Injuries are a part of football. While injuries are certainly unfortunate, they’re also an opportunity for those looking to make their mark. If it weren’t for injuries, how long would we have waited for Marcus Rashford to make his debut?
Successful football clubs all employ that “next man up” mentality. A star or even just a starter goes down with an injury, that’s an opportunity for someone else to step up and fill the void. Next man up as they say.
This season has seen no shortage of injuries around the league including at Manchester United. As the season has gone off the rails, United fans have also adopted a slightly different next-man-up mentality. In this case, it’s ‘the next player returning from injury will the be the one that saves us.’
That man is now Lisandro Martinez, but it started with Rasmus Hojlund.
Manchester United suffered a few injuries during their preseason tour, but these were isolated to either backups or young players we were hoping could break into the first team this season. At the end of the preseason, United announced the signing of Danish striker Rasmus Hojlund but also announced he would miss at least three weeks due to a back injury.
This was a blow, but not necessarily a major one. When United took the pitch for their first Premier League match against Wolves, they lined up like this.
That team features at least 10 players you would have expected to be in United’s first-choice XI. In fact, none of them look out of place with the exception of Rashford not starting in his favored position. The hope was that Garnacho would take a step forward and Rashford - who played fairly well as a striker last season - would be able to shoulder the load until Hojlund was fit.
The team struggled out of the blocks. They were outplayed by Wolves and couldn’t finish against Tottenham. Rashford struggled to make an impact as a center forward. Thus Hojlund became the first great savior. Once Hojlund arrives, the attack will start scoring goals.
Hojlund made his debut against Arsenal and looked like a bright spark for United. He hit the ground running in the Champions League but domestically he didn’t fix United’s attack. In fact it got worse. It was only recently that United’s xG got higher with Hojlund on the pitch compared to without him but they’re still scoring more often without him on the pitch.
This wasn’t Hojlund’s fault of course. By the time he returned Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, and Raphael Varane had also succumbed to injuries. The midfield was also an issue. We knew Christian Eriksen wasn’t going to be the answer but Casemiro was also playing poorly. That was likely because he was being asked to do far too much. He needed help but loan signing Sofyan Amrabat was also injured.
The 3-1 loss to Brighton could be chalked up to an injury crisis. Once Varane got back the defense would be more formidable. Mason Mount coming back would add some creativity and Amrabat would give United more stability in midfield as well as passing. That was all United were missing. The right players.
Except that’s not what happened. Varane returned for four games only to then find himself out of the team for over a month. Occasionally it was because of “illness” but most of the time it was just for “tactical reasons.” Mason Mount returned for four matches before getting dropped. He made one start in the League Cup over the next six matches before he picked up an injury in training.
United’s defense didn’t get better. The attack didn’t start creating more chances. As fast as these “saviors” were in the team they were back out. It wasn’t due to injuries, they were just not being picked.
Similar could be said about Amrabat. His first four matches saw him filling in at left back before he finally started in midfield against Brentford. Not only did the midfield play not improve, but it didn’t take long for Amrabat to show he was very much not the standard. By his third start in midfield, he was yanked at halftime, which would happen again in his very next start.
Not that United had any other answers in midfield. After being subbed off at halftime in consecutive matches Amrabat would be subbed on at halftime in United’s next two matches, both of which were losses. Erik Ten Hag has subbed one of his midfielders off at halftime seven times this season.
With United’s midfield a mess, the focus turned to the “return” of 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, who was a standout performer in preseason (though that’s preseason). Mainoo possesses a skillset that United badly needs in the middle of the park and none of their other midfielders have. Surely his return would help them keep more possession, play out from the back, and progress the ball forward to the attackers.
It wouldn’t just be Mainoo. The ability to play out the back would be greatly boosted by the return of Luke Shaw, one of the best ball-progressing left-backs in Europe.
The pair returned against Everton where United somehow won 3-0 thanks to the spectacular effort of Alejandro Garnacho and some horrific Everton finishing.
The attack didn’t generate much that day with Mainoo on the pitch, but not only was it only one game, it was Mainoo’s full Premier League debut. Shaw is still setting in. It’ll get better.
Once again these players did not turn out to be the saviors. United won just two of the eight matches after Shaw’s return until he was mysteriously unavailable for their last three games. United scored just four non-penalty goals in the six Premier League games with Shaw.
