Darwin Nunez’s suspension following his red card for Liverpool against Crystal Palace may have spared Lisandro Martinez another examination of his aerial ability on Monday Night Football, but the two Premier League newcomers share something, if not a pitch .
The struggles of the two have been held up as evidence of Premier League exceptionalism, the idea that the idiosyncrasies of the English game are so distinct that experiences elsewhere are rendered redundant. Nunez had never been brutalized like this.
A clip of him appearing increasingly agitated due to close attention from Joachim Andersen has garnered nearly five million views on Twitter. The Uruguayan was never sent off for Benfica despite having to face veteran Pepe of all. This, they say, shows the Premier League is different.
Similar things are said of Martinez.
The sight of Ben Mee beating him to the ball for Brentford’s third goal confirmed the suspicions. Franco Baresi might be a legend and Fabio Cannavaro won the Ballon d’Or, but they didn’t do it in England, did they? This is not a country for little men. How could Martinez cope in a Premier League that pits him against powerful forwards such as Nunez or Erling Haaland?
Except he’s faced Nunez before – twice in the Champions League quarter-finals last season. He was part of the Ajax defense that sent off Haaland in a 4-0 win in the previous round. It’s been around awhile. They can also jump to the mainland.
Martinez, or the 5’9″ Lisandro Martinez to give him his full name, had a 71% aerial pass rate in the Eredivisie last season, not only impressive but the best of any player in this competition. is not a statistic to close the debate but deserves mention. His combative approach to the game has long been considered an asset.
The opinion of those close to Martinez is that he should remain calm. His side tell him that this level of scrutiny is normal at Manchester United and furor is to be expected given the team’s results. Harry Maguire, the United captain, saw it too.
But there’s also frustration that the debate is framed around Martinez’s waistline. After nearly 200 senior appearances and winning the Rinus Michels award in May as Ajax’s player of the season, it’s an argument the player thought he had won.
“In my opinion, it has nothing to do with height,” says a source who worked closely with the Ajax defense last season. “If you’re smart enough, you don’t need height. It’s about individual tactics, whether you win a duel or not.”
Revisit his first two appearances for Manchester United and what is striking is that there are surprisingly few instances of him being beaten in the air. In fact, according to Opta, Martinez hasn’t even recorded a Premier League aerial duel yet.
Opta defines such a duel as occurring when two players battle for the ball in the air. The only other defenders to have started a Premier League game this season but not featured are Marc Cucurella and Neco Williams. The central defenders are not in a back four either.
There are two ways to interpret this statistic. Is Martinez shirking responsibility for his role? Or is he trying to find a way to handle these situations in a slightly different way? Consider the evidence of those miserable 45 minutes against Brentford…
Martinez targeted against Brentford?
1st minute- Martinez wins an undisputed header
2nd minute- Toney misjudges a high ball but Martinez reads it well by stepping back and clearing
4th minute- First real evidence Brentford goalkeeper targets Martinez but defender sends Toney over the ball and Shaw clears
4th minute- Another long ball to Toney but this time Martinez leans into him to affect the striker’s balance and the ball sails safely over their heads
“It’s pretty clear that Lisandro Martinez will be targeted by all teams on these diagonals,” Gary Neville said in a co-commentary for Sky Sports.
12th minute – Martinez struggles with Toney under a long ball and is able to recover it with his feet before unleashing a counterattack
24th minute – Toney shoots Shaw for the second time in minutes
“Manchester United cannot win a first ball in this channel. Shaw and Martinez have their work cut out with Mbeumo and Toney,” says Neville
30th minute – Martinez’s worst moment as he’s caught under the ball near the goal line and Mee nods home
“Martinez, 5’9”, against Mee? No chance,” said Neville
45th minute – Raya goes for a last long ball of the half but Martinez is able to allow him to pass to De Gea
And that was it. Martinez was knocked out at halftime. Despite Ten Hag’s insistence that the decision had little to do with adding height to the team and that he could have changed every player on the pitch, it added to the scrutiny of his £57million signing.
But it wasn’t a brutality Martinez withered into. It was arguably less dramatic than the Ivan Toney-induced ordeal Ben White endured on his Arsenal debut last season – a night from which the 5’11” England defender was able to recover in style.
Martinez should have been quicker to get his feet into position to prevent Mee from jumping safely towards his goal. But even against the most direct side yet in the Premier League and one of its most hardy forwards, the evidence against Martinez was minimal.
The temptation is to take two statements – Martinez is too small for the Premier League and Manchester United have lost their first two games – and fill in the gaps. But only one of the six goals conceded could possibly be linked to the height of the player.
The Premier League is changing. The number of aerial duels a defense has to face decreases. In fact, the number has trended downward over the past five seasons – dramatically over the past two with thousands fewer overall.
Perhaps Ten Hag considered the argument that the Premier League is purely physical and therefore requires a particular skill set, but chose to reject that argument on the grounds that the differences are much less pronounced now than they appear to be. were once more.
If so, there is supporting evidence.
Ten Hag’s – and Martinez’s – concern could be the tactics Brighton are adopting rather than Brentford. Graham Potter’s passing team opted to change their approach on opening weekend after identifying a potential weakness.
Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez has completed 26 of his long passes – 92.9% of them. It is by far the highest percentage of his Premier League career and a dramatic change given that in total he has aimed for more short passes than longs in his 66 appearances.
Brighton’s goals had little to do with the long ball. The first came from a through pass from Leandro Trossard. The second saw Brighton build at the back. But if Potter is willing to change his approach, Ten Hag has to get used to it.
The key to dealing with this threat will be team cohesion and partnerships on the ground. There were small signs of acknowledgment of the need for this against Brentford. Maguire and Martinez traded to face long throws, a tactic familiar to many teams.
All components must fit.
For example, Jurrien Timber played an important role for Ajax last season. “Timber covered a lot for Martinez,” says the source who has worked with their defense. “He doesn’t have that anymore. The problem for Martinez is that the players aren’t aware enough.”
It will now be up to Ten Hag to find the right balance in his back line, one that will allow Martinez’s best qualities to shine. It was his gradual start from behind, after all, that was one of the main reasons United brought him in.
Even amid this miserable start, there have been hints of that ability – and how it’s causing more problems than it solves given the state of the team. There was a clear example of that within 15 seconds of Martinez’s Premier League debut against Brighton.
On the face of it, his decision to place the ball rather than head it straight from Brighton’s kick-off was the smart play. He passed it to Diogo Dalot but the full-back lingered for a moment and Trossard managed to land a shot that hit the side netting.
As with his pass to David de Gea in the build-up to Brentford’s second goal, it was the nervousness of others that left Martinez partly to blame. These are decisions that his coach would have encouraged. They are undermined if others cannot handle the ball.
Against Brighton, there was the clean pass away from danger in the seventh minute that gave United a build and drew warm applause from the then still hopeful Old Trafford crowd. After 16 minutes, there was a delicious dink on Adam Lallana’s head.
Martinez fans might point to 92.9% passing accuracy so far. The only current Premier League defenders who can do better are Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte. Only Virgil van Dijk has regained possession more times in the defensive third this season.
But this Manchester United team is not Manchester City or Liverpool. Instead, these will be the opponents on Monday night football. No Nunez to deal with, just Mohamed Salah and familiar questions about Martinez’s Premier League credentials.
All are not fair.