DOHA, Qatar — When it comes to winning people over, it doesn’t take Lisandro Martinez long. After Manchester United began their season with back-to-back defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford, it started a debate about whether, at 5-foot-9, he was tall enough to make it as a Premier League centre-back. Yet by the end of August, he was named United’s player of the month.
Then, having arrived in Qatar with an Argentina team tipped as one of the favourites to win the World Cup, Martinez was left on the bench for their first game against Saudi Arabia. Following a shock 2-1 defeat, he was picked to start the second game against Mexico, and after an impressive performance in a 2-0 win that has breathed new life into their campaign, he should keep his place for the crucial final group fixture against Poland on Wednesday.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, once of West Ham United, has developed a reputation for keeping faith with a trusted group of players, so much so that his team have been nicknamed “La Scaloneta” in his honour.
Revered at home for ending a 28-year drought at major championships by lifting the Copa America in 2021, Scaloni’s decisions are rarely questioned, but Martinez’s form at Old Trafford prompted isolated calls for him to be included against Saudi Arabia at the expense of either Tottenham Hotspur‘s Cristian Romero or former Manchester City centre-back Nicolas Otamendi. Argentina fans were happy to accept Scaloni’s preference to start with Romero and Otamendi, but now that Martinez is in — he replaced Romero after 59 minutes, just six minutes after Saudi Arabia scored their second goal — there is little question that he should stay there.
He has been responsible for one of Argentina’s iconic moments in Qatar by taking a boot in the face from Mexico forward Hirving Lozano and then walking off like it was nothing. It is the type of commitment Argentina fans enjoy almost as much as a Lionel Messi goal.
Scaloni responded to the defeat to Saudi Arabia by ditching his usual plan and making five changes against Mexico, but Argentina fans want to see another when the XI is announced to face Poland, with the inclusion of Benfica midfielder Enzo Fernandez.
The 21-year-old’s introduction off the bench in the 57th minute against Mexico was the catalyst for Argentina to take control of a scrappy game. First, he was involved in the move that saw Messi score, and then found the net himself with a strike curled into the top corner to put their win beyond doubt. The expectation is that if there’s a change against Poland, it will involve Fernandez rather than dropping Martinez for Romero, who was poor against Saudi Arabia and is struggling to shake off a muscle injury.
Much of Scaloni’s success with Argentina has been put down to his ability to foster a team spirit that has been missing at other tournaments, and he was keen to hand Martinez his first international call-up in 2019 as much for his character as anything else. At United, Martinez is viewed as being as important off the pitch as he is on it.
Man United manager Erik Ten Hag wanted a left-footed centre-back in the summer to give his defence more balance, but Martinez has also been key in bringing some order to the dressing room. Sources have told ESPN that he makes a point of eating with different friendship groups within the United squad to ensure cliques don’t develop, and he will seek out players who have made a mistake or those who aren’t playing to make sure they are not left on their own.
Martinez has also been credited with Alejandro Garnacho‘s development this season after taking the teenager under his wing. He’s described as Garnacho’s “big brother” in the dressing room and has helped the forward become more professional after running into disciplinary problems during the preseason tour of Thailand and Australia by missing team meetings.
Sources have told ESPN that Martinez is the player everyone wants on their team for the small-sided games at the end of training and is furious afterwards if he doesn’t win. When he flies into challenges, other players will respond with shouts of “the butcher” — a reference to a nickname he picked up at Ajax — and often laugh about how he’s managed to develop a hard-man image despite being extremely polite and reserved away from football.
“He brings a South American spirit,” said Ten Hag, after Martinez’s €57.37m signing was confirmed in July. “It is aggressiveness but also control.”
He is already a cult hero at Old Trafford, and ferocious tackles are greeted with chants of “Argentina, Argentina.” After he was substituted at half-time during United’s 4-0 defeat to Brentford in August — a performance that prompted former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher to say he was “convinced” Martinez couldn’t play as a central defender in the Premier League — the 24-year-old has been central to the revival under Ten Hag. And, since his introduction in Qatar, Argentina have gone from facing a humiliating early exit to reestablishing themselves as genuine World Cup contenders.
Ahead of the tournament — Messi’s last — there was a sense that Argentina would win it for their iconic No.10 rather than because of him. If it happens, and Messi does bow out with the trophy in hand, he’ll have players like Martinez to thank.