Earlier this week, Manchester United completed a deal to sign Argentinian defender Lisandro Martinez from the Dutch club Ajax. The transfer could cost United up to €67.37 million, or around ₹545 crore (after add-ons), making Martinez one of the most expensive defenders ever.
But before the 24-year-old could play a competitive match for his new club, some club fans and others took to social media to question the transfer. The reason: his height. Martinez, unlike many modern-day defenders, stands at just 5ft, 9 inches. How could he possibly compete against the likes of Erling Haaland (the Norwegian striker who has signed for Manchester City), who is 6ft, 5 inches tall? Or Darwin Nunez, the new Liverpool forward, who stands at 6ft, 2 inches? Is Martinez even built for the physical rigours of the Premier League?
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Yet, if you look back at some of the world’s best defenders, it’s clear that short defenders, or centre-backs, have done exceedingly well. The very first name on such a list would have to be that of former Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, just 5ft, 9 inches. The versatile defender, who spent most of his club football career in Italy, was renowned for his positional sense and heading accuracy. Apart from the many club honours with Juventus, he won the 2006 World Cup with Italy.
Writing for The Guardian in July 2006, football writer Amy Lawrence noted: “He has been imperious. Rigorous. Absolutely in charge. Standing tall at 5ft 9in, he is dwarfed by just about every other centre-half in Germany, yet he has risen serenely above them all, seemingly without a bead of sweat…. What Cannavaro lacks in height, he makes up for in anticipation, positioning, concentration and an explosive leap.” In 2006, Cannavaro was also named Fifa World Player of the Year. He remains the only defender to have won that award.
Another short defender known for his explosive leap and leadership on the football field was Spain and FC Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, just 5ft, 10 inches in height. He spent his entire professional career with FC Barcelona, winning 18 major club titles. His passing ability was remarkable: According to the football data and analytics website Whoscored.com, the Spaniard maintained a pass success percentage of more than 90% in his last five seasons (2009-14) with the club. He even won the 2008 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup with the Spain national team.
Franco Baresi, who spent his 20 years as a professional footballer (1977-97) with AC Milan, was also 5ft, 9 inches. He was even nicknamed “Piscinin”, Milanese for “little one”. But his short stature had little impact on the way he played.
Baresi was part of the famed all-Italian Maldini-Baresi-Costacurta-Tassotti defensive backline that played for Milan, most notably under manager Arrigo Sacchi, during the 1980s and early 1990s. Winning multiple Serie A titles with Milan and the 1982 World Cup with Italy, he was named by Pele as one of the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at the 2004 Fifa centenary awards ceremony.
Coming back to Martinez, data put on Twitter by football analyst @StatmanDave in the 2021-22 Champions League season shows the left-footed defender had the highest aerial-duel winning rate per game, at 64%—more than towering centre-backs like his new United teammate Harry Maguire, Villareal’s Pau Torres and Manchester City’s Ruben Dias (who are all over 6 feet in height). Moreover, @StatmanDave noted, Martinez’s “ability on the ball, his passing, his aggression and physicality” would suit new United manager Erik ten Hag and his style of football.