Lisandro Martinez: Argentinian Blood, Mancunian Soul

Thursday 27 July 2023 10:56

Lisandro Martinez is a man of many names.

Despite his tender age of 25, the nicknames afforded to the combative Argentinian defender are already numerous. When he completed his summer move from Ajax to United, we were told Amsterdammers referred to him as ‘The Butcher’. When his signing was announced, Erik ten Hag labelled him ‘a warrior’. Back in Argentina, they call him ‘the pit bull’. To his team-mates he’s simply ‘Licha’.
Whatever you think of those monikers, and whichever you think is most apt, one thing is clear after Martinez’s first season at Old Trafford: this is a footballer and a personality who inspires admiration, adulation and, above all, respect.
Perhaps that’s an obvious thing to say now. Martinez is a World Cup winner. But he’d left Carrington for Qatar in November already firmly established as a cult United hero after just 21 games in Red, the embodiment of the spirit Erik ten Hag wants to see from his team; a wellspring of passion and pride for United’s legions of fans.
However, back in August, this current success seemed far from certain. Defeated on his first United start, against Brighton, and hooked after just 45 minutes in his next match – the humiliating 4-0 loss at Brentford – at that point, the description most associated with Martinez was simply “five foot nine.”
Talk-show shock-jocks refused to stop referencing the defender’s height, questioning how our no.6 would cope in the famously “physical” Premier League. They didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

Martinez hoping for early birthday present


Licha is striving to keep the good times coming after his World Cup success.

It took 33 seconds of United’s next game – a daunting match-up with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at Old Trafford – for Lisandro to send out a clear message of defiance.

When Trent Alexander-Arnold fed the ball into the Egyptian, around 35 yards from United’s goal, Martinez was onto the forward like a ton of bricks. Salah jumped to his feet, thrusting his chest in the Argentinian’s direction, but the centre-half barely blinked. Stubbornly glancing the Liverpool man’s shoulder as he made his way back to his starting position, the tone was set. Salah simply held up his hands in a nervous gesture of surrender, like a bandit that had been reprimanded by the town sheriff.
By half-time, Martinez had also sent James Milner sprawling towards the advertising boards for good measure. Come the final whistle, the Ten Hag era was up and running. A famous 2-1 victory had been earned, and Martinez named Man of the Match by a landslide for a series of heroic tackles, blocks and clearances – not to mention some sublime passing in possession.
In our next game, at Southampton, United won again. Our Man of the Match? The lad from South America. Chants of ‘Argentina!’ could be heard booming from the away end at St. Mary’s, as they once did for former United heroes from Martinez’s homeland. Further victories followed, against Leicester and Arsenal, as Ten Hag’s Reds began to accelerate through the gears.
It was a staggering turnaround from the ignominy of Brentford, for both Martinez and the team collectively. But those that have followed Licha’s career closely, in both Argentina and Holland, were not so surprised.
“I’ve thought from the beginning that he was exactly what United needed,” says Imre den Breejen, an Ajax fan from Amsterdam who also supports MUFC. “The last few seasons, what United missed was players who, really, just went for it, regardless of how the game was going. When things weren’t going our way, the shoulders went down, and that’s when you lose games. But Martinez will never, ever give up.
“We’re used to young, talented, local players at Ajax, but what we lack sometimes is a player with his mentality, and he was just immensely loved for it. He was a completely down-to-earth bloke who fought for everything and that’s what you want to see as a fan.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, or how long you’ve been at the club – he had the heart on his sleeve from the first second. I think if you asked [fans] who would you put up on the board [team sheet] first, if you were Ajax manager, everyone would have said Martinez.”
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Exclusive catch-up with our world champion

Lisandro Martinez tells us he's ready to give it everything for United again, following his World Cup success...

The player has a tattoo of a lion on his forearm and, listening to his personal recollections of growing up in Entre Rios – a province in central Argentina – it’s little surprise his personality has acquired a ruthless determination.
“You learn from an early age that you have to fight,” Martinez has said of his upbringing. “On the pitch, to win, but also for a plate of food. It’s about survival.”
“Argentinians always have to fight,” agrees Buenos Aires-based journalist and United fan Florencia Bernasconi, “because we come from a third-world country. I guess that’s why we’re so passionate about things, especially football. We’ve had to fight hard to prove ourselves to the world.
“Even if we don’t have enough qualities to fight against the best, we’ll always give our heart and soul on the pitch to try and make up for that. For example, Gabriel Heinze and Marcos Rojo were good but, to be honest, they weren’t as gifted as other Argentinian defenders like Oscar Ruggeri or Roberto Ayala, and I think they were aware of that. That’s why they’d always look for that aggressive style on the pitch.”

Martinez: Thank you, Old Trafford


Lisandro has issued a classy response after receiving a warm reception on his return to the Theatre of Dreams.

