Late in the match against Tottenham as Lisandro Martinez cleared the ball yet again, chants of ‘Argentina’ rose from the Old Trafford supporters. They adopted this new signature. Manchester United seem stronger for his presence.
“It was very emotional for me to feel that love from the fans,” Martinez said. sky sports. “It’s also from me to them, that love. I’m really happy because I came from nothing, you know. To come here to one of the best clubs in the world is very special.”
Speaking at the club’s training ground, this is one of his first interviews in English. The translator is present but is not mandatory. Perhaps this reflects his growing confidence here. He introduces himself as Licha and begins to reflect on this great victory against Tottenham.
Was it the best team performance to date? “I think so,” he said.
“We did a great job. We controlled the game, for 90 minutes. I think they only had one chance in the first half and then we were solid in defence. I’m really happy because we really tried to play at that level. . We want to play that way. It’s fantastic to do that.”
Martinez’s debut at Manchester United mirrors that of the team. It was difficult at first. Substituted at half-time against Brentford with United on four goals, he and they had to silence the noise. Some have questioned his suitability to play in the Premier League.
“Sometimes you have to be patient, you know. Especially at the start, you know you didn’t play the way you wanted. But that’s part of football, you learn. It’s experience. We have a new team, a new system Now we have to continue.
“It’s difficult. Especially in football you don’t have time. If you lose you are a very bad player or a very bad team. But we know what we are. We have to be calm, we have to be patient, and always try hard.”
The fears were always a bit exaggerated. Martinez may say he “came from nothing”, but he also came with a pedigree – a £57m signing from Ajax, a 24-year-old Argentina international. He now shows how important he can be for this team.
Against Spurs he managed to restrict Harry Kane’s opportunities, taking the ball away from the England captain, doing all he could to disrupt his rhythm by closing in on the striker when necessary. “Not just me,” he insists. “All the players did a fantastic job.”
But it’s Martinez who embodies the kind of aggressive front foot defense that Erik ten Hag wants to see. He doesn’t really like the nickname of butcher they gave him in Amsterdam. In Argentina it is known as pit bull. Flattering or not, this one fits.
He has even made an extra physical effort in recent months to ensure that he can win against opposing attackers. “Football is always physical. You always have to train hard. You have to be ready. I always try to give my 100 per cent.”
The result is that Martinez has already taken possession of the ball 43 times in the defensive third of the pitch this season. That’s more than any other Manchester United player and more than all but three Premier League players.
“I think it’s very important because you can train. If you win duels it’s better for the team, you know. [Against Spurs], for example, we won a lot of duels in defense and it is good for our attacking players afterwards. Then they can only think about scoring goals.”
He is someone who studies the statistics, checks his number of passes and his success rate in duels. He even admits to being angry when he saw that these figures were falling. “Yes, of course, but it’s part of football. You have to accept it.” It doesn’t happen often.
This is the kind of attitude that attracts fans. There are echoes of another Argentine defender, Gabriel Heinze. He won the Sir Matt Busby award as Manchester United Player of the Year in 2005. Martinez could follow him in 2023.
Rightly, he is a great admirer of his compatriot. “It’s true,” he said. “Gabriel Heinze is my idol. I like him. I like the way he plays, very aggressive, good mentality, good mentality in duels. Every game like a final. He was a top player.”
Sounds a lot like Martinez. Does he himself see the similarities? “I try to play like him. We’re a bit different too, but I like his mentality.” The pair spoke ahead of Martinez’s arrival at Old Trafford this summer. “We just talked about football and life.”
If Heinze is the idol, Ten Hag is the trusted coach, the man who prioritized his signing after working with him at Ajax. “Erik always wants to play good football. He wants an aggressive team, a winning mentality. That’s very important.”
On Saturday, that mentality will be tested against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The last time the pair made this trip together was a memorable one, a 4-4 Champions League draw in which Ajax finished with nine men. “It was a crazy match,” laughs Martinez.
He played in midfield that night. “Now I play as a central defender, I feel very good in this position. But if you have to play in midfield, if you have to play as a full-back, I will do it for the team. C It’s no problem. When the team needs you, you have to be there.”
As a young boy, he was even used more forward. “I also played as a No. 10, the most beautiful [position] in football.” Not that his international teammate Lionel Messi had to fear for his place in the World Cup. “But it was also a different level,” he adds with a smile.
Martinez is now a central defender, among the best players in the Premier League. The fees and the faith were justified. There is also hope that the idea of Ten Hag will take shape. Who better to ask than the man he brought with him?
“I think the idea is kind of the same,” he says.
“He wants to bring that mentality here. It’s a good mentality. You can see that in the game [against Tottenham]. We were very aggressive. Very good tactically, with and without the ball, movement, team bond. It takes time, that’s for sure.
“We have to be patient. But we are on the right track.”
Good enough to succeed this season? “Of course our ambition is to win titles, to put Manchester United where they deserve [to be].
“I think we are on the right track to do that. But we have to keep our feet on the ground, we have to be humble and take it step by step.”
With Martinez, it’s guaranteed.