Does size really matter? ‘Vertically challenged’ Lisandro Martinez wins as many of his aerial duels as any of his defensive partners at Man United, despite being the shortest centre back in the Premier League and written off by Graeme Souness
- Former Liverpool legend Graeme Souness thinks Lisandro Martinez is too short to succeed as a centre back in the Premier League, known for its physicality
- But the 5ft 9ins defender has begun to find his feet and has won 75% of his aerial battles – as good as any Man United defender and better than Harry Maguire
- Raphael Varane takes the lion’s share of high balls, but Martinez rarely misses
Diminutive centre back Lisandro Martinez is rising to the challenge of the Premier League and has won as many of his aerial duels and tackles in the early stages of the season as any other Manchester United defender.
At just 5ft 9ins, Martinez is the shortest centre back in the top flight but, so far at least, he is defying his critics.
The Argentine’s height raised eyebrows when he joined United for £57m from Ajax this summer. And Sky Sports pundit and Liverpool legend Graeme Souness is doubtful about the ‘vertically challenged’ defender’s prospects in the Premier League.
Questions have been asked about Lisandro Martinez’ ability in the air after joining Man United
‘I was racking my mind to come up with anyone who’s played in the Premier League or indeed the [old] First Division that size and been a success,’ Souness told talkSPORT, last week.
‘He’s not particularly special at anything,’ said Souness. ‘I would say he’s feisty and he’s aggressive. The other thing I don’t like about him is he goes to ground too readily. That’s not a good sign for a defender.’
However, Martinez, who worked with Erik ten Hag in Holland, has quickly become a favourite with fans for his combative displays, which have been a key part of United’s run of four Premier League victories, including Sunday’s impressive 3-1 win over Arsenal.
In his first two games of the season United shipped six goals, including the shambolic 4-0 away defeat against Brentford when the defender was hooked at half-time after being bullied physically by Bees striker Ivan Toney, but he has kept winning his duels, both in the air and on the ground.
Martinez is now joint top among United defenders for both the percentage of headers won and the number of tackles in which he has come out with the ball. He has competed for 12 aerials, losing just three, with a return of 75 per cent, and he has won the ball back for his team in seven out of eight contests.
Pundit Graeme Souness has not been impressed by Martinez’s start to the season for United
But the 5ft 9ins centre back is so far proving critics wrong, winning his headers and his tackles
In comparison, out-of-form club captain, 6ft 4ins (1.93m) Harry Maguire, who came on for Martinez in the closing stages against Arsenal, has competed for 10 high balls and lost three, giving him a success rate of 70 per cent.
Last term, Martinez, who was playing for Ajax in the Eredivisie, and Maguire were on a par and both won seven out of ten aerial duels throughout the season.
Last weekend, against Southampton, the home side immediately sought to put Martinez under pressure by forcing him to compete for aerial balls, but he stood up exceptionally well, winning five out of five headers.
At home to Arsenal, he was less successful, winning one and losing two aerials, but overall his success rate remains high and consistent with his performances in Holland.
Martinez’s central defensive partner, Raphael Varane, at 6ft 3ins (1.91m) absorbs the lion’s share of any aerial bombardment. He has competed for 24 high balls this season, losing six.
It makes sense to deploy the ‘big lad’, where circumstances allow, and Martinez has contested fewer aerials than many centre backs in these early weeks. He can expect plenty more to come his way, but his win percentage still compares well.
Centre-back partner Raphael Varane has won a lower proportion of his headers than Martinez
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk is one of the best defensive headers of the ball in the Premier League
Among the best is Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, who has won 87 per cent of his 31 aerial duels, Everton’s James Tarkowski 81 per cent of 32, Spurs’ Eric Dier 75 per cent of 28, but Bournemouth’s Chris Mepham has just 50 per cent of 20.
Souness is not the first person to doubt Martinez’ ability in the air. His height concerned the coaches at his first club in Argentina, Newell’s Old Boys, but the player was unperturbed and developed a huge leap to overcome his lack of inches.
‘They were a bit worried about the issue of height [at Newell’s],’ recalled Martinez previously. ‘But it was something I never gave any importance.’
Even so, it will be fascinating to watch him in the English top flight. Not least, because the big number nine has made a return this season.
Bournemouth’s Welsh giant, Kieffer Moore, and the Norwegian newcomer, Erling Haaland at Manchester City, who both stand at six-foot-five, are eight inches taller than Martinez.
Martinez has proved to be an aggressive defender and fans have warmed to him quickly
Martinez excelled in the Champions League against Haaland, snuffing out Dortmund attacks
Souness suggests that Martinez will eventually be found out.
‘I think he will get sorely tested and be found out going forward. Against [Erling] Haaland, [Darwin] Nunez or [Aleksandar] Mitrovic, oh deary me, it will be a mismatch.’
However, this will not necessarily be the case . The defender had no problems against Haaland in the Champions League last season.
In fact, Haaland’s aerial ability is one of the few aspects of his game that he may need to work on, which is surprising for such a tall man. In the Premier League, he has lost nine of 13 aerial battles, only succeeding in just under one third, although he won’t be particularly concerned since he is the division’s top scorer with 10.
Harry Maguire, who’s been replaced by Martinez, had similar heading record last season
And of 141 career goals, just 12 have been headers – including one from close range this season.
Martinez also faced Nunez (6ft 2ins/1.89m) when Ajax took on his former club Benfica in a last-16 tie in the Champions League last term.
Benfica won the tie 3-2 on aggregate with Nunez scoring a header from a corner in the second leg. In both matches, Ajax struggled to deal with the aerial threat posed by Benfica, but it was Martinez’s central defensive partner, Jurrien Timber, only 5ft 10ins himself, who was overpowered by Nunez for the winner.
As for Mitrovic, (6ft 2ins/1.89m), he is causing everyone trouble in the air and on the ground, and is the league’s second top scorer with six goals, including two headers.
However, it is early days in the season and Martinez’ Old Trafford career. And all of the current incumbents of United’s defence have a long way to go to match the titans who went before them.
During 11 seasons, which brought six Premier League titles, Rio Ferdinand won 315 of his 493 aerial battles in the top flight, a win percentage of 64 per cent, while his defensive partner, Nemanja Vidic won 707 out of 962 aerial duels in the league, or 73 per cent, on his way to five championships.
Martinez is still finding his feet at United, but his height is not holding him back so far.
Rio Ferdinand (left) and Nemanja Vidic formed a fearsome defensive partnership at United
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