Who will replace Lisandro Martinez at Manchester United?
At the moment, Manchester United are enjoying a promising pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia under new manager Erik ten Hag.
United won their first three games, beating Liverpool 4-0, Melbourne Victory 4-1 and Crystal Palace 3-1 with a new brand of high-pressure football.
Ten Hag may only be 270 minutes of pre-season action into his reign, but there’s already a good vibe building among this group of players.
However, there is one area of the squad plagued by a new sense of unease and concern: United’s stable of centre-backs.
Back in Manchester, the club have confirmed the arrival of new centre-back Lisandro Martinez, signed from Ajax for a fee of up to £55.5m.
United already have four first-team centre-backs Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Raphael Varane, all of whom are on the circuit, and each of them will find their position in the starting line-up or squad is now under pressure.
Ten Hag surveyed United’s center of defense and decided he needed something new, especially after last season when they conceded 57 goals, the most in the Premier’s 30-year history League, and the most since the 1978-79 season.
At the start of the summer, United’s focus in the transfer market was to strengthen their midfield and attack, but Ten Hag made it clear to the United board that he wanted Martinez to follow him ever since. Ajax, and that was duly delivered.
It is highly unlikely that Ten Hag persuaded his new employers to invest such a sum in Martinez to make the team and sit on the bench.
Last season, Maguire and Varane were United’s first-choice partnership with Lindelof the first reserve as cover when either was injured.
But now that Martinez is set to step straight into United’s starting lineup, that means either Maguire or Varane will have to make way for him. Who will it be?
Just ten days ago Maguire’s place in the squad seemed secure when Ten Hag confirmed he would be their captain for next season. However, Martinez’s signing suggests that may not be the case after all, and he could still be under threat.
Maguire has since been booed by United fans in Melbourne but more importantly was at fault for United’s conceded goal against Melbourne Victory, being caught out of position and foiled by Chris Ikonomidis who opened the scoring after five minutes.
It’s still pre-season and players are using these games to gain fitness and form, but it has also underscored concerns that Maguire may not be suited for Ten Hag’s style of football.
The Dutchman likes to play with an aggressive, high press which requires naturally quick and mobile defenders who are adept at one-on-one situations. It’s hard to make Maguire’s argument fit that description.
It’s a role Varane is more familiar with, but he’s only had a mixed first season at Old Trafford. The Frenchman provided some classy moments but then missed too many games through injury and was ultimately unable to overcome the issues that plagued United’s defence.
United hope that an injury-free and more stable Varane will be seen in the coming season, and he will start performing like a World Cup winner and a serial Champions League winner. He has to show that he is United’s best centre-back.
It might be wrong to dismiss Lindelof’s chances under Ten Hag as this will be his sixth season at Old Trafford, he is certainly a survivor, but the feeling persists that he is not an elite defender.
Bailly has impressed on the pre-season tour so far but it may be too late for him. Since arriving in 2016, the Ivorian has had too many false dawns, failing to make more than 20 league appearances since his debut season. United have also made it known that they would be ready to sell him this summer.
Martinez’s big advantage is being a left-footed player, which will bring more balance to the core of United’s defence. “It will help with possession and defence,” confirmed Ten Hag. “And he also brings a South American spirit, I call it aggression, control, and he can bring that to the team. I think it will suit Manchester United and the way we play very well.
It remains to be seen which of Maguire and Varane, who are both right-handed, will line up alongside Martinez at the start of the season next month.