Real Sociedad have been this season’s surprise package in La Liga, sitting in fourth place in a campaign founded largely on a strong home record where they have lost only twice in fourteen games, keeping five clean sheets in the process, as they strive to turn the Anoeta into something of a fortress. At the heart of their resilient defence is Inigo Martinez, a 21 year old who has a very bright future ahead.
Martinez was born locally in the Basque region of Biscay and was noticed playing for Aurrera de Ondarroa by Sociedad scouts who bought him to the club. Starting out in the youth ranks first of all, he was promoted to the B team in 2009, helping them to gain promotion to the fourth division at the first time of asking by making 23 appearances.
The following year, as Sociedad’s senior team were starting life back in La Liga, Martinez continued his development slowly by appearing more regularly for the B team, playing in 30 matches. In total, he made 54 appearances for the B side. Despite a season of indiscipline, the defender picked up 10 yellow cards and 4 reds, he was promoted to the “A” side for the following season.
A rise through 3 tiers to the very top may have phased many players, but not this cultured defender who had received the coaching that has also produced Asier Illaramendi, Ruben Pardo and Antoine Griezmann from the region of San Sebastian.
After making his debut vs Sporting Gijon in a 1-2 away win, he slotted straight into the side, finishing all 26 games he was handed by coach Phillipe Montanier. His defence conceded 47 goals as they finished in a respectable 12th place, yet there was enough from the 20 year old to suggest he was going to be a talent. His disciplinary record however, was still an issue, picking up 9 yellows and 2 reds as a result of his possible immaturity at such an age.
His first year in La Liga saw him make his debut for the Spanish under-21 team in late 2011 before being picked for Spain’s Olympic campaign last summer. In London however, his reckless streak struck again, getting sent off in his first game against Japan for bringing down Kensuke Nagai while as the last man. Spain eventually lost the match 1-0. He has since remained in the under-21s, picking up 8 caps.
This season, Martinez has played an integral role in Sociedad’s dream campaign which has seen them turn into genuine European contenders, playing in 23 of their 27 games so far. An improvement has also been made on the card front, picking up just 6 yellow cards and, so far, 0 reds.
Strengths, style and weaknesses
Martinez is a composed left-footer who possesses a top-class reading of the game and an unerring aerial ability despite his diminutive 5ft 11 inch frame. Last season, he won over half his aerial duels. It is a trend that has continued into this campaign too, with 38 of 69 headed duels won. These stats show that, as well as an impressive tackle rate, which stands at a 79% success rate.
His ability in the air, as well as an intelligent reading of the game has made him a strong defender alongside Mikel Gonzalez at centre-half. He has drawn comparisons to Carles Puyol because of a similar stature and a physical style of play. He can also play at left full-back, although the constant presence of Alberto de la Bella has meant that Montanier hasn’t had to shift Martinez from his favoured position.
He is also very adept on the ball, meaning Sociedad can rely on him to play the ball out of defence. According to statistics website Squawka, his passing accuracy stands at 80% with over 700 attempted passes finding their man. This has fit in with the Spanish emphasis of playing out from the back and defenders being comfortable on the ball, but as can be seen from this graph, he favours the longer ball, possibly a result of Montanier urging the defence to find his attackers quickly on the counter-attack.
He also has an ambitious eye for goal too, having scored goals from the half-way line against Real Betis and Athletic Bilbao. Those strikes can be seen here.
It is his impressive reading of the game and spectacular ability in the air, his two main strengths, that are central to the Sociedad game-plan of soaking up the pressure and hitting teams on the counter-attack. His ability to hardly ever miss a game, together with the rest of the back four who he has played alongside 18 times this season, makes it easier for Montanier to keep a solid, settled base for his team.
It does look as though some of the comparisons to Carles Puyol may have some substance as it is rumoured that Barcelona are keeping tabs on the 21 year old with a view to take him to the Nou Camp. His inclusion at the Olympic Games of last summer would have boosted his reputation and alerted many higher profile club.
Sociedad, despite their impressive season, are still a squad assembled on cheap signings and the promotion of talents from the productive youth academy, so they would welcome the investment for a player who is contracted until 2015.
In the past, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have also been linked with the young Spanish defender, but it is believed Barcelona are favourites to land the youngster having scouted him for four years. They are rumoured to be interested in making a move for him.
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