Lisandro Martinez has already cracked the code of keeping Erling Haaland silent for 90 minutes. When the Manchester United defender starred for Ajax in last October’s 4-0 Champions League win over Haaland’s Borussia Dortmund, the Argentina international worked in tandem with defensive partner Jurrien Timber to undo the threat from the man who is now tearing the Premier League apart with Manchester City.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (US)
Haaland had chances to score in the Johan Cruyff Arena, but defensive work from Martinez and Timber – as well as coach Erik ten Hag’s tactical plan – ensured the game ended with Haaland suffering from what, for him, has become the rarity to fail. to mark.
Almost 12 months later, Martinez and Haaland will face off again on Sunday when Ten Hag’s United travel to the Etihad in the first Manchester derby of the season. Both are in the early stages of their careers at their new clubs following summer transfers, and both have been two of the standout newcomers to the Premier League this season. Although there will be a number of key battles that will influence the outcome of Sunday’s game, the Martinez vs. Haaland face-off will arguably be the most decisive.
If Martinez, probably with the help of defensive partner Raphael Varane, can enjoy an extra 90 minutes without allowing Haaland to score, then United’s chances of beating Pep Guardiola’s side will be much greater. Still, Haaland proves nearly unstoppable in a City shirt.
In 10 games in all competitions for his new club, the 22-year-old has scored 14 goals and only Bournemouth – yes, Bournemouth, who lost 9-0 at Liverpool – have stopped him from scoring in a competitive game. And even though he failed to score in City’s 4-0 win over the Cherries, he did register an assist, finding a way to make a telling contribution.
On paper, Haaland vs Martinez should be a mismatch. The City striker is 6ft 4in and has the physique of a heavyweight boxer, while Martinez is just 5ft 9in and relatively light but what he lacks in physical advantages, the 24-year-old certainly makes up for it in tenacity and his ability to read the game. Having played alongside Harry Maguire in United’s first two defeats to Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford in the Premier League, Martinez’s size – or lack thereof – has been singled out by a number of respected former players as a problem that would prevent him from becoming a success in English football.
“I’m convinced it can’t work because its size [Martinez] playing in a back four,” said former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher after United lost 2-1 to Brighton and 4-0 at Brentford. “Maybe he could go to left-back, maybe he could play in a back three, but a back four, he can’t play there in the Premier League.
“His passing is very good, he looks aggressive. He looks like a leader. He’s not a bad player, but to play at this level of football at 5ft 9in I wouldn’t want to play alongside someone who was 5-foot-9 as a centre-back.”
Being small is not necessarily a critical disadvantage against a striker like Haaland. After all, the Norway international doesn’t discriminate against certain types of defenders – he scores against all of them, big, small, fast or slow.
Former United defender Jaap Stam, a member of the side that won Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble in 1999, believes Martinez has shown he has the qualities to dispel the stereotype that small defenders cannot succeed in the Premier League. “It was easy, the day he signed for United I already said they would talk about his size,” Stam told the Manchester Evening News. “This way [in England]everyone thinks that as a centre-back you have to be big and tall or else you won’t make it.
“Of course sometimes he’s going to be surprised, but that’s also what happens with great players – they also make mistakes. Martinez shows his quality on the ball, he shows his quality in defense and his communication around him is good. We just have to keep going.”
Against Dortmund, Martinez and Timber shared defensive duties while marking Haaland. At 5ft 10in, Timber also lacked height and power against the striker, but with one defender falling while the other closed in on Haaland, Ajax were able to deny him a goal.
At 6ft 3in, France international Varane will give United and Ten Hag a mix of height, strength and pace against City, which should make for a fascinating showdown between City’s goalscoring machine and central defensive partnership in United’s development.
But while Sunday will clearly be a test of the Martinez-Varane axis, it will also be a challenge for Haaland, who has yet to face one of the Premier League’s so-called Big Six in a competitive game this season. In the Community Shield loss to Liverpool in August – a game which is not classed as a competitive game – Haaland cut a frustrated figure against Virgil van Dijk and failed to score in a 3- 1. Haaland’s most significant contribution in this game was missing an open goal from 3 yards out in stoppage time.
How Haaland performs against United will be an interesting pointer for the months to come. If City’s supply line to their star striker is reduced against top teams, Guardiola’s side may not be as formidable as they have appeared against many of the Premier League’s weaker sides.
Haaland is unquestionably a goalscoring phenom and stopping him will be United’s main focus this weekend. In Martinez, however, they have at least one defender who knows how to do just that.