But to put Martinez’s rise purely down to fight would be too simplistic. Most obviously, that overlooks the player’s superb technical skills and his panoramic passing range. And there’s also clear evidence of his thoughtful, careful approach to self-development.
Reports cite meditation and yoga as useful tools at certain points of his career. And while the ‘butcher’ nickname might have stuck, Den Breejen believes Martinez’s game has long since transcended that particular caricature.
“That ‘Butcher Martinez’ nickname came across in his first Ajax season after about 10 games,” Imre recalls. “In the first half of the first season, he was still a bit reckless now and then. He had great moments and then other moments when you thought: mate, come on, relax! He was just getting a few too many yellow cards and didn’t really know when to stop.
“But he’s never recklessly aggressive anymore. He does everything with a purpose. It’s such a relief to see him on the ball, just knowing that you’ve got such a stable player at the back.”
Martinez has spoken publicly about how conversations with former Ajax great Winston Bogarde have helped him learn to channel his emotions. United fans love his aggression, but what’s most impressive is the way it is harnessed alongside a cool, calm disposition. Fiery tackles and confrontations are simply treated like minor distractions. It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.
So while fans and journalists alike might love the gory, violent allure of “The Butcher” nickname – fans even mocked up an Argentina flag emblazoned with a cleaver and draped it over a bridge in Manchester – Martinez’s game is much more sophisticated than it might suggest. Less Coronation Street’s Fred Elliott, more a high-end charcutier with designs on a Michelin star.
This is why fans love Martinez Video

This is why fans love Martinez

Presenting two minutes and 21 seconds of defensive aggression by our fans' favourite Lisandro Martinez...

But Martinez’s popularity and importance to Ten Hag’s emerging team goes beyond mere characteristics. It’s visible in little moments that are not often noticed by the TV cameras and the tabloids.
When Bruno Fernandes scored our second goal against Tottenham Hotspur in October 2022 – a performance widely considered United’s best for years – Martinez ran straight into the arms not of the Portuguese, but the full-back usually stationed immediately to his left, Luke Shaw. Together, they then made for Raphael Varane and Casemiro. These are the little moments that strengthen a high-performance culture: a team spirit.
Much was made of the backslapping and high fives seen throughout the early months under Ten Hag. Defending is hard work, of course, but the way Martinez does it seems infectious, and his enthusiasm has clearly rubbed off on arguably more attack-minded defenders like Shaw and Diogo Dalot.
There’s little doubt that this tallies with the United ethos too. The club is famed for its Ballon d’Or winners, its entertainers – Law, Best, Charlton, Ronaldo and many more – but underpinning our success has always been a desire to run longer, tackle harder and fight more tirelessly than the opposition. From Nobby Stiles to Bryan Robson, from Roy Keane to Wayne Rooney, we love those who leave it all out there; those who play like we’d like to, if only we had a scintilla of the required footballing ability.


And then there’s the relationship Martinez has with our match-going fans. As he left the pitch after that Tottenham win, the player was serenaded with more of those ferocious ‘Argentina!’ chants by the Stretford End. Clearly moved, Martinez told club media: “To be honest, it’s very emotional for me. When I heard the fans singing, I wanted to cry.”
After Casemiro’s dramatic late equaliser at Stamford Bridge last season, a famous photo was taken showing Martinez and a fan in the away end locked in an intense celebration. It’s hard to put a price on the value of such fan and player interaction.
Perhaps Argentinian players feel a sense of mild trepidation when they decide to move to England. After all, the two countries were in conflict only 40 years ago, well within living memory. But Martinez, like Cantona and many others, has found sanctuary in Manchester, an immigrant city that has a history of embracing and honouring the diversity of those that make it their home.
“He’s the kind of player we’d been waiting for,” says Florencia. “His passion has captivated us all. I love how the fans cheer for him by chanting ‘Argentina, Argentina!’ At first, I remember he was really surprised by that.
“After United’s game against Fulham at Craven Cottage, someone threw him a flag from the away end, and he managed to grab it. It was a very special gift for him ahead of the World Cup.”
Whether that was the lucky charm which swung it for the Albiceleste in that epochal final against France, we’ll never know. But what we do know for certain is that United fans could not wait for Martinez’s return to Manchester. Whenever Lionel Scaloni opted not to start him in Qatar, at the favour of Cristian Romero or Nicolas Otamendi, there was widespread bemusement. For many Reds, there is no centre-half in world football they would rather see at the heart of a defence than Licha.
“Everyone was gutted to see him leave Ajax,” admits Den Breejen, “but we all wanted him to take up this opportunity as well. So, it was a bit of mixed feelings for me. But when players are leaving, I’d rather it was to United than anywhere else.
“In my Ajax-supporting days, we’ve been very spoilt with having local, Amsterdam-born players in our team, and that’s what’s needed to keep the connection to the community. But the favourites are usually the players who came from abroad that just really fought for the club; that really knew what the club was about. And Martinez was one of them. For me, it’s great to see that it worked like that at Ajax and it works like that at United.”
Perhaps that is indeed why the Martinez love affair has ignited so quickly, so passionately, here in Manchester. Because, at their best, football clubs are always an uncanny reflection of the places and the people that they represent.
The man from Gualeguay, Argentina might have learned his trade over 6,000 miles from Manchester, but his underdog spirit, his grace under pressure, his refusal to back down before any opponent, his pure ambition, are 0161, through and through.