In all the great eras with the great teams, there are great players that typify their great managers. The cerebral Sergio Busquets was the coach on the pitch for Pep Guardiola’s best Barcelona team. Roy Keane’s hunger, drive, and ambition echoed Sir Alex Ferguson’s personality on the field.
Today, there are others like Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, who might not embody the manager’s personality but he does represent the manager’s unique style and tactics, and by nullifying him, you halt the progress of every other cog in the machine.
Anthony Martial and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer share none of the above. As players, both are/were quite cold and uncompromising in their finishing but that’s where the comparisons end really. Yet, every doubt that surfaces in sections of the media regarding the player is mirrored when analyzing the manager.
He’s good, but is he good enough for Manchester United? Is he really cut out for this role? And this is the case despite both men providing plenty of evidence over the course of the season that they are slowly but surely fulfilling these roles.
So much of Ole’s United will depend on Anthony Martial. If Martial is a success, Ole’s likely to be a success, and vice versa. So let’s have a look at how United’s no. 9 fared this past season.
The Number Nine
The big story at the start of the season was the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan, which briefly left the number 9 shirt vacant. The Belgian scored 42 goals and registered 13 assists in all competitions for United in his two seasons. Not a bad return considering the dearth in creativity in the United side during this period.
In 2019-20, AM9 was back. The Frenchman made a point in the very first game of the season against Chelsea. Scoring a tap-in to his manager’s delight, followed by a nod to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker – now I’m always smiling — and pointing to the number at the back. Lukaku was often castigated for his big-game record in England (rather unfairly), but that was just another tick in the box for Martial. He took his form to the next game against Wolves with a sharp finish with his left-foot before being sidelined with a hamstring injury at the end of the Palace game. He’d be out for two months. This period coincided with United’s poorest run in the season.
Ole’s roll of the dice
Martial was mostly a peripheral figure under José Mourinho. The Portuguese manager never missed an opportunity to disparage the nifty forward. Martial had streaky runs of great form under the former United boss but one never got the impression that Mourinho, as is his right, was ever convinced. Mourinho was mostly just accommodating a player, who was for a time the most expensive teenager in the world, and Martial’s confidence was wilting by the day. But that could be said for most of the United players (bar David De Gea) during Mourinho’s tenure.
With Martial’s injury, it seemed that he was going to go back to the fringes and United would have to look into the market for a starting centre-forward in January. He did return eventually though, and United’s form picked up slightly, but it was still mostly patchy.
However, Solskjaer vehemently opposed the noises from the outside by sticking with Martial through this difficult period.
Martial’s underlying numbers
His stats have never looked better. He’s scored 23 goals in all competitions, ending the season as United’s top goalscorer. Martial was tied with Marcus Rashford for goals in the Premier League, scoring 17. He also registered 9 assists, with 6 coming in the League.
Non-penalty Expected Goals had him at 10.8 in the league, while expected assists had him at 4.2. He’s been a perennial overperformer on this metric so this isn’t a massive surprise, but it’s never been at this rate. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 are still relatively low at 0.37. He has been getting more scrappy goals, but there’s room for improvement.
Martial’s always had his critics for not making the lung-bursting runs that Rashford makes, for example, and this is something that you’d hope to see more next season. It’s perhaps why Rashford’s non-penalty expected goals per 90 for the league are at 0.60. Martial does drop deep quite often though, looking to lay it off and dribble his way to goal as suggested in the shot creation metric. Martial has had 3.32 shot creating actions per 90 this season. This is higher than Firmino, Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Jamie Vardy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
He’s great at receiving the ball to feet either from a central position or in the channels, often making a run towards the left to receive a pass from Marcus Rashford – this has been a familiar pattern.
There have been a few clear weaknesses though. Martial is not very good at aerial duels, having only won 26.9%. For comparison, Lukaku won 55% of his aerial duels last season. This can be an issue when United face teams that apply a well-functioning high-press. It forces the side to play out from the back and be vulnerable to turnovers in build-up.
United’s pressing actions are mostly in the middle third. Martial doesn’t rank very high on these metrics either. Only Daniel James and Jesse Lingard come out looking good on these metrics among United’s forwards.
There’s more to come
Marcus Rashford’s rise was a surprise to most so the expectations were never as high, and being from the academy also helps. Mason Greenwood’s always had those high expectations and even at just 18 years old, there’s already an expectation that he’ll always deliver.
Martial’s been a prodigy since his days in Lyon and was bought for a large sum so there’s an expectation that’s somewhere between Rashford and Greenwood, and it’s maybe why he’s mollycoddled a little from fans. Winning the Golden Boy award, his debut goal against Liverpool (in what was a fantastic debut season) was only an advert for greater things, so there’s some basis for this.
Solskjaer’s faith has not been completely vindicated yet, but it could be soon. There’s a strong case to be made that Martial was United’s best player following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, with his first hat-trick for the club being the highlight of United’s best period of the season.
He’s still not headed into his prime years yet and the signs are great heading into next season with the team likely to kick on from one their strongest positions since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Until then, we look forward to chanting, “50 million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again.”