“He has physical and technical attributes which make him very special. He is an extraordinary football player.” Xavi Hernández, currently the most decorated Spanish footballer around, was not talking about a teammate of his at Barcelona. He was talking about a footballer located over 300 miles away in the city of Bilbao; he was talking about Javi Martínez.
The words, although meaningful, were no surprise. People had talked about Martínez since he was 15 years old, as he was noted for his fine vision and combination of physical and technical abilities. In many ways, he represented a new generation of Basque talent, mixing the age-old physical dominance with fine Spanish technical acumen now so widely lauded in the world game. He was over 6ft, but moved with the grace and poise of a winger barely creeping over 5ft. At one point, out of 1,920 players in Segunda B he was the youngest, and he was probably one of the best.
An article in Diario de Navarra said Osasuna fans need not worry because he had a €6m clause in his contract – it was activated not long after its publication by Athletic Club de Bilbao. His brother, Álvaro, had been released by Athletic in the summer of 2001 after being told he wasn’t good enough – brother Javi took this to heart and in an interview to the local press he claimed “I’d never go there, a grudge will always remain”. How much of that grudge remained, might’ve been significant in his actions ahead of the move to Germany. At the time the Martínez family thought long and hard, before eventually swallowing their pride and making the short journey from Pamplona. He spent 8 years at the club, but even when he arrived things were not simple. Then Coach Javier Clemente didn’t want him, insisting he was not developed enough for the short-term project he had in mind and that Raúl García was the better player from Pamplona. The feisty Clemente would have to back down, and use the teenage powerhouse. He wouldn’t use him for long as he was dismissed, and the upheaval continued as Félix Sarriugarte sooner came and went.
Joaquín Caparrós was the man to guide Martínez though, first offering stability by clipping his wings, before unleashing him into splendid flight. Caparrós work with youth in Spain is hugely underrated, and even with Athletic he wasn’t handed true acknowledgment for the work he did. He allowed Martínez to blossom in central midfield, operating in a manner similar to that of Patrick Viera at Arsenal. Despite the tender years he could dominate at the Athletic midfield with his vast amounts of energy and imposing figure. He’d take giant steps galloping between defence and attack, partaking in swift midfield transitions by guiding the ball out of defence and into wide areas and exchanging passes with teammates before seeking a return ball. His first touch, and awareness, was glorious. It was remarkable seeing a boy, of course this is what he still was, using his build so gracefully and to his advantage. Martínez would often himself in opposing penalty areas, looking to pick up loose balls before crashing the ball into the net or bringing composure with neat lay-offs.
His reputation began to grow, and despite his start still yet to really ascend, the sight of Martínez powering through central midfield was one of the finest you’d see at any ground in Spain. There was a more elegant side to his game though, and this was shown during Spain’s victorious stint at the Under-21 European Championships. In the double pivot he played the role his wing man would at Athletic, dictating the tempo and providing the roots for the creative hub to build upon. After his time with Spain’s senior squad in South Africa, he was installed as one of the leaders in the U-21 dressing room and regularly spoke to players about what a feeling it was to be part of that World Cup winning group., offering advice and guidance to the younger, more inexperienced players.
The most significant stage in the development of Martínez was the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic. It was expected that Carlos Gurpegui would be the man to drop into a centre-back role to compliment the Argentinean’s necessity for a player who can adeptly move out of defence with the ball. However, Gurpegui suffered a season ending injury and it was Martínez who dropped back. For awhile, the move was met with much derision given the immense presence he’d brought to the midfield and how he’d blossomed. His role at centre-back would become a maturing process for the player though, and one that would see him become an undeniably more rounded player. Martínez worked closely with Bielsa on the role, understanding what it meant to be essentially, the starting point for the team. As expected, in the attacking phase of his defensive work Martínez was outstanding and his vision enhanced the suitability to play long balls out of defence into wide areas and of course to focal point Fernando Llorente. It was in those defensive phases that Martínez grew however, understanding the duties of defending his penalty area, first by being able to hold his defensive line and being the safety net as a covering player. Teamed next to Andoni Iraola, Martínez often had to come across into the right channel and shut down the gaps created by the full-backs gallops forward. As the season went on, confidence grew, and eventually people began to forget he was a marauding midfielder, he was acknowledged as a pure centre-back. Vicente Del Bosque, upon calling him up for his European Championship squad, stressed that the versatility he offered was essential for any squad.
This is what Bayern Munich now get. This is what makes Martínez worth €40m. They get a colossal footballer blessed with a fine skillset that would improve any team, and with a gulf of experience behind him at both club and International level; yet still with his whole career ahead of him.