On May 12th, 2001, a now popular football expression was coined following Liverpool’s 2-1 FA Cup final victory over Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. French football journalist Philippe Auclair and Thierry Henry took joint authorship of the expression. Eleven years later, Auclair would write a biography on the legendary forward.
Here’s an excerpt from the biography, Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top, involving the two and Evening Standard’s football correspondent Steve Stammer:
Fox in the box. The expression might’ve only been coined in 2001, but the archetype has existed for over a century. Manchester United have had an illustrious list of forwards of this kind as well, going back to the days of Denis Law and most recently Edinson Cavani.
Much was made of the Uruguayan’s arrival last season, but there’s no question that his acquisition has been one of the more shrewd pieces of transfer business that United has conducted in recent years, regardless of the dubious process that led to it.
Cavani’s acquisition wasn’t just valuable for what he offered last season. It awakened memories of the unbridled joy a penalty box striker releases. Now, putting the aesthetic allure to one side, Cavani also performed a very important function for the side. It reminded United of what they needed in the previous season and what they’ll need in the near future.
Cavani isn’t just the archetypal fox in the box. He’s one of the great forwards from a generation where the center-forward has had to be a bit of a facilitator, a focal point, leader of the press, and also a finisher. His wonder goal against Fulham and valiant effort against Villarreal were testament to that.
All interested parties — from fans to the manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — were like sharks that’d just tasted blood: they wanted more.
Romelu Lukaku was at United not too long ago, so United did have a top center-forward in the recent past. However, it seemed like he was miscast as an isolated target-man in a conservative set-up with a dearth of creative players for a large part of his stint at United. But even by the high standards that Lukaku and other strikers of this era have set, Cavani’s movement in the box supersedes that of most other forwards in his generation.
United could simply replace Cavani by looking into the transfer market, but there have been suggestions from those in the media like Gary Neville (and Solskjaer himself) that Cavani is also playing the role of a mentor for some of United’s other forwards, with the hope that one of them is ready to pick up the mantle once Cavani leaves.
It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed like United would be led by three forwards. This image from Project Restart seemed like the dawn of a new era.
Now, if one were to have a look at the underlying data, it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to learn that Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood were being their streaky selves. Rashford played a much deeper role during this period, so he gets the benefit of the doubt.
But it probably didn’t even require a deep dive. Solskjaer’s been hammering it in since he got the job that his forwards don’t score the ‘scrappy goals.’ He uses other turns of phrases like ‘break the nose to get in the box.’ He even subtly talks about other forwards in his press conferences and what they offer at times. There have been marginal improvements but not quite enough.
Now, it’s easy to be optimistic and assume that the forwards in question will simply pick up parts of Cavani’s game, especially his movement. But is it really that easy?
Let’s now go back to Thierry Henry’s biography, where David Trezeguet is discussed:
“Trezeguet was already the archetypal ‘fox in the box,’ a centre-forward who possessed an uncanny gift to ‘smell’ goals and unerringly found the position where the ball would sit to be hit, skewed, volleyed, headed, bundled into the net. David was a born goalscorer, like Pippo Inzaghi, Hugo Sanchez or Gerd Müller, the owner of skills that Thierry knew he could learn, but would never master to the supreme degree, when intelligence becomes indistinguishable from instinct. I well remember a fascinating conversation I had with Henry at Highbury after Trezeguet had broken yet another record with Juventus; I was expecting a salute, but what I got was something different altogether. Thierry proceeded to analyse how David had created the chance leading to his goal, shuffling feet like a madison dancer to describe how his friend had launched not one, not two, but three runs in quick succession within the eighteen-yard box, darting from post to post to create the space needed to beat the ‘keeper, waiting, goodness knows how, for the ball to land precisely where it needed in order for him to prod it beyond the ‘keeper’s reach. Of all the memories I keep of Thierry, this is one of the most precious. I rang my desk to tell them: Titi just said the most wonderful things to me and…what was it exactly? My transcript read like an autopsy report, and we binned it. What was so beautiful, indeed so moving, was Thierry’s excitement, his sense of wonder at what David had done and which he, the showman who ruled Arsenal, could never do.”
That doesn’t look like great reading for our three forwards, does it? Thierry Henry was not just one of the great forwards of any era but also one of the most inquisitive. He didn’t believe it was possible to simply absorb and execute the ingenuity that David Trezeguet possessed.
Let’s now take a look at the three forwards in question individually and see what their best bet is for the coming season and foreseeable future.
It seems only fair that we start with another Frenchman.
