• Sat. Dec 9th, 2023

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Inigo Martinez: From fifth-choice Barcelona centre-back to El Clasico contender

“Honestly, I’m just mad right now. In the second half I felt like my legs weren’t working!”

Like this Inigo Martinez jokingly described his past week at Barcelonawhich has undoubtedly been his best season since joining them on free transfer this summer.

Coach Xavi sent him off in the 82nd minute in Wednesday’s 2-1 win The Champions League home win over Shakhtar Donetsk, but not because his performance had disappointed – far from it.

It was the 32-year-old defender’s second start in three days and in “about the 65th minute” he said he “started to realize I was really tired”.

“I think it’s normal,” Martinez added after the game. “This is the first time this season that I have played two games since the start after a long-term injury. It’s nothing to worry about, but I’d rather tell the manager and get some rest.”

Xavi also confirmed there was “nothing to worry about” in his post-match comments. Quite the opposite. Just like he did against former club Athletic Bilbao in La Liga on Sunday night, Martinez managed to prove a point to anyone who was still wondering why Barca moved for him.

The Catalans didn’t have their best game against Shakhtar, but they picked up three points that leave them comfortably top of the group at half-time, thanks most of all to a superb display from the 20-year-old. Fermin Lopezwho scored one goal and provided the other Ferran Torres.

La Masia graduates like Lopez have grabbed all the headlines in the last week in Barcelona, ​​but apart from the 17-year-old Marc Guiuwinner’s adventure this weekend, it arguably has no better revelation than Martinez.

Martinez has also made a big impact in the Barca dressing room (David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

This is partly due to how underrated he has been since his arrival.

Just before his transfer was officially announced, as a free agent after his contract in Bilbao expired, Martinez had to undergo surgery on a foot injury. That left him facing a difficult start to the campaign, with no playing time in the warm-up games as we went through a careful recovery process.

It was even easy to forget that Martinez was part of the group, and it’s fair to say that Barcelona bore some responsibility for that.

With the Catalans mired in their usual salary cap, his injury acted as a reason to put his La Liga registration on hold. His recovery meant that he could not play at that time, while other recruits, viz Ilkay Gundogan and Oriol Romeu could. Therefore, backroom people preferred to prioritize them.

When the deadline arrived, however, Martinez found himself in a difficult position.

He was still on the comeback trail and was the team’s fifth-choice center back, with Ronald Araujo, Jules Conde, Andreas Christensen and Eric Garcia all before him. He still wasn’t even registered.

One of the reasons why Barcelona finally let Garcia go on loan Geronain addition to sending Ansa Fati to Brighton for the season and sell Abde Ezzalzouli to Real Betis was making sure they had enough cap space to sign Martinez.

The player and his camp were always calm about this situation and were confident that the club would eventually sign him. Barca’s senior management admitted it would be seen as a disaster if they could not. This was a major incentive to allow these departures on deadline day.

With all the paperwork clear and after two substitute appearances, Martinez finally made his first start on September 26 in a 2-2 away La Liga draw. Majorcahe lacked rhythm and did not offer his best performance.

When Konde was then ruled out due to an injury sustained in the last match before the internationals in October, Martinez was given another chance in this busy week of football. “He’s definitely taken the chance,” said a source in the dressing room, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

If there’s one league where Martinez has shined the most, it’s his work with the ball. He played a fundamental role in the build-up both on Wednesday and over the weekend.

Let’s start with Shakhtar alone.

In the screenshot below, Martinez receives the ball from Araujo and while the opponent sits back and waits for Barcelona to attack, he passes to Torres who immediately breaks two lines…

…create space for him to turn and start the run that ends in Lopez’s goal to double the lead.

Even more impressive was what Martinez did three days earlier against his former club.

It’s almost the same context, but arguably a more difficult transmission to a) spot and b) execute. In this case, Joe Felix is Martinez’s target.

The distance the ball has to travel is a bit further, but Martinez finds a way through. Joao Felix shows sublime control before launching the night’s hero, 17-year-old Guiu, on his way to the winner.

This kind of passing has not been seen from the Barcelona central defender this season. Their most notable actions have mostly been desperation tackles, such as the one Konde made against Porto in the first leg of the Champions League group stage three weeks ago to deny Evanilson a goal.

Martinez has also impressed with his defensive moves, but also with his passes through opposing lines and long balls to change the game – skills Xavi appreciates.

“He’s really proactive defensively,” the manager said on Wednesday night. “He knows how to filter the ball directly to the attackers. His passing is so good, as we saw with Fermin’s goal, but he is also very good at changing the game with long range passes. I’m so happy with him – that’s why we signed him.”

Against Shakhtar, Martinez completed five long passes from seven attempts – the most by any Barcelona player in the game. But he was even more impressive in this league against former club Bilbao on Saturday, completing 12 of 15 attempts in the same measure – again, the best figures in the team. In both matches, his accuracy was over 90 percent.

Xavi also praised Martinez’s influence in the dressing room. Among the young core of players currently growing at the club, a man with his vast experience tries to be a suitable addition.

Martinez joined Barca as a free agent this summer (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Inigo is very positive for the group. He has the character of a leader,” said Xavi. “He is very positive and knows what he can offer the younger ones.”

Martinez was one of the first players to advise Guia after his winner on Saturday, as the 17-year-old said on television: “Inigo just told me that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but to enjoy it.

Locker room sources say he is also close Gift, Peter and Alejandro Baldeplayers he already knew from the Spanish national team, as well as Lopez and the 16-year-old Lamine Yamalas well as other experienced fighters like Romeu, Marcos Alonso and Sergio Roberto.

Now the first Clasico of the season looms and in those two games, Martinez has offered Xavi a reason to consider him as a potential starter in Saturday’s La Liga meeting at Montjuic, Barca’s temporary home while the Camp Nou undergoes major and expensive renovations. Opting for him would allow the manager to repeat his successful formula of using Araujo at right-back against Vinicius Jr.

“It will be my first Clasico and I can’t wait to live it, they are so special,” said Martinez. “Let’s see if I can play from the start, but if that’s not the case I’m going to help as much as I can from the bench, that’s for sure.”

This is certainly a good problem for Xavi right now. And it’s a remarkable achievement for someone who not so long ago was an unheralded signing, a fifth-round pick at center back and a last-minute signing.

(Top photo: Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

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