Just before the year ended we were treated to one more savior. With Antony having spent the entirety of 2023 doing fuck all on the right wing, Amad Diallo was set to return and promptly offer a threat from United’s right wing. Let me tell ya, he looked great standing on the touchline while Aaron Wan-Bissaka attacked all the dangerous spaces.
As we head into 2024 the “next man up” is Lisandro Martinez. Back in training since late December Martinez has become the next guy who is going to come into the team and be the missing piece that magically makes United better.
How exactly is that going to happen?
As soon as Shaw stepped back on the pitch, he showed there is a significant gap between him and whoever else is playing left back for United. He’s that much better. It took less than five minutes for Mainoo to establish he could do things that no other United midfielder could do. His next few appearances only further cemented the fact that he’s already United’s best holding midfielder. He has the most technical ability, he’s press-resistant, and he doesn’t hide from the ball. This is exactly what United needed.
And yet, Mainoo’s time on the pitch has coincided with United’s attack performing the worst it has for years. When Mainoo has been on the pitch United are taking just 7.47 shots per 90. Their xG is a meager 0.65, the team as a whole is making less progressive passes, entering the final third less, and taking fewer touches in the final third and attacking box.
Shaw and Mainoo are not the reason United’s attack is struggling but their presence hasn’t fixed the issues either. Yet now we’re expecting Lisandro Martinez to come back into the team and make things better?
Why? Don’t we have enough evidence to show the problem isn’t the players but the structure they’re being put into? What is Martinez going to bring to the table that’s going to suddenly make things click? What is he going to add that’s going to make United better?
I’ve asked this question before and every time you get the same general answer. He brings that ability with the ball at his feet. His progressive passing. That’s going to help United play out from the back, it’ll help them move the ball forward up the pitch, which will translate to the attackers getting the ball more often in more dangerous positions to improve the attack. He’s also just a really good defender which will make the defense better.
Here’s the problem. The numbers just don’t add up with that answer - especially in terms of Martinez making the team a lot better.
Among United’s center backs Martinez is currently at least third (I don’t have the data on Jonny Evans) in percentage of passes played forward, trailing Harry Maguire by a long way. Last season Martinez made 3.53 progressive passes per 90, nearly a full pass less than the 4.41 Maguire is making this season. United have the progressive center back, perhaps what they really need is both progressive center backs.
But this isn’t about individual numbers, this is about team performance. Since arriving in the summer of 2022, Lisandro Martinez has started 29 Premier League matches for Manchester United. In that same time frame Manchester United has played 29 Premier League matches without Lisandro Martinez in the starting XI. As far as samples for comparisons go, it’s tough to find a better one than that.
How does the team perform in those matches? When Martinez is out of the XI, the amount of progressive passes United make rises by four and a half per game from 40.41 to 44.93. They successfully get the ball into their opponent's box more often, and one byproduct of that has been their xG has been slightly higher.
Defensively it’s hard to definitively say Martinez makes them better. He was in the team for all three of the calamities last season so naturally they concede less on a per-game basis without him. None of those calamities were as bad on the xG scale but United’s expected goals against is still lower in the matches he hasn’t started.
As alluded to, those numbers could all be skewed by a few bad matches. There’s one number that’s far more important than any other; wins.
Manchester United have won just 14 of the 29 (48.28 percent) Premier League games “The Butcher” has started. Less than half! Of the 29 games he’s been out of the XI they’ve won 65.52 percent (19)!
This isn’t to say that Martinez makes United worse or that they’re better off without him. There are numerous reasons why United haven’t won as many games with Martinez in the team, many of which have nothing to do with him. What we can say is that he’s definitely not the savior for United. You just can’t say that one player is going to turn things around for you when you’ve won less than half the games that player has played for you. The math doesn’t math.
Martinez is one of the three best center-backs United have. It’s better for United to have him on the pitch, along with Luke Shaw, Kobbie Mainoo, and all their best players. We just have enough evidence to show the problem hasn’t been the players missing but how Erik Ten Hag has been using the players he has available.
Lisandro Martinez is not the missing piece who will come into the team and get everything clicking just right. He’s never been that. What he may be is just the latest bit of evidence of what the problem really is.