Note: All stats going forward have been taken from FBref via Statsbomb
Anthony Martial – In the wrong timeline?
Anthony Martial is a great study for the finishing vs. movement debate. This can also be applied to Mason Greenwood, but we’ll have a look at him later.
Jeremy Steele of Analytics FC has put it nicely in this piece for The Ringer:
Disclaimer: We will only be looking at Premier League data since the sample size is larger.
Anthony Martial’s been a perennial over-performer on the expected goals metric, and it’s not a surprise. He’s made that curler from the edge of the box his go-to move. He didn’t score one of them this season, which maybe sums up why it felt a little underwhelming.
Martial was one of the best players for United in the 19/20 season, largely thanks to his showing post-January. There were multiple reasons for this, but none more so than the fact that he got a lot of minutes under his belt (2,624 minutes). The only other season where he received such unanimous praise was his first season, which also happened to be the only other season where he had a lot of minutes in the bag (2,632 minutes).
It’s easy to go along with the narrative that he doesn't thrive when asked to compete with new signings in the center-forward position (Zlatan Ibrahimović, Lukaku, and Cavani). This isn’t exactly accurate.
Strangely enough, his non-penalty expected goal numbers per 90 for this season were 0.40. It’s not amazing, but it’s serviceable. In the last three seasons, they were 0.37, 0.34, and 0.38. It’s actually the highest it’s ever been. He also regularly averages around 6-7 touches per 90 in the penalty box — with 7.37 touches in the penalty box this season.
Edinson Cavani averages 0.48 on the same metric, having averaged over 0.80 in his last three seasons for PSG, and he doesn’t average as many touches in the penalty box. So what exactly is the issue?
I think these heatmaps will provide some answers:
Martial’s not really a center-forward is he? The second image makes this less obvious because he did play a lot of minutes on the left, but that surely couldn’t have been the case in the 2019/20 season, right?
On paper, he was the center-forward, but does Anthony Martial really wants to play center-forward like Edinson Cavani?
So he’s a winger a la Ryan Giggs, because his heatmap shows a lot of activity on the left?
So he wants to be in that left-half space then?
Does he want to be an on-ball creator there like Paul Pogba was at Juventus and has been more recently for United?
Nope. (He doesn’t have the creative range for it.)
So he wants to burst from out to in like Marcus Rashford? They call that an inside forward, right?
Surely, he’s a false 9 or a deep-lying center-forward that’s become so popular in recent years, then?
Sorry, not that either. He doesn’t really have the playmaking ability of the Harry Kanes and Roberto Firminos of this world.
So...what is he?
Martial’s more like the second strikers that were quite popular in the 4-4-2 setups in the ‘90s—the one who dropped a little deeper and played in a pair with an off-ball runner. Now playing in a forward pairing isn’t that easy today. Most teams don’t employ two-man strike partnerships.
There was a short period under José Mourinho where he employed Lukaku and Martial as a strike partnership in a 3-5-2 system. United were quite exciting going forward in these games. To jog your memory, there was a 4-2 win against Watford and the famous 3-1 victory against Arsenal where David De Gea and Jesse Lingard made the history books for different reasons.
It was a shame that this system didn’t get more time. Paul Pogba got suspended after being handed a red card in the Arsenal game and the system never really saw the light of day again. Lukaku, fortunately for him, has been a benefactor of this system since moving on from United at Inter Milan, forming a lethal partnership with Lautaro Martinez.
Unfortunately for Anthony Martial, it doesn’t look like United will have a strike partnership in the near future to really get the most out of him. His best bet is that he makes a Luke Shaw type of improvement to his game as a traditional center-forward, but he’s short on time. United didn’t really miss him during his time away due to injury.
He’ll not just have to work on double movements but the sort of triple movements that the likes of Cavani and Trezeguet made a career out of. He’ll also have to play more centrally and not drift towards the left. This is going to be far more crucial to the coming season for Martial than relying on another creative player to facilitate him. Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw were two of the top creators in Europe this season, but Martial didn’t do enough to reap the benefits.
Martial’s also one of the saleable assets in this United side, making this a make-or-break season for the Frenchman. He’s no longer the wonderkid who scored an incredible goal against Liverpool on debut.
Let’s now take another player who made his name on his debut.
Marcus Rashford – In limbo
It’s easy to overlook that Marcus Rashford started his United career as a center-forward. He was also crucial to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as the full-time boss because of his performances in the same position. Of the three forwards that are being looked at in this piece, he’s the one who has the double movement — something that can be spotted even when a player is in his teens.
