Amidst all the (well earned) praise for Bayern Munich’s almost total dominance last season there hasn’t been nearly enough for the player who was the last piece of the jigsaw, the signing that turned a team that lost Champions League finals into one that won them. Without Javi Martinez they wouldn’t have seemingly eclipsed Barcelona as the most formidable team in Europe.
‘It’s a lot of money for a water carrier.’
So said Uli Hoeness when they signed him, adding that he thought that at €40 million he was about €10 million too expensive. Three trophies later it’s a safe bet he probably doesn’t still feel the same way. In one sense you can see why Hoeness was reticent to spend the money, after all in Luis Gustavo they already had a defensive midfielder to slot alongside Schweinsteiger, one good enough to perform the same role for Brazil. In Martinez though they have a defensive midfielder currently performing the role like no one else (in fact he’s as much of revelation as Toni Kroos is threatening to becoming further forward in the playmaker role or Thomas Muller as a self declared interpreter of space, it’s enough to make you wonder what if anything Guardiola will attempt to change).
On first impressions it’s easy enough to appreciate why Martinez is a good player. Technically he’s excellent. His long legs propel him across the ground quickly. His distribution is as good as you’d expect from a young Spanish midfielder. What makes him exceptional, and quite possibly currently unique, is his combining of this with the physical side of the game. As football has allowed less and less contact the job of screening midfielders has become less about tackling and more about interceptions. Javi Martinez is excellent at both.
It’s in his positioning that he’s truly exceptional. It can be hardest thing to appreciate, watching on TV, of how hard it is to constantly be in the right place at the right time both with and without the ball. Martinez has always been good at it. In the early days of his career at Bilbao he would only very occasionally get caught out. The arrival of Marcelo Biesla as manager and his temporary conversion to centre back as allowed him to fine tune his positioning even further. For evidence of how important he is to systems played with an emphasis on pressing just look at what’s happened to Athletic without him (I also can’t help thinking that if Barcelona had signed him instead of Bayern he’d have spent time all season at centre back, an odd thought given that Pep will be managing him next year). Previous models of defence midfield success in Europe have been pure water carriers like Claude Makelele or in England all action running midfielders like Roy Keane. Martinez shows how much the game has moved on since then. With importance placed on quick transitions goals are scored from moves with fewer and fewer phases. Midfielders like Javi are able to win the ball quickly and cleanly and distribute it to dangerous areas. What would have taken two players in the past he’s able to do by himself.
Compared to other midfielders in Europe his stats in the Bundesliga for interceptions and tackles aren’t all that impressive. This can be attributed to Bayern’s almost complete dominance of their league. The more possession they have the less there is for him to win back. And his arrival has allowed Bayern to maintain the second most possession in Europe. Last season in the league Bayern averaged 65.7%, behind only Barcelona with 70%. Martinez’s screening and physicality combined with his distribution has allowed Bayern to win the ball back more effectively and move it on to dangerous areas quickly.
It’s in his partnership with Bastian Scheinsteiger that really makes Bayern tick. In Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 they perform slightly different roles but have the ability to cover each other. With that formation being so ubiquitous we’ve seen slightly varying interpretations with the two holding midfielders, the most common is to have one focussed more on screening and the other as a deep lying playmaker. Broadly speaking this is what Martinez and Schiensteiger do. Martinez’s ability to impose himself in the area in front of his back four has allowed Schiensteiger to dictate play more than he had previously (and with more freedom that he gets at international level with Sami Khedria alongside him). What’s interesting about Bastian and Javi is that on occasion they’re not afraid to swap roles; Schiensteiger’s positioning is good enough to cover when Martinez strides forward and Javi’s distribution is good enough for him to influence play when his partner takes a step back.
At 6 foot 3 and deceptively strong Martinez is imposing enough to use his physicality to influence matches. With experience he’s learned to stay on the right side of using it without costing his team. At Bilbao he was just on the other side of that line, amassing 58 yellows and 5 reds during his stay there. This season at Bayern he’s kept it down to 7 yellows, probably judging it absolutely right on how close to the edge he could get. His manner of being imposing while demonstrating technical excellence is probably closest to Patrick Viera of recent players. If anything he’s even more of a complete player, demonstrated by his greater ability to read play and step back into defence.
It was against Barcelona in the Champions League semi finals that Javi demonstrated just how key he had become to the way Bayern can play. For a team that was used to possession Bayern changed their tactics completely against the Catalans (as everybody does). Across the two legs Bayern averaged 40% of the ball. What they did without it was key. In the first leg every player dropped deep to mark across the pitch, even Mario Gomez who was positionally the nominal front man. This left Javi free to press across midfield. He kept his basic position in front of the back four but was free to come out and chase the ball, harrying the Barca midfielders in a way that they haven’t had much experience of before. Across the 180 minutes he made eight successful tackles and five interceptions, successfully breaking up Barca’s play and allowing his own team to launch their counterattacks. His maturity was shown after he received his booking in the first leg. He was still able to walk the fine line between making tackles but staying on the pitch. It’s safe to say that without his pressing Bayern wouldn’t have been able to pick Barca off in the same way.
His long term chances of becoming a regular in the Spain team seem assured. Even a country with such depth in midfield talent can’t ignore his talents forever (and it’s easy to forget that he’s only twenty four). Del Bosque has described him in the past as the complete player. He may have suffered from Sergio Busquets establishing himself as such a regular as it’s difficult to imagine them playing together, especially when normally so much of the team’s tempo comes from Xabi Alonso filling the other role at the base of the midfield. Sooner or later they’ll have to find room for him.
Bayern’s success this season was derided by Jurgen Klopp as a Chinese system, meaning copying their style from other successful teams. He was referring primarily to their wholehearted adoption of Dortmund’s pressing, something in the two previous season’s they were unable to cope with. One of the main reasons this was achievable was the capture of Martinez. There’s also a sense that Bayern have managed to co-opt some of the successful attributes of the Spanish system, as Javi optimises the excellent distribution and desire to win the ball back that is essential to their football. With his physical style being ideally suited to the German league Bayern may well have found the player that gives them the best of both worlds.