in De Ligt’s former position, the one in which he had played most of his football as a young player in Argentina, he quickly found himself occupying the midfield position vacated by Frenkie de Jong six months earlier. .
“At the start of the season, we were looking for a brain for central midfielder,” Ten Hag said at the time. “We knew Martinez had played in central midfield, but could he do it in the Ajax system? We tried him there and saw some good things.”
It’s 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 probably the most demanding role on the team. ‘Ajax, 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 for improvement was just as important. Martinez, studious by nature, made a concerted effort to observe and learn from other players who had made the transition from defense to midfield.
“The club always gives you information, but you have to do extras yourself for a new position,” he added. the Nation. “I watch football all the time and I watch all the players, in all positions, and watch how they move. I like the detail on the players.”
One player he particularly watched was Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich, who started as a right-back before moving to midfield to great success under Pep Guardiola.
“When he plays in midfield, I like his composure and the way he reads the game,” Martinez said. “A player has to be smart. He has to have confidence, of course, but it’s a game of decisions and you make decisions with your head.”
Martinez quickly became known as an old head on young shoulders at Ajax and impressed in that debut season, starting all but one of their 37 games in all competitions before the Eredivisie campaign was cut short by the pandemic in April 2020.
Barrier-free height in defense
The following season proved more difficult for Martinez, with Ten Hag initially preferring to use Ryan Gravenberch in the deep midfield role and Daley Blind as left centre-back.
But after a few months on the periphery, Martinez worked his way into the team, this time in central defence, where he formed an effective partnership with academy graduate Jurrien Timber.
The midfielder’s return to centre-back meant Martinez had to take on additional defensive responsibility, but playing deeper didn’t make him any less influential in Ajax’s build-up game.
In fact, last season he averaged more assists per 90 minutes than any other Eredivisie player, while only two players averaged more assists per 90 minutes.
These numbers underscore Martinez’s ability to play across opposition lines, but he’s also adept at switching games and picking teammates from longer distances. At Ajax last season, no player averaged more successful long passes per 90 minutes.
The return to centre-back also allowed Martinez, voted Ajax Player of the Year for his role in their Eredivisie title triumph last season, to overcome any doubts about his physical suitability for the role. .
Martinez is just 5ft 9in, 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 central defense but because he is not tall, his coaches at Newell doubted him when he was trying to earn his place,” said Nicolas Diez, one of his coaches at Defensa y. Justicia, in an interview with El Pais shortly after leaving for Ajax.
“They were a little worried about the height,” Martinez himself recalled, “but that’s something I never cared about.”
Instead, he decided to make up for it in other ways.
Like his compatriot Roberto Ayala, a former Argentine international considered one of the best central defenders of his generation despite his small size, Martinez is deceptively strong in the air and has a tremendous leap forward.
Last season at Ajax he made more header clearances (29) than any other player and won 79 of his 112 aerial duels, giving him a 71% success rate and putting him just behind Harry Maguire among Manchester United and current Arsenal center. -back.
Martinez can expect to face more demanding opponents in the Premier League, of course, but he is also helped by a good reading of the game. He is known to anticipate forward runs and position himself intelligently to make tackles and interceptions .
These qualities, coupled with his versatility and technical prowess, make him all the more appealing to Premier League contenders. Whether he will end up at Old Trafford or the Emirates remains to be seen, but Lisandro Martinez has come a long way already.
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