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From Newell's Old Boys to Man Utd: Lisandro 'The Butcher' Martinez following in Gabriel Heinze's footsteps

6:00 pm AEST 29/7/22
Lisandro Martinez Man Utd 2022-23
Lisandro Martinez has everything to surpass his idol's achievements at Old Trafford

Lisandro Martinez was among the safest of bets when it came to predicting which of Erik ten Hag's Ajax disciples would be joining him first in his new challenge at Manchester United. An accomplished defender in his own right, the Argentina international is also an extremely talented ball-player who will be key in getting possession moving out of his own half and up the field.

At 24, he has the potential to be a cornerstone in the team's backline for the next decade.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Martinez is that it has taken so long for much of the football world to sit up and pay attention to his abilities, but then again, he did not exactly take the fast track to stardom.

Martinez is another shining example of Ajax's glittering player development system, both with young stars that come out of their own academy, and those plucked from across the world and patiently worked upon to reach their full potential.

He had to grow up fast from the very beginning. At just 14, he left his home and family in the sleepy riverside tourist town of Gualeguay, Entre Rios to move to bustling Rosario and the youth set-up of Newell's Old Boys – the same academy which housed Lionel Messi during the Paris Saint-Germain wizard's formative years.

Money was scarce for the Martinez family, as it was for countless families in Argentina in the years following the 2001 economic crisis which sent millions below the poverty line.

“My parents worked as school cleaners,” he recalled to La Nacion. “We're a big family and we all lived in my grandmother's house.

"It was normal for me back then to eat only at midday and then at night have a cup of tea with some bread or biscuits. But I was happy.”

The youngster's beginnings with Newell's coincided with the final years of Gabriel Heinze's career at the Rosario club, after starring at the likes of United, PSG, Real Madrid and with Argentina.

“Heinze was an idol to me,” Martinez admitted to reporters at his presentation with the Premier League side.

“Making it here is so important to me, because he was also at this club. So, that was one of my challenges too.

"It is incredible for me to fly the Argentine flag here in Manchester too, I am so proud of that."

As a teenager, though, he found first-team football hard to come by, and few Newell's fans paid much attention when in 2017 Martinez was loaned out to Defensa y Justicia after making just a single senior appearance for the club.

Having only gained promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2014 unfashionable Defensa are a world away from the history and prestige of the defender's first club.

But the move proved a masterstroke for the Halcon, as their new signing immediately nailed down a starting spot in a dynamic young side which was soon challenging for honours, sealing an historic second-placed finish in the 2018-19 Superliga campaign.

“When you talk about a club being like a family, Defensa is the best example of that,” Martinez told La Nacion. “They treat you like a son. You are happy.

"They give you everything, they have an incredible training ground. They do everything to make the player think solely about enjoying the sport.”

Ajax, meanwhile, were watching from the very beginning.

On Wednesday, the Dutch giants released a fascinating collection of the scouting reports compiled on the young defender, beginning with an Argentina Under-20 match against Peru in January 2017 before he had even made his professional debut.

"He plays as a left centre-back and has a good technique with pinpoint short and long passes,” was the Ajax scout's conclusion from that first sighting, and the praise only grew from there.

In 2018, following a clash between Defensa and Boca Juniors, the report read: "Great kicking technique and extremely versatile. He leads the field, is tough as nails and plays with grit”.

The post-script could not have been more emphatic: "Continue to follow emphatically and review again as soon as possible. This may well be the second Nico Tagliafico; a real defender who knows what’s what."

That painstaking observation of the defender over the course of two years paid off handsomely, as after a rather turbulent period adapting to the famously intense, technical school of training at the club.

“I wanted to cry, I asked myself... what's wrong with me, why can't I touch the f*cking ball?!'” he admitted to Clarin.

But he soon found his feet, filling both in the middle and on the left of defence as well as an anchorman in midfield and winning the prestigious Rinus Michels Award as the club's best player over the 2021-22 season.

He nevertheless confesses to being bemused over the curious nickname handed to him by his team-mates, 'The Butcher'.

“It must be because I am aggressive when I play,” he laughed. “But I'm not one to make nasty tackles, but I do go after every ball as if it were my last one.

"A while ago I cooked up a piece of flank steak at home and they joked that the nickname fit perfectly!”

Ajax have now turned the £5.8m ($7m) they paid Defensa y Justicia for Martinez in 2019 into a fee which could eventually rise above £50m ($61m), another success story for one of Europe's premier football finishing schools.

The greatest merit, though, of course belongs to the player himself.

In the space of barely five years, Martinez has transformed himself from just another hopeful on the fringes of the Argentine Primera Division to one of the most proficient ball-playing defenders in the game.

And with Ten Hag watching over him once again, only this time at United, the kid who once looked up to Heinze has every chance of surpassing his idol's achievements at Old Trafford.