The August match between Manchester United and Liverpool only lasted one minute before it was clear that Lisandro Martnez is the real deal. It was then that he clattered and barged through Mohamed Salah for no good reason.
This is just the way big men act, according to the often toxic and eternally self-mythologizing jargon of English football. In contrast, the Premier League field is perhaps the safest place to start a fight because the likelihood of retaliation is so low.
Take Martin Keown and Ruud van Nistelrooy as an example; while jumping on an opponent from behind is a great show of strength in football’s posturing charade, the martial artist who is able to maintain his composure knowing that he is not in any real danger would be the better bet.
Consequently, while Martinez’s involvement with a pleased, puzzled Salah showed us nothing about his physical strength, it said a great deal about Salah’s mental invincibility. He had a terrible debut in England, with United losing to Brighton and then being 4-0 down to Brentford when he was taken off in the first half.
Respected judge Jamie Carragher left no room for question after that game that Martnez couldn’t handle the physicality of “this league” or “our league” depending on your sensibility.
The fact that Martnez did what he did to a player of Salah’s calibre despite the high probability of fast and humiliating retaliation speaks much. That is to say, he does what he thinks needs to be done regardless of whether or not other people agree with him, meaning that his hostility is not performative or situational.
A month ago, United and Villa met in a doubleheader for league and Carabao Cup play, and the scenario was strikingly similar. Despite scoring a wonderful goal in a fine win for his side, Leon Bailey was so disturbed by Martnez’s aggressive tactics that he took to Twitter to express his disgust after the first game.
The officials today were a huge letdown. He claimed, “I got elbowed twice in my rib, and for a second I couldn’t breathe.” The linesman continued by arguing that I had no right to complain because I had been treating Martnez no differently. I find myself wondering why we even use VAR at times. SMH.”
Bailey, still bitter, took advantage of the first opportunity to go after Martnez, who did not enter the game until the 87th minute, by hanging in a tackle for the afters in United’s rematch with Villa four days later. Then, he lost his bearings and started pushing and kicking out after getting taken down in a grapple.
Despite the fact that a struggle with him is difficult and furious, it is regulated rather than emotional, practical rather than personal, and simply about the game, which was in effect ended, Martnez looked down at him with a dead-eyed mixture of ambivalence and contempt.
Martnez’s aggressive style unquestionably benefits him, as evidenced by his near-consistently spectacular play ever since the Liverpool game. It’s hard enough to find a central defender who combines aggressiveness with agility, calmness, intelligence, and technique, but to find one who does it at the ripe old age of 24 and is entertaining to watch is beyond remarkable.
At a time when most players would have taken a touch and moved backwards or laterally, United’s first goal against Liverpool came about because Martnez, after receiving the ball 35 yards from goal, decided to punch an immediate and authoritative pass — what we might call a Roy Keane pass — into feet.
When pressed high, his opponents have trouble defending against his skill on the ball since they have to cover both the straight pass and the large switch out wide without giving up too much ground, allowing him to easily get by them and create an overload in the middle of the field.
Skill is useless without the right mindset, just as physical prowess is useless without the right gear. Post-Wilderness Fergie’s Years have been distinguished as much by its absence as by their excellence. What makes the athletes Erik ten Hag signs stand out is their shown ability to take charge, demonstrate sound judgement in a variety of settings, take calculated risks, and make quick, effective decisions.
Like many Argentinian defenders, Martinez appears to have been born with an internal GPS system giving him the precise whereabouts of the line at all times, and he never strays far from it.
His desire to get close to an opponent allows him to tangle bodies and legs, creating reasonable doubt in the minds of officials as to whether red cards are yellow cards, yellow cards are free-kicks, and free-kicks are comings together. He generally avoids the kind of attention-seeking violence that can hurt people.
And his height hasn’t been a problem either. Not only do the vast majority of teams not start two big men up front (or even one), but they also rarely attempt long, aerial passes. Anyone still sceptical of Martnez’s ability to deal with the likes of Chris Wood, Ché Adams, and company would have been well to listen to Ten Hag’s understated but telling assessment: “He has terrific timing.”
Still, there’s more to it than that. Martnez competes in aerial duels like a piranha on a trampoline, often coming out on top whether he’s winning the ball, making a block, or just missing.
A mindset like this is infectious. With Martinez on the field, Victor Lindelöf and Raphael Varane take more risks, while David de Gea is more proactive in coming out for crosses and distributing the ball from the back. The man to his left, though, may have changed the most.
Growing up, Luke Shaw was a standout because of his enormous talent, which meant that his laid-back demeanour didn’t become a problem until he reached the highest levels of competition.
While things were looking good for him at Old Trafford under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he began to slip after the European Championships. It was more expected that he would lose his starting spot to Tyrell Malacia than that he would win it back, keep it, and then offer to play centre back in place of Martnez.
It appears that Martnez has played a significant role in this shift in attitude. In October, after a hard-fought home win over West Ham in which he once again demonstrated the boldness that distinguishes him, he led celebrations with teammates and spectators.
After the game, however, he went looking for Shaw, not to congratulate but to cajole, displaying the kind of confrontational leadership shared by many of the club’s most important and revered players; players who could be counted on to deliver consistently and in the clutch, inspiring those around them to never let themselves off; players who stood for something. You can be a giant even if you’re short.
This is not to claim that Martnez is flawless, of course. Despite being given little midfield ballast and his team falling farther behind without him at halftime, he stood off Erling Haaland at different stages in the first Manchester derby of the season back in October and will need to do the same on Saturday.
Even though he was again hampered by the midfield, this time without anyone able to run fast, he was abnormally slack when United gave up two goals in the opening 11 minutes of the league encounter against Villa.
However, these contests are exceptions, and in Qatar, we saw that Martinez is dedicated enough to contribute despite his inconsistent playing time. He didn’t play in Argentina’s opening loss, but was a vital part of their 2-0 win against Mexico. In the round of 16, he came off the bench to help preserve Argentina’s one-goal lead against Australia and then celebrated as if he had scored.
However, after absorbing the unparalleled pleasure of a World Cup victory, players have never before been thrust into the depths of an English winter and the unrelenting grind of a shortened season. So, Martinez needs to rediscover his mental fortitude, and the signs are promising.
Although Martnez is not one for idle conversation (just ask Mohamed Salah), he did advise Scott McTominay to “go for the next one” when the latter messaged him after the final to give his congratulations.