Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Anthony Martial’s name was included in Manchester United’s starting XI when the club travelled to Southampton for the second match of the 2021-22 Premier League season. United were coming off a 5-1 thrashing of rivals Leeds United with Martial, who was coming off a really poor season, only making a brief appearance as a substitute. If any changes were going to be made the expectation was a first start for new signing Jadon Sancho, but certainly not Martial.
Martial was poor that day and after the match Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was rightfully asked why he included Martial.
Solskaer answered about the importance of getting Martial early in the season. Given that United’s other striker options were the soon to be 20 year old Mason Greenwood and a 34 year old Edinson Cavani, whose minutes needed to be heavily managed, you got the sense that Solskjaer planned on dividing up the striker minutes pretty evenly between the three of them.
A week later that plan completely changed. The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo meant United now had a striker who would eat up the bulk of their minutes. Cavani was going to need minutes too. That jettisoned Martial off to the left wing where the added muscle he had put on the past two years to help him transition from a winger to a center forward would hinder him playing out on the wing.
Martial was now competing for playing time in a position where United were loaded with talent. He didn’t play much, he got hurt again, he wasn’t happy. The relationship he had with the club broke down and he wanted to leave. Who could blame him?
Fast forward a year and United’s striker outlook looks completely different. Ronaldo is still here but with no more Greenwood or Cavani United’s depth down the middle is incredibly light.
Going out and signing a new striker would be damn near impossible. Strikers making a big move will want to play games and United currently have a player who will command the bulk of them. Even though everyone knows it’s better to manage his minutes, it still becomes a story every time Ronaldo is rested, which could make it difficult for new manager Erik Ten Hag to rotate him, especially if results aren’t going his way.
Make no mistake though, United need a backup striker because at this point, it’s completely fair to question how much they’re even going to get from Ronaldo next season.
Ronaldo had his moments in the Champions League moments and a couple of hat-tricks but his Premier League campaign as a whole was a bit underwhelming. He finished with just 15 non-penalty goals (fewer than Martial put up in his one full season as a center forward) and scored only three goals away from Old Trafford.
He got off to a great start but as the weather changed he started wearing down and was ineffective for most of the winter (despite this being the period where he got his most chances) before having a renaissance in the spring.
Ronaldo was at his best when he got a chance to rest. Both his hat-tricks came after having at least a week off between games. His brace against Newcastle came 10 days after his last match with Portugal and his brace against Arsenal came after not starting the previous weekend at Stamford Bridge.
This season the opportunities for rest will be few and far between. United will play five Premier League matches in the month of August and 16 league matches before mid-November. While Ronaldo likely won’t feature much in the Europa League (at least certainly not in the away matches) there will still be plenty of weeks with two important fixtures. Then Ronaldo will head to the World Cup where it’s safe to assume he’s going to see the bulk of minutes for Portugal. It’s not hard to see him wearing down heading into the winter once again, and at 38 years old it would be unfair to expect him to produce more then he did last season.
Enter Anthony Martial. Martial fits the billing as a player who can be serve as that backup striker for you. He also provides you something different to Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is an out and out goal scorer. When he plays, the bulk of the chances are going to go to him. In order to be successful with that type of striker you need that striker to score goals. Despite Martial’s 2019-20 campaign stacking up very favorably to Ronaldo’s 21-22 season, that’s not his game at all.
And that’s ok! You don’t need your striker to lead the team in goals. Four years ago France won the World Cup with a striker who didn’t score a single goal the entire tournament. They didn’t need their striker to score goals because they had Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, two wide forwards who could score goals. What those players needed was a striker whom they could play off of and who could create space for them to attack.
That’s what Olivier Giroud is really good at and why despite hardly playing for Chelsea he remained a first choice player for France. When Didier Deschamps decided it was time to start phasing Giroud out of the team, it was Anthony Martial who got the call.
In Martial’s previous appearances for France he was used as a wide forward. This time around Deschamps used him as a center forward, not for his goal scoring, but his ability to create space for the other forwards to play off. During the 2020-21 campaign Martial made seven competitive appearances for France, contributing with three assists (0.84 assists per 90 - quite nice), before rupturing ligaments in his knee against Kazakhstan ruling him out for the rest of the season and the Euros leading to the surprise recall of Karim Benzema.
Even after Benzema’s sensational Euro’s, Martial started two of France’s three matches in September (scoring one goal) before injuries and lack of playing time prevented him from making any more appearances.
Benzema is the interesting name here. He was dropped from the national team in 2015 not for age or lack of form, but for disciplinary reasons. When France went to the finals of Euro 2016 and won the 2018 World Cup without him, his career with the national team looked all but over. Benzema wasn’t recalled to the French team because he scored 22 goals for Real Madrid the previous year, he was called back in for his ability to create space and bring his teammates into the game.
