When Karim Ansarifard gave Cypriot outfit Omonia Nicosia a 1-0 lead against Manchester United on Thursday night, there was a short worry that the Reds were on pace for one of the club’s most humiliating defeats, only four days after conceding six goals in the Manchester derby.
Erik ten Hag’s men failed to level the score before halftime, but they quickly did so in the second half, with Marcus Rashford scoring from close range in the 53rd minute. Shortly after, Anthony Martial put the visitors ahead 2-1, with Rashford scoring his third goal of the game in the 84th minute.
Despite Omonia making it 3-2 with five minutes remaining, the Reds were able to hold on and gain a much-needed victory, albeit in an unsettling fashion for many.
The three points, on the other hand, were crucial. Finally, while Ten Hag’s team was far from convincing in Cyprus, it was critical that they came home with a win, whatever form it took. The Reds manager made a few changes to the squad that was soundly defeated by City, but with neither Harry Maguire nor Raphael Varane available, the Dutchman stuck with the centre-back partnership that closed the encounter at the Etihad.
Lisandro Martinez, who lined up opposite Victor Lindelof, was certainly irritated and angry after United conceded twice at the GSP Stadium. The goals were unavoidable and underlined that, while the Reds have made significant progress in some areas, they still have defensive flaws.
Prior to the international break, the Argentine had built a strong defensive connection with Varane, assisting the team to four consecutive Premier League victories. However, with the former Real Madrid man injuring himself against Guardiola’s side and Maguire still out with a knock, Martinez was forced to step up and become the team’s leader at the back.
His impassioned performances have already made him a fan favorite, and while his aggressiveness may get spectators up and moving, his passing ability has the potential to do the same.
Martinez (13) completed more advanced passes against Omonia than any other player save midfielder Christian Eriksen, who also had 13. The 24-year-old, who joined United from Ajax in the summer, was also 89% accurate with his passes and finished 11 of his 16 long balls (Sofascore).
The Argentine’s resolve to play forward on a constant basis was a significant component in United creating so many chances on Thursday night, with the center-back always preferring to move the ball in front of him rather than to the side or backwards.
Martinez had more touches than he is expected to have in the Premier League or against other high-profile European assaults, which is understandable given the opposition United faced. However, with the defender frequently scooping up the ball past the halfway line on Thursday night, as demonstrated in the image below, his range of accurate passing allows the Reds to transition from defense to attack considerably faster than previously.
He should have had an assist in the first period, but Antony was unable to convert despite being one-on-one with the opposing goalie thanks to Martinez’s defense-splitting pass.
He did, however, play a significant role in Martial’s goal. The Argentina international picked up the ball past the halfway line and blasted a forward pass to Rashford. In many respects, it was the epitome of what a well-executed progressive pass looks like.
Rashford did brilliantly to find Martial, who finished expertly, but the goal would not have been possible without Martinez. It remains to be seen if he would have the confidence to do so on a more frequent basis, and it would surely be more difficult in the Premier League, but the forward-thinking approach resulted in the second goal.
While there are numerous examples of Martinez’s passes going off, there are also numerous examples of it not going off – therefore it is vital to acknowledge the bad when looking at the good.
On occasion, the 24-year-old was likely guilty of being overly expansive, misplacing his pass when seeking to go long. In the image below, for example, the Argentine had choices to play’safe,’ but instead sought for Antony on the right wing. The Brazilian forward was unable to reach the pass, and the Reds regained control only seconds later.
Despite this, Ten Hag and the vast majority of United supporters would like Martinez to attempt to be optimistic. Of course, every circumstance is different, but if the center-back has the opportunity to play forward and help his team advance up the field, no one can complain on the few times when things don’t go as planned.
The decision to replace Maguire with Martinez was unexpected at the start of the season, but with the England international suffering for form, it surely came at the right time.
While Maguire has proven to be a capable defender, his passing numbers have occasionally let him down. For reference, 61% of his long balls in the league this season have been accurate, and he has managed 0.3 huge chances per game – which is probably where the average centre-back is supposed to be.
If Martinez is permitted to be more aggressive in the ‘larger games,’ he could present the Reds with a whole new alternative in the future. There will definitely be times when it is simply not possible, but the Argentine has demonstrated that he can provide something that his other defenders cannot.
Who knows, he could be the defensive midfielder United was hunting for all along.