Just look at Anthony Elanga’s performance against Wolves. Missed two chances quite early on, but he kept going and got his just rewards a few minutes later. Even Amad Diallo’s goal against AC Milan in the Europa League is a case in point. Those are good signs, and Marcus Rashford’s always had it.
Another player who became a superstar at Manchester United also had this double movement at a tender age.
Here’s an excerpt from Cristiano Ronaldo’s biography featuring Gary Neville:
That off-the-ball movement was probably the difference between Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo. And it makes a massive difference in a game where players usually have the ball on average for about three minutes.
Luckily for us, Rashford himself spoke about this double movement with Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand in a recent video. Here’s a link to the video.
There were a few intriguing discussions in the video. Rashford was quite open about never wanting the ball to feet when he comes short — that this movement was only to push his marker onto him before slipping past him. The other less revelatory point that Rashford made was that he only makes those runs if the likes of Bruno Fernandes are on the ball.
Marcus Rashford’s in a strange sort of limbo in his career right now. He’s had to play under so many systems that it’s been hard to nail down a long-term role for him.
The games against Midtjylland and Arsenal — the genesis of his story — involved Memphis Depay (one of the top creators in Europe for the last few seasons) and Juan Mata as the on-ball creators, which meant that Marcus Rashford didn’t have to take too many on-ball responsibilities and was allowed to simplify his game as a threat in the box. Like Guillermo Varela’s career at Manchester United, one of the other notable players from those games, we only got a teaser of this promising set-up.
José Mourinho’s arrival led to Rashford playing more of the inside forward role that we’ve grown accustomed to, but like in most Mourinho sides, it was difficult to ever truly see his attacking potential. Rashford did admirably under Mourinho, always tracking his runners and following instructions to the letter defensively. Still, his attacking game didn’t look great besides a short stint where he got to play as a center-forward due to Ibrahimović’s injury.
Here, Rashford was helped immeasurably by Marouane Fellaini’s presence. Fellaini took the role of target-man that most Mourinho sides demand, and Rashford could just go back to being his old self as a runner.
Romelu Lukaku’s arrival meant that Rashford had to go back to the defensive winger role, usually making an impact off the bench. His underlying expected goal numbers saw a little bump just before Mourinho’s departure, and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rode on the Rashford wave.
Rashford was once again playing center-forward with Paul Pogba taking most of the creative burden in his favored left half-space role. It was imperfect, but there were signs that Rashford could finally settle into the center forward role. It also helped that United were a side that depended on high-speed transitions for most of their goals, which suited the young forward.
So onto Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first season as the permanent boss, and Rashford had yet another change in his role. United no longer had a creator in the advanced areas cause Pogba was playing deeper. United struggled, and Pogba got injured before anything could be done about it. Anthony Martial also suffered an injury, and there were big doubts about the Solskjaer project and Marcus Rashford.
This is when United could only play in transition, and Rashford excelled from that inside forward role for the first time. There were some big wins against the stronger sides because of the higher lines that they adopted, but there were still doubts about United and Rashford from this wider role against teams that sat deep.
Rashford suffered an injury right after, but due to the pandemic, he had time to recover. During Project Restart, he once again had a new role. With Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, and Mason Greenwood in the line-up, Rashford became a more supplementary player. He was often quite deep, and there were improvements in his creative game, often playing balls in behind to Luke Shaw.
We now come to the season that just passed us. The Project Restart set-up was quickly binned, and we’re now at a point where it’s difficult to narrow down what the future holds for Rashford. United aren’t very reliant on the transition offense anymore. A big reason for this has been Edinson Cavani.
The team was almost in service the Uruguayan in the final months, with Fernandes and Pogba playing in the half-spaces and Luke Shaw and Rashford holding the width. This is the closest United have come to spacing themselves with quality players in the five vertical zones. This is a basic template followed by the best sides in Europe for the last few seasons.
Rashford’s done quite well on the right. He holds the width better than Aaron Wan-Bissaka, has zipped in some inch-perfect crosses with his elastic feet, and can still beat a man and sniff for goals.
But with the Jadon Sancho rumors, Amad Diallo’s development, and some right-back links in the market, it’s hard to envision Rashford on the right flank for good. With Luke Shaw capable of managing the width on the left, Pogba and maybe Jadon Sancho (if he signs) are more suited to breaking down teams on the left than Rashford. This was unfortunately accentuated by the Villareal game.
He also can’t really play as an inside forward if Cavani’s starting because Cavani doesn't really drop back to the degree that Kane and Firmino do and, to a lesser extent, Martial. His underlying numbers have been underwhelming this season as well, only at 0.29 non-penalty expected goals per 90.
