Rank the Ten Hag 16, the assortment of expensive arrivals, back-up goalkeepers and last-minute loanees, and one name surges to the top of the list. It seems uncontroversial to anoint Lisandro Martinez as the best of the 16 signings Erik ten Hag has made for Manchester United. Nor to place him in the bracket of United’s most important players, perhaps alongside Bruno Fernandes, Rasmus Hojlund, Casemiro and Luke Shaw.
When Ten Hag described Martinez’s latest injury, the knee problem sustained against West Ham last Sunday, as a “personal disaster”, the person in question was the Argentinian. Yet for his manager and mentor, the loss of Martinez until April ranks as the sort of blow that could prove damaging. He can look Ten Hag’s ethos in human form: quick and combative, capable of initiating attacks from the back with his passing, tying into the Dutch footballing school’s obsession with left-footed central defenders. A manager whose transfer policy appears geared towards anyone who has ever visited the Netherlands had a coup in an old ally.
In a squad with five centre-backs – six, if last season’s reinvention of Shaw means he is an auxiliary member of the group – the World Cup winner can look irreplaceable. So how do you replace the irreplaceable? “We have very good players in that position who will play there and perform there and as a squad we have to deal with it,” said Ten Hag.
And yet, at different points, he has expressed his doubts about using both Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane on the left. Jonny Evans is more adept with his lesser foot but is an injury-prone 36-year-old who got relegated last season. Victor Lindelof was one of Ten Hag’s preferred alternatives but has played three minutes of football in the last two months. The Shaw option, meanwhile, may be taken off the table: the full-back’s understudy Tyrell Malacia is still injured, Sergio Reguilon’s loan was terminated and he was dispatched back to Tottenham and, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka struggling with injury, there is no scope to switch Diogo Dalot to the left.
Ten Hag looks unlikely to have a left-footer at his disposal now. “It is an advantage we have seen,” he admitted. His argument is that coaching has given his other defenders a greater education in occupying Martinez’s role. “We have to work on players,” he said. “But also players can develop in such positions when you train them, and I see our players in the backline making better decisions. I see them develop their skills. I am quite confident that we can keep the better ball-play and keep going.”
There is no denying Martinez has been United’s best ball-player at the back. A 93.6 percent completion rate makes him their most accurate passer, while also being able to inject moves with impetus. When he and Shaw are teamed up, United can be notably more progressive on the left side of the pitch than the right. Without him, they can defend deeper, leaving their midfield with more ground to cover, look more exposed and yet score fewer goals.
Their United’s fortunes can fall without him. By the time he returns, he may have only completed three club games in a year. When he was first sidelined, against Sevilla in April, United had only lost four of their last 42 games. Without him, they lost four of the next 12.
He was semi-fit and struggling at the start of this season, then sidelined for four months following foot surgery. United lost 14 of those 29 matches. Their longest unbeaten run of the campaign cannot be attributed purely to the Argentinian. Yet his absence is ill-timed for a manager needing to extend a recent revival, and not merely because he has an awful record away at the top clubs and United visit Aston Villa on Sunday and Manchester City three weeks later.
Martinez’s increasingly injury-prone status is inauspicious in another respect. The 26-year-old was supposed to be the constant in the centre of defence, the one player inked in for their future. Lindelof and Maguire are out of contract next summer, Evans and Varane this. “We haven’t made the decision yet,” Ten Hag said. There is no rush regarding Evans, who is unlikely to decamp elsewhere. But Varane is only 30, the most decorated player in United’s squad and an expensive signing. He was Martinez’s regular partner last season, spent some of this as seemingly the last in the queue for the centre-back positions and is one of the club’s biggest earners. His star waned in Martinez’s absence earlier this season. So did United’s.
If Martinez was a cause of United’s progress last season, a struggle to cope without him can seem a reason for regression since then. How can United cope without him? Ten Hag is in a familiar search for answers.