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Monday, March 4, 2024

Scouting Man Utd backup for Lisandro Martinez: Marmol, Hato, Branthwaite?

The good news for Manchester United fans is Lisandro Martinez will not require surgery on his right knee following an unfortunate collision with West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal on Sunday. The bad news is that the incident damaged the centre-back’s medial collateral ligament (MCL), knocking him out for around eight weeks. It’s an unfortunate setback when United appear to be developing some momentum.

“He is very sad, very disappointed. We all feel really with him,” said manager Erik ten Hag of the injury. “First of all it is a personal disaster when it is really bad, but also for the team it is really bad because he definitely brings us a lot.”


Martinez was injured against West Ham at the weekend (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Ten Hag will have to decide who of Victor Lindelof, Jonny Evans, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire will fill in at left centre-back until Martinez returns. Extended absences this season with a broken metatarsal (a bone in his foot) and now this damaged MCL mean the 26-year-old is best described as unfortunate rather than (the nebulous term of) “injury-prone”. Still, Ten Hag will be mindful of how much the team’s quality dips without him.

Martinez is young enough and talented enough to be a foundational part of United’s team for years to come. However, the squad might benefit from the addition of an understudy, someone younger than him who could step in and take care of all of Ten Hag’s “principles” and “routines” with minimal fuss. 

Let’s have a look at who is out there. 


How do we find players similar to Martinez?

For this exercise, The Athletic created a smarterscout profile of Martinez’s 2022-23 season, in which he made 45 appearances for United — totalling 3,409 minutes — across four competitions to get a snapshot of his game. 

Here are Martinez’s standout traits:

  • He is exceptional in disrupting opposition moves (receiving a rating of 91 out of 99). Some United centre-backs, like Maguire, can be viewed as dogs — players who mark the man in possession. Others (Lindelof, Varane and Evans) are cat-like, best when asked to interpret space and marshall players into less-threatening positions. In this analogy, Martinez is a prestige pitbull. If an attacking player has the ball, he will do everything he can to take it off you. Failing that, his presence means some players think twice before trying to run past him with the ball. He makes blocks, he tackles, and he clears the ball out of danger with outstanding quality. 
  • His passing and technical ability when receiving the ball make him a vital tool for team build-up. Goalkeeper Andre Onana and others at United are much more comfortable passing out from the back when they know Martinez is there to help beat the first wave of the opponents’ press. United’s midfielders and forwards owe a debt to Martinez’s knack for line-breaking passes, allowing the side to turn defence into attack at a moment’s notice. He’s also left-footed, meaning his passing angles and defensive orientation when retreating are much more adept when working with his full-back on that side of the pitch. 
  • His introduction to England saw a lot of discussion about his lack of height for a central defender (5ft 9in; 175cm), but Martinez’s match-reading ability and tenacious attitude make these worries a non-starter. His strength comes from his ability to assess the movement of the player and the ball, anticipate the future position of both and then find a way to disrupt said movement (ball recoveries and interceptions) in a way that sets up his team for a counter-attack. 

For this exercise, we then looked for players aged 22 and under with a similar skill set in terms of disrupting opposition moves and breaking the lines when passing. We’re looking for tenacious left-sided centre-backs who can be an asset with and without the ball. 

But before we show you the results, we give our usual cautions about using statistical data to quantify players at this position.

Spreadsheets and charts can tell you how many tackles and headers the individual makes, but you still need the eye test to explain why they’re good or bad. Martinez is an excellent defender because he makes a lot of tackles, but also because of his timing — which cannot be quantified adequately in a chart.

Statistical analysis also skirts over more subtle aspects of centre-back play, such as how loud they can be on the pitch. Mastering the art of proper defending is a bit like learning the grammar scheme of a new language; for every rule, there is an exception.

Here are some young centre-backs similar to Martinez

Top of our list is Mika Marmol, now in La Liga with Las Palmas.

The 22-year-old Barcelona academy graduate is someone to keep an eye on in the seasons to come, having finished 2022-23 setting a new record for successful passes by a centre-back in the Spanish second division. Marmol completed 3,015 passes for FC Andorra —  almost a thousand more than the previous record. 

And Marmol’s passes aren’t just the safe, sideways or backwards variety. Since last summer’s transfer to Las Palmas — where he is playing for former Barcelona B coach Garcia Pimienta — he has been an invaluable means of ball progression, averaging 2.9 progressive passes per game in La Liga. He is capable of baiting the opposition’s press before spinning the ball out to the left or into central midfield — much like Martinez.

Marmol has a Martinez-like sense of aggressive anticipation when it comes to defensive work, too. He’s speedy enough to defend in a high line and knows when to nip in on an opposition player to win the ball before it arrives. He’s not quite 6ft tall (5ft 11in), but is physical in a way that could translate well to the Premier League.


Marmol in action against Real Madrid (Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

If Ten Hag wishes to scratch his itch for players based in his native Netherlands, he could look at Jorrel Hato.

The 17-year-old is finding his feet in what’s been a difficult first season in the Eredivisie season for Ajax, but he is left-footed, ambitious on the ball, has a pleasing maturity to his game and is already 6ft tall. Hato is a player who would benefit from having an experienced tackler next to him, but expect his name to be linked to United so long as Ten Hag remains in charge.

If United are looking for someone who combines a good in-possession game with a dabble in the defensive dark arts, Riccardo Calafiori is worth consideration. Now 21, Calafiori broke into Roma’s senior team as an 18-year-old full-back under Paulo Fonseca, before getting limited minutes after Jose Mourinho took over for the 2021-22 season, then being loaned to Genoa for half a season before a summer 2022 move to FC Basel in Switzerland. Now back in Italy with Bologna, he’s been recalibrated into a left-sided centre-back by their manager Thiago Motta, with impressive results.   

Looking at Premier League-ready defenders who could be on the move this summer, Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite should be on any potential shortlists. Standing an imposing 6ft 5in, the 21-year-old mixes speed, strength and subtlety into a strong package. 

There are reasons why so many of Martinez’s team-mates ran over to console him when he went down injured on Sunday. He is the best centre-back within the squad, essential to this United team’s finest performances — when he’s fully fit and firing — and in the conversation regarding the top left-footed centre-back in the world.

But if the 2022 World Cup winner finds himself in need of a deputy for the days he cannot answer the bell, there’s talent out there if United wish to look and decide they can afford to go shopping.  

This was an article inspired by a question on one of our Manchester United matchday discussion pages, so please join us during future games to chat about the team’s performance and United’s big issues.

(Top image: Getty Images)



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