Anthony Martial's Manchester United debut is one of the club's most memorable in the modern era of the Premier League. His jinking run left Liverpool's defence in knots before he coolly slotted into the bottom-right corner to help secure a 3-1 win over his new team's bitter rivals.

It was a stunning start and one that promised much for the future, producing the ultimate response to the many pundits who had questioned his signing and reported £36million transfer fee.

Yet, five and a half years on, it's difficult to say Martial's debut resembles a microcosm of his United career, with those spectacular moments remaining fleeting rather than developing into sustained excellence.

Of course, 2019-20 was surely the closest he's come to finding consistency as he scored 17 times in the Premier League. Finally, the penny had seemingly dropped and Martial was developing the decisiveness he had previously teased in flashes.

But 2020-21 has been largely disappointing for the Frenchman and has fans wondering if he is their best option. Was last season just another false dawn?

 

THE REGRESSION

United fans will hope Martial's lively appearance off the bench in Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of Southampton is a sign of things to come – he got two goals and also won a penalty, albeit a questionable one.

There was certainly plenty to like about his performance, with both goals coming from the central zone of the penalty area, and the first saw him use his strength to see off a defender prior to finding the net. For a player whose suitability as a number nine has been questioned, it was a promising development.

But while there were undoubtedly reasons for optimism, we cannot disregard his previous struggles this season on the basis of that 9-0 win. Saints became subjugated essentially as soon as Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off after 82 seconds, and Martial's second came when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side were down to nine men.

Before Tuesday, Martial's shot conversion rate this season (5.9 per cent) had been lower than any of his previous campaigns with United. Even when you take into consideration his two latest goals, which lifts it to 13.3 per cent, he's still well down on 2019-20 (21.3 per cent) and 2018-19 (25.6 per cent).

His issues don't appear to come down to a lack of clear opportunities either, as prior to Tuesday he was actