Lisandro Martinez has no chance of succeeding as a Premier League centre-back, said former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher less than a month ago. This was after the 24-year-old joined Manchester United earlier this summer in a £57m deal from Ajax but had a torrid start to his career when the Red Devils lost 0-4 to Brentford, eventually leading to Martinez being subbed off at half-time.
Ivan Toney, the Brentford striker, and Benn Mee, their defender showed to the world how Martinez was failing to deal with a significant height disadvantage. Questions were asked if his move to the Premier League was a mistake. “We should never judge managers or players too early, but I’m convinced this can’t work because he’s the size of 5’9 playing in a back four,” Carragher emphasized again in a post-match analysis on Sky Sports.
The early narrative around Martinez’s arrival was focused entirely around his height and how he lacks in physical stature to compete in the physical English top flight. Standing at 175 cm (5 feet, 9 inches), Martinez officially became the shortest centre-back in the Premier League.
1. Lisandro Martinez Man United 175 cm (5-9)
2. Cesar Azpilicueta Chelsea 178 cm (5-10)
3. Nathan Ake Man City 180 cm (5-11)
4. Thiago Silva Chelsea 181 cm (5-11)
5. Marc Guehi Crystal Palace 182 cm (5-11)
(TABLE VIA Transfermarkt)
It is true that to succeed in a highly physical league such as the Premier League, winning aerial duels and getting into physical battles is a major part of being a centre-back.
But is height really a neccesity for a professional football player at the highest level? One needs to be smart about their work.
The history of the game features many a defender who made his name without possessing a height advantage. Here are some some of them –
Gary Medel 171 cm (5-7)
Ivan Cordoba 173 cm (5-8)
Javier Mascherano 174 cm (5-9)
Carles Puyol 178 cm (5-10)
Franz Beckenbauer 181 cm (5-11)
The above mentioned players went on to become legends of the game and had various qualities to make up for any perceived deficiencies in the air. The standout among them was Fabio Cannavaro. The Italian, standing at 5 ft 9 inches, was considered to be the best of his time. He went on to represent Italy in 4 World Cups, and was the captain of the side which lifted the World Cup in 2006. Another legend of the game was Carles Puyol, who holds the record of winning back to back European Championships in 2008 and 2012, and he also lifted the World Cup in 2010.
The key to coping with the threat of big center forwards is cohesion and partnerships on the pitch.
The same applies for Martinez. Take for example the role of Jurrien Timber who covered a lot for Martinez at Ajax. At United he could not initially find that partnership with Harry Maguire. But ever since United head coach Erik Ten Hag paired him with Raphael Varane there has been a marked difference. Varane is good in the air and that helps Martinez bring out his game.
The data showed in the summer that Martinez averaged 5.3 aerial duels won per 90 in Eredivisie last season, which meant he actually averaged more each game than Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof, who all stand at over 6ft.
Martinez has learned to overcome his smaller stature by expertly anticipating the flight of the ball, while he also regularly disrupts and hassles his opponent. Martinez has continued to win duels in the Premier League and that was the main sticking point.
It is true that to succeed in the Premier League, winning aerial duels and getting into physical battles is a major part of being a centre-back. But even without it, all you need is good footballing brain and hardwork. Focus on what’s under your control. Work on your thighs and calves so that you can jump higher. Work on your body to decrease the difference in strength. Be aggressive and brave. you need to learn to use your body to its best. As a centre back with low height, you have a lower centre of gravity, which means you will probaby be fairly quicker than the bigger strikers. You will also have more mobility across the pitch. Your only drawback could be your ability to jump and be dominant in the air, however, with enough practise, that could probably be solved too. So the only thing that matters is your skill set.
Despite critics and pundits questioning his ability to cope with the likes of Erling Haaland or Darwin Nunez – who are both tall and well built forwards. Mind you he has faced both of them before (Nunez in the quarter-final of last season’s Champions League and Haaland in UCL round of 16 where Ajax beat Dortmund 4-0.)
Ajax fans nicknamed Martinez ‘The Butcher of Amsterdam’ during his time in the Netherlands and Ten Hag has admirably gone on to sing lavish praises about his defender – “He’s a warrior and I think the fans will admire him.” “He brings aggressiveness in the game, in a good way, and I think we need that. But he’s also skillful.”
Martinez was instrumental again as Manchester United beat Sheriff 2-0 in their last encounter. Continuing his great partnership with Varane, the dimunitive defender looked good and assured with his centre-back partner.
Many pundits were wrong about Martinez and the player should be proud of serving some humble pie.
Mention of Martinez’s lack of height is a source of mild irritation for a player who is convinced he can handle the demands of English football.
‘The Premier League is the best league in the world because it is very physical and you are playing against the best players in the world every game,’ he added.
‘You have to prepare, you have to be ready for that. At the beginning, I think it was a bit hard but like every step I’ve had to take in my career, you have to work hard, you have to keep going. Now we are doing well.’