His raw goals and assists in all competitions are better, but once again, this has more to with him just playing a lot of minutes. He played 2, 920 minutes in the league alone.
On the bright side, he can finally go back to playing as a center-forward with Cavani unlikely to play 60 games a season. He’ll have some of the best creators in Europe to facilitate him now.
But there’s more than one catch here. Going back to the Rooney and Rashford video, Rooney mentions how difficult it was for him to play up-top as a lone forward after getting so used to being a ball-hungry player. Switching tendencies will not be easy.
The bigger catch is that there’s another academy graduate who’s vying for that central position in the coming years. They call him Starboy, and we’re going to have a look at him next.
Mason Greenwood – Traversing the unknown
A lot of what applies to Anthony Martial also applies to Mason Greenwood, but there’s one obvious difference: Mason Greenwood has time.
Now, Greenwood’s been gifted with some ridiculous talents that have been covered en masse. Where Martial and Rashford have years of data and footage for analytical purposes, Greenwood’s fascinating because you have to play the role of oracle with him.
One of the difficulties with developing Greenwood’s game is that there’s a very thin line between enhancing a young player’s game and changing it. Former United assistant coach René Meulensteen in many of his interviews and books on coaching often reiterates this point.
Greenwood’s only 19 years old and a non-penalty expected goal value of 0.37 is not something to scoff at. It’s an improvement from last season’s 0.25, but there are improvements he needs to make, particularly with his movement.
When watching Greenwood closely, all of his movements in the box are predicated towards receiving the ball in that hot zone. What’s Greenwood’s hot zone? Anyone who has watched Greenwood extensively will have deduced that he loves that area coming off the left in the box, where he can go either way or slip it past a player’s legs.
This isn’t really the sort of center-forward movement that’s been advocated in this article or by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Now, Greenwood will argue that he’s quite good when he receives the ball in this area and that he needs to be backed to continue doing this. He’ll probably become United’s penalty taker in the future, and if United continue winning them at the current rate, he’ll be able to add 10 more goals to his game. He might even take free-kicks in the future and add two to three more goals for the season.
Does he really need to change his game then? You’re looking at 20+ plus goals there. Isn’t that enough? This is why Greenwood’s a delicate case. In the academy, he was allowed to pick up the ball from any position and make decisions as they came to him. He was just a level ahead of his peers.
Going back to the Wayne Rooney video, this change isn't easy, and Rooney was one of the most gifted young footballers of all time. He had the physical profile to bully defenders, and transitioning into a box threat came easier to him even though he didn’t always enjoy it. Rooney also mentioned how getting more touches on the ball made it feel like he was contributing more to the team.
This is where a manager like Sir Alex Ferguson comes into play. Where Rooney often gets praised for his performance against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley, Sir Alex was quite scathing in his assessment of Rooney’s performance in his autobiography. He believed that Rooney didn’t attack the spaces left by Dani Alves, who famously loved to bomb forward.
Sometimes, not coming short for the ball is the better contribution — especially when the side has the likes of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes. It gives them a passing option and helps stretch the pitch.
As Thierry Henry’s book title puts it: It’s Lonely at the Top. That’s how it should be.
Should Greenwood maybe be developed into the sort of player Harry Kane was last season? Greenwood does seem to have the passing in his locker, but with most things around Greenwood, it’s more of a case of volume than ability. How often can he play that pass, and how often will he take shots from good locations.
Let’s wrap this up.
Never too late to pick up a new trick
Getting a teaser of the Martial, Rashford, and Greenwood front-three and not seeing it fully realized is a little heartbreaking. With Rashford and Greenwood, it’s more obvious because of their roots in the United academy. Martial’s more of an adopted son, having joined the club as a teenager. In the post-Fergie fugue state, the Anthony Martial chant kept many of us going.
The tone of this piece suggests that maybe expecting any of those three to take up the mantle once Edinson Cavani leaves is a little far-fetched. United have a lot of quality now. It’s also a young squad, which will make it easier to add quality into the side as seasons go without having to worry about depreciating assets.
From fighting for many positions, the three forwards might be fighting each other for one position in the coming season if United have a successful transfer window.
Having started this piece with an Arsenal legend, here’s something on a more optimistic note from a United icon who once donned the colors of Arsenal.
Van Persie highlighting the importance of 7:1 movements and varying your runs constantly to be unpredictable & unbalance defensive organisation. Great learning moment for him that comes from a desire to improve and become a better version of yourself pic.twitter.com/vjKatbNDAn— Tim Lees (@TimLees10) June 3, 2021