Lisandro Martinez interview: Manchester United defender on becoming a fan favourite at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag’s ideas, and why Gabriel Heinze is his idol
Late in the game against Tottenham as Lisandro Martinez cleared the ball yet again, the chants of ‘Argentina’ went up from the supporters within Old Trafford. They have taken to this new signing. Manchester United look stronger for his presence.
“It was very emotional for me to experience that love from the fans,” Martinez tells Sky Sports. “It is also from me to them, that love. I am 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 among his first interviews in English. The translator sits in but is not required. Perhaps it reflects his growing confidence here. He introduces himself as Licha and begins to reflect on that fine win against Tottenham.
Was it the best team performance yet? “I think so,” he says.
“We did a great job. We controlled the game, the whole 90 minutes. I think they had only one chance in the first half and then we were solid in defence. I am really happy because we tried really hard to play at this level. We want to play this way. It is fantastic to do it.”
Martinez’s start at Manchester United mirrors that of the team. It was difficult at first. Substituted at half-time against Brentford with United four goals down, he and they had to shut out the noise. Some questioned his suitability to playing in the Premier League.
“Sometimes we have to be patient, you know. Especially in the beginning, we know that we did not play how we wanted. But it is part of football, we learn. It is experience. We have a new team, a new system. Now we have to keep going.
“It is difficult. Especially in football, you don’t have time. If you lose you are a really bad player or a really 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 little overplayed. Martinez may say that he ‘came from nothing’ but he also came with pedigree – a £57m signing from Ajax, a 24-year-old Argentina international. He is now showing just how important that he can be to this team.
Against Spurs, he succeeded in restricting Harry Kane’s opportunities, nicking the ball off the England captain, doing all he could to disrupt his rhythm by getting close to the striker when he needed to. “Not only me,” he insists. “All the players did a fantastic job.”
But it is Martinez who epitomises the sort of aggressive, front-foot defending that Erik ten Hag wants to see. He is not overly fond of the butcher moniker given to him in Amsterdam. In Argentina, he is known as the pitbull. Flattering or not, that one fits.
He has even put in additional physical work in recent months to ensure that he can impose himself on the opposition forwards. “Football is always physical. You have to train always hard. You have to be ready. I always try to give 100 per cent.”
The result is that Martinez has already won possession of the ball 43 times in the defensive third of the pitch this season. That is more than any other Manchester United player and more than all but three players in the Premier League.
“I think it is very important because you can train that. If you win duels it is better for the team, you know. [Against Spurs], for example, we won many duels in defence and that is then good for our offensive players. They can then only think to score goals.”
He is someone who studies the statistics, checking his passing numbers and duel success rate. He even admits to getting angry when he see that those numbers are down. “Yeah, for sure, but it is part of football. You have to accept it.” It does not happen often.
It is the sort of attitude that supporters are drawn to. There are echoes of another Argentine defender, Gabriel Heinze. He won the Sir Matt Busby Award as Manchester United’s player of the year in 2005. Martinez may well follow him in 2023.
Appropriately, he is a huge admirer of his compatriot. “That’s right,” he says. “Gabriel Heinze is my idol. I love him. I love the way he played, very aggressive, good mentality, good mentality in the duels. Every game as a final. He was a top player.”
That sounds a lot like Martinez. Does he see the similarities himself? “I try to play like him. We are a bit different as well, but I like his mentality.” The pair talked before Martinez arrived at Old Trafford in the summer. “We just spoke about football and life.”
If Heinze is the idol, Ten Hag is the trusted coach, the man who prioritised his signing having worked with him at Ajax. “Erik always wants to play good football. He wants an aggressive team, a winning mentality. It is very important, that.”
On Saturday, that mentality will be tested against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The last time the two men made that trip together was memorable, a 4-4 draw in the Champions League in which Ajax finished with nine men. “It was a crazy game,” laughs Martinez.
He played in midfield that night. “Now I am playing as a centre-back, I am feeling very well in that 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. It is no problem. When the team needs you, you have to be there.”
As a young boy, he was even used further forward. “I played as a No 10 as well, the most beautiful [position] in football.” Not that his international teammate Lionel Messi will need to fear for his World Cup spot. “But also that was a different level,” he adds with a smile.
Martinez is a central defender now, among the stand-out performers there in the Premier League. The fee and the faith has been justified. There is hope too that Ten Hag’s idea is taking shape. Who better to ask than the man he brought with him?
“I think the idea is a bit the same,” he says.
“He wants to bring that mentality to here. It is a good mentality. You can see it in the game [against Tottenham]. We were very aggressive. Very good tactically, with and without the ball, the movement, he connection of the team. It takes time, for sure.
“We have to be patient. But we are in a good way.”
Good enough to bring success this season? “For sure, our ambition is to win titles, to put Manchester United where they deserve [to be].
“I think we are in a good way to do it. But we have to keep our feet on the ground, we have to be humble and take it step by step.”
With Martinez, that much is guaranteed.
One thought on “Lisandro Martinez interview: Manchester United defender on becoming a fan favourite at Old Trafford, Erik ten Hag’s ideas, and why Gabriel Heinze is his idol”