Despite being a fan favourite, and a cult hero almost instantaneously following his debut against Liverpool in 2015, Anthony Martial has come under fire by fans and pundits across his 5-year stint at the club, and this season it has been no different. His quality as a player is undeniable, and the potential is there but the consistency of his performances is the main underlying issue with Martial, and following on from multiple rumours surrounding the clubs interest in a striker joining the club in both the past summer and this January, it may be time to evaluate Martials role as the main striker in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team.
Regardless of having arguably his best run of form in the team over the first half of the season, scoring 12 goals in 26 games across all competitions which is already his second highest goal return in a season for the club, it is evident that many fans have become frustrated with his lack of consistency. It is also interesting to note the club has had rumoured interest in a number of strikers, ranging from proven goal scorers in Edinson Cavani, “plan B” type strikers such as Islam Slimani and the completely nonsensical rumoured interest in a loan move for 35-year-old former United player Carlos Tevez.
While the transfer window is closing, and there have been no significant reports of any striker coming in, the rumoured interest of these players calls into question whether Solskjær has faith in Martial to lead the line of the remainder of the season. While players such as Slimani and Ighalo point towards Ole wishing to strengthen squad depth and bolster the attacking numbers to support the thin squad following the seemingly long term absence of Marcus Rashford, a player of Cavani’s quality and with his proven track record of goals doesn’t quite fit the mould of a plan B or backup striker to play alongside Martial.
Cavani would more than likely be moving to a club based off of the fact that he’s guaranteed regular play time as the main striker. This would mean Martial reverting back to the left wing position, a position he has shown glimpses of quality but not anything to be raving about or dropping him from the starting eleven to accommodate Cavani. However, these are only rumours, and while they show apparent interest we can only speculate what that interest means in relation to Martial’s position in Ole’s plans.
What may be interesting to evaluate is the type of striker Ole wishes to play in his ideal formation and tactical set up and whether Martial can be deployed as that player. While the current tactical set up of the team resembles the tactics deployed by Ole in his tenure at Molde, with the 4-2-3-1 formation being the primary formation deployed and the wide players being more in the style of an inside forward instead of traditional wingers, the key missing tactical style is the high press.
Manchester United this season have been accused as being a purely counter attacking team, and while it has been successful against the “big 6” teams, the players often look lost when a team sits back against them, and the reason for this is often due to the efficiency of the high press. A key part of implementing the high press at Molde was the way the central striker of the front three initiated and partook in pressing the back line, Erling Håland (another recent United transfer target) was very effective at this due to his high work rate.
However, high work rate and Anthony Martial are far from synonymous with each other. Martial’s work rate is often the most scrutinised aspect of his game, and it is understandable due to his per 90 distance travelled average of 9.48km in the 18/19 season, which was lower than Lukaku, Shaw and Smalling. While this season we have seen a marked improvement in some games with Martial’s intensity and willingness to press from the front, a lack of him consistently maintaining the required levels of intensity to make the press work has meant a potential decrease in this tactical style by Ole, and a resolution to this issue would be the signing of a striker who fulfils this role more effectively. This would explain the interest United had in Håland prior to his move to Dortmund, yet none of the other strikers that are rumoured targets of the club really fit this style any better than Martial, so Ole may well have noticed an improvement by Martial in his effort levels.
One key thing to not in regard to both Martials form and man United’s play style is the absence of Marcus Rashford from the team. Rashford and Martial play exceptionally well together. They compliment each other perfectly with Rashford’s incredible high work rate somewhat compensating for Martials lack of pressing and may be the reasoning as to why when they play together the team looks a lot stronger. It also is one of the reasons as to why Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira feature a lot in Ole’s squad, despite patchy form, as both provide high levels of work rate and a good pressing game to again compensate for Martial and his lack of intensity.
Also, placing the blame directly on to martial when the rest of the team is by no means up to scratch for a team as big as United. Many improvements should and can be made to upgrade and evolve this side into more of what Ole would want a long time before Martial is replaced. The holes in the 24-year-old’s game are fixable, effort levels can be increased through coaching, consistency will come with experience and his blossoming on pitch relationship with Rashford is too exciting to be thrown away for a quick fix striker that may not work.
Overall, with Rashford missing for the near future there is no better time for Martial to step up to the mantle and prove his doubters wrong and show that he can be trusted to start week in week out for Manchester United. His goal scoring form this season of 0.46 goals a game has him on track to net over 20 goals in all competitions as long as he can stay fit and play at least 18 more games this season, while maintaining his goal scoring record. I would not be surprised to see him exceed the 20 goal benchmark, and it would be a good indication of his quality and a good return for his first full season as the main number 9 for United. He most definitely has the quality. We have seen enough of him in his now 200 games in a red shirt to know he can be our number 9. It now becomes a matter of consistently producing these performances in a side that is at this moment in time is struggling, and proving to the fans, the pundits and critics but most importantly, to Solskjær that he is the man to lead the line for Man United for the foreseeable future.