“At first I wanted to go home and cry,” said Lisandro Martinez. It was August 2020 and in an interview with The nationthe young Argentine recalled his arrival at Ajax a year earlier.
“The first few weeks were terrible,” Martinez added. The training sessions, he said, are “completely different” from what he’s used to in Argentina. “Different intensity. Different control. Different passing. Different interpretation of the game.”
Martinez, new to Europe and only 21 at the time, was 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 incredible how off the pace I was.”
It was also incredible how quickly he overcame those early fights.
Martinez soon found his feet among his new team-mates – “I felt good after pre-season,” he said – and set about capitalizing on the considerable potential Ajax had seen in him as a fighting and technical centre-back at Defensa y Justicia in Argentina.
Within months, a player moved to tears by the rise in quality at Ajax was being dubbed ‘the butcher’ by the club’s supporters. Aggressive in defense but measured in possession, he was already a key figure for Erik ten Hag.
Three years later, Martinez is now at the center of a tug-of-war between his old manager, who took over Manchester United, and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. The Premier League beckons.
Versatility and study Kimmich
Martinez completed his €7m move from defense and justice to Ajax the same summer as Matthijs de Ligt joined Juventus.
The Argentine was seen as a long-term replacement for the club’s former captain at centre-back, but his success in Holland and his appeal for United and Arsenal have also come from his versatility. Martinez can also play at left-back or in central midfield.
After starting his first season at Ajax in de Ligt’s old position, where he played the majority of his football as a young player in Argentina, he soon found himself in the midfield position vacated by Frenkie de Jong six months earlier .
“At the beginning of the season we were looking for a head for central midfield,” said Ten Hag at the time. “We knew Martinez had played in central midfield but could he make it in the Ajax system? We tried him there and saw good things.”
It’s a testament to Martinez’s tactical intelligence that in an unfamiliar environment and with no knowledge of English or even Dutch, he was able to adapt to what is probably the most demanding role in the Ajax team, dictating the game from the base of midfield bridging a bridge between defences and hit attack.
Martinez was helped by his innate technical ability, but his appetite for improvement was equally important. Martinez, hardworking by nature, strove to observe and learn from other players who had made the transition from defense to midfield.
“The club always give you information, but for a new position you have to do extras yourself,” he added The nation. “I watch football all the time and watch all the players in all positions and see how they move. I love the details about the players.”
One player he kept a particularly close eye on was Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich, who started at right-back before moving to midfield with great success under Pep Guardiola.
“When he plays in midfield, I like his calmness and the way he reads the game,” said Martinez. “A player has to be intelligent. He has to have confidence, of course, but it’s a game of decisions and you make decisions with your head.”
Soon known as an old man on young shoulders at Ajax, Martinez impressed over the course of that first season, starting all but one of his 37 games in all competitions before the Eredivisie campaign was cut short by the pandemic in April 2020.
Height no barrier in defense
The following season proved more challenging for Martinez, 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 at the periphery, Martinez fought his way back into the team, this time in central defence, where he formed an effective partnership with academy graduate Jurrien Timber.
The move back from midfield to centre-back required additional defensive responsibility from Martinez, but his deeper play made him no less influential in Ajax’s build-up play.
In fact, he averaged more passes per 90 minutes than any other Eredivisie player last season, while only two players directed more passes per 90 minutes.
Those numbers underscore Martinez’s ability to play through opposing lines, but he’s similarly adept at switching games and picking teammates at longer distances. At Ajax, no player made more successful long passes per 90 minutes last season.
The return to centre-back allowed Martinez, who was voted Ajax’s player of the year for his role in last season’s Eredivisie title-winning campaign, to allay any doubts about his physical fitness for the role.
Martinez is just 5ft 9in making him small for a centre-back, a relative lack of height that convinced his youth club Newell’s Old Boys to allow him to join rivals Defensa y Justicia as a young player in Argentina.
“His natural position is in central defence, but because he’s not tall his coaches at Newell’s doubted him when he tried to win his place,” said Nicolas Diez, one of his coaches at Defensa y Justicia, in an interview with The country shortly after his departure to Ajax.
“They were a bit worried about the height issue,” Martinez recalls, “but I never gave it any importance.”
Instead, he decided to make up for it in other ways.
Like compatriot Roberto Ayala, a former Argentina international who despite his small stature is considered one of the best central defenders of his generation, Martinez is deceptively strong in the air and possesses an impressive vault.
Last season at Ajax he made more headers (29) than any other player and won 79 of his 112 header duels, giving him a 71 per cent win rate and putting him behind Harry Maguire in second place below Manchester United and Arsenal’s current center – The back.
Martinez can of course expect to face more challenging opponents in the Premier League, but solid reading of the game also helps. He’s known for anticipating the runs of forwards and positioning himself wisely to make tackles and interceptions.
These qualities, coupled with his versatility and technical prowess, make him all the more appealing 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.
Follow the transfer window with Sky Sports
Who will move before the transfer window closes this summer? 11pm on September 1st?
Stay up to date with the latest transfer news and rumors on our dedicated Transfer Center blog Sky Sports’ digital platforms. You can also learn about the pros and cons and analysis Sky sports news.