After a somewhat sluggish start, the first phase of Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United revolution is finally gathering momentum.
The new manager will feel a whole lot better to get some fresh faces through the door at Old Trafford, with Tyrell Malacia and Christian Eriksen signed, sealed and delivered.
And the latest acquisition sees Lisandro Martinez come in from Ten Hag’s former club Ajax, in a deal that will ultimately cost United £55.3million.
It’s a smart move. Not only is the Argentina international well accustomed to the demands of Ten Hag from their time together in Amsterdam, he offers United plenty of versatility.
Martinez, 24, can play as a central defender, a left-back or as a defensive midfielder, with experience of playing in the 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 formations that the coach favours.
Ten Hag knew when he started the job that central defence and defensive midfield were the most pressing problems to solve in a United team that performed well below the expected standards last season.
Martinez may not cure all ills but Ten Hag will feel much better to have him on board. It’s unlikely to change the situation with Frenkie de Jong, however, who was always his No 1 target for the summer.
Although United and Barcelona have agreed a £71.5m fee for the Dutch midfielder, De Jong is reluctant to give up Champions League football at the Nou Camp, even when being shunted towards the exit door.
So where will Martinez fit into Ten Hag’s plans for United and what will the new boy offer them?
NEW PARTNER FOR MAGUIRE OR VARANE AT CENTRE-HALF
The most likely scenario is that Martinez joins United’s pool of centre-halves.
Ten Hag typically deployed a 4-3-3 shape during his time managing Ajax, with Martinez partnering Jurrien Timber, another United target this summer, at centre-back in the majority of games.
But the evidence of United’s two pre-season friendlies so far is that Ten Hag will set them out in their familiar 4-2-3-1 and given this has delivered 4-0 and 4-1 wins, it isn’t likely to change soon.
So Martinez is likely to be paired with either captain Harry Maguire or Raphael Varane at the back.
Those three will be the favoured centre-backs, in whatever combination, with Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly dropping down the defensive pecking order given lingering doubts about their abilities.
Varane’s various injury issues prevented him playing as much as he would have liked during his first season at United but there were some encouraging signs when he played alongside Maguire.
But one of them would have to make way for Martinez to come in, with the new arrival offering a point of difference in that he’s left-footed.
Martinez is comfortable on the ball and adept at passing out of defence, skills that were mandatory at Ten Hag’s Ajax, and despite being only 5ft 9in is very strong aerially.
He is the kind of character who will relish the physical battles that are part of the job description in English football and knows exactly what his manager will be demanding of him.
The key question is who makes way to accommodate Martinez. Ten Hag has already made clear his faith in Maguire as his captain despite the England defender’s poor form last season.
Maguire also usually plays on the left of the two, with Varane or Lindelof on the right, and that’s where Martinez would want to be.
However, in Friday’s friendly win over Melbourne Victory, Maguire and Lindelof swapped positions. It could be a subtle hint from Ten Hag that Martinez is going to line up alongside Maguire as the first-choice pairing.
That will no doubt annoy Varane, who didn’t get chance to fully show his class during a turbulent first season.
But, in reality, all will get plenty of opportunities given the inevitable injuries and suspensions, not to mention the sheer weight of games with United slogging through the Europa League again in the season ahead.
THREE’S A CROWD AT THE BACK?
This raises the possibility of Ten Hag setting United up with three central defenders, making space for Martinez, Maguire and Varane in whatever combination.
It’s not something he favoured at Ajax but may be considered if United make a sluggish start to the Premier League season or simply as a back-up plan.
It would involve repurposing Luke Shaw as a left wing-back – as he played for England during some of Euro 2020 – or playing new boy Malacia in the role, and getting more attacking gains out of Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Diogo Dalot.
Such a move would offer reassurance for Maguire, who is used to playing that way for England and also would have the insurance of two other defenders if he wanted to dribble the ball out.
But switching to this system would require a whole lot of work on the training ground.
Last season, Ralf Rangnick decided to rip up United’s usual game plan and play a 5-3-2 against Liverpool at Anfield, with a back line of Dalot, Maguire, Jones, Lindelof and Wan-Bissaka (on the left). United lost 4-0.
It won’t come naturally to United’s players and so isn’t the most likely option – at least not initially.
A ‘BUTCHER’ IN MIDFIELD
When Martinez arrived at Ajax in 2019 from the Argentine club Defensa y Justicia, he was a midfielder and Ten Hag intended for him to replace De Jong, who’d just joined Barcelona.
The coach wanted Martinez to be his midfield ‘brain’, playing the neat passes that keep Ajax ticking over. But there was plenty of brawn as well.
Martinez was nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Amsterdam’ for his uncompromising tackles and South American passion.
As he has said in the past: ‘I am called the carnicero – the Butcher – of Amsterdam.
‘We Argentines do everything with passion and when I go out on the pitch I fight for every ball. If I have to step over dead bodies, I do it.
‘I want to win every 50-50 situation because I know that I am fighting for food for every member of my family and for my friends.
‘That is the feeling I have – and every Argentinian has. It is the kind of motivation I cannot explain.’
However, he didn’t always find it easy at Ajax. It took him some time to adjust to the ‘Ajax way’ of football.
‘In the first three weeks, I had a horrible time. It is totally different, another intensity,’ he told La Nacion in 2020.
‘At first I wanted to go home and cry. I felt bad.
‘I am a player who likes to have the ball, but when they played me with one or two touches, they killed me.’
He did eventually get up to speed in midfield but would be converted into a centre-half later in his time at Ajax.
Martinez has said in the past he would be open to returning to a midfield role if required. This is more likely if United fail in their pursuit of De Jong.
They only have Scott McTominay and Fred as established names in defensive midfield and so Martinez could be a third option. This would also solve the central defensive dilemma.
But Ten Hag is a stubborn man and, having put De Jong top of his shopping list because he’s so important to how he wants to play, he will expect the deal to be done.
BACK-UP ON THE LEFT
In another sign of how versatile he is, Martinez did on occasion play at left-back for Ajax.
But given United have Shaw, Malacia and also Alex Telles in that position, they should be well-stocked unless there’s a freak injury crisis.
However, it’s peace of mind for Ten Hag to know he has someone who can fit in there.