That’s not to diminish the greatness of Benzema. Benzema is the most high end luxury version of Anthony Martial, in fact even putting those two names in the same sentence seems disingenuous towards Benzema. He’s everything you would want in a striker, he has ability, movement, and ruthlessness in front of goal, to be your traditional number 9, but he also has the ability to take a back seat, do the work, and create space for his teammates to thrive. Benzema spent the prime of his career doing exactly that so Ronaldo could score 50 goals in a season (and Gareth Bale could add 15 more) for Real Madrid. He was the key component to those teams, and the combination of all his skills are a big reason why Real haven’t missed a beat since Ronaldo left.
The latter attributes are what Martial can bring to United. Martial is much more of a facilitator. Over the past five years, Martial has been one of the best forwards in the Premier League at creating play from zone 14, the area right at the top of the box.
When you play Martial as a number 9 you’re not looking for your number 9 to be the focal point of the attack. You’re looking to spread your chances out among more players. That’s something that United need.
Similar to France, United don’t have many wingers but rather wide forwards who are at their best when playing next to a who creates space and brings them into the game, then one who is looking for service and to be the primary goal scorer. Marcus Rashford has always performed better next to Martial (or Lukaku) then next to the more out and out number 9’s like Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Anthony Elanga is a much similar profile to Rashford than a more natural creative winger and should benefit from that type of striker as well.
This has ripple effects down the pitch as well. Bruno Fernandes is at his best when he’s both a creator and goal attacker. He’s not too effective as a false-9 because he needs that striker in front of him to occupy the center backs, but he excels at making runs beyond the striker into the box (just look at that Leeds game again). He never really got going with Cristiano Ronaldo last season (0.33 npG+A per 90 with Ronaldo vs 0.77 npG+A per 90 without him). Last season his numbers were also much better with Martial than Cavani.
The obvious question is, would this work in Erik Ten Hag’s system? The answer is, yes. In 2018-19 Kasper Dolberg was the primary striker for Ajax, with Dusan Tadic playing as a false-9 in the Champions League. Dolberg scored 12 goals in 38 games. He was best at linking up with Ajax’s wide inverted forwards, while Tadic as a false-9 was a bit more mobile and could drag the center backs out of position to leave space for the number 10 to make runs into the box. What do you know, this was Donny van de Beek’s best season!
Martial doesn’t have to exclusively play in place of Ronaldo either. He can also play with him. Last season Ronaldo requested United play with a front two and Martial, tapping into that Benzema profile again, is the kind of player that can create space for Ronaldo.
Martial has played in a front two before. In 2018-19 when Jose Mourinho was out of ideas, he routinely played Martial and Lukaku together up front. Despite their relationship being abysmal, Martial kept scoring goals to save Mourinho’s job. In theory playing Martial and Ronaldo together would work, but both also have the tendency to drift over to the left which would certainly cause problems so we’d have to actually see it in practice.
We didn’t get a large sample size of the two playing together last season but we definitely saw glimpses of what could be. Martial excels at dragging defenders out of position creating mismatches and space for teammates, as he displayed against Watford.
There are some knocks about Martial’s defending but that’s not too much a worry. Martial is very good at keeping his position to keep the defensive shape off the ball, and while he’s certainly been known to jog back from time to time, his overall numbers out of possession have consistently been better than United’s other forwards. Though that’s more a knock on them than an attribute of Martial’s.
The big drawback on Martial of course is his consistency. Sometimes he is this player who clicks and makes everything better. Sometimes he just isn’t.
If United are to have any chance of getting back into the top four they’re going to need more across the board. More from Cristiano Ronaldo, more from Bruno Fernandes, more from Marcus Rashford, more from the contingent of players who aren’t going to the World Cup, more players in general (cough cough John Murtough). There are certainly worse ideas than turning to a player who’s natural game complements and has shown to get more out of his teammates. The fact that he likely won’t be going to to the World Cup is also a plus.
Everything is now at an impasse. United need a backup striker but finding one will be nearly impossible and certainly expensive (and therefore likely a misuse of limited resources). Anthony Martial wants to leave but very few teams could afford him and even fewer are interested in him.
Therefore this can go one of two ways. Martial can be unhappy, brood, lack effort on the pitch, and prove a lot of people right about him. Or Ten Hag can make an effort to make him an integral part of the squad and in turn reinvigorate Martial, get him back to being the player that (sometimes) plays with a smile on his face, and makes his teammates better.
If the latter happens, Manchester United have just become a much better team.
(Now that I wrote this I expect to see a story that Martial is leaving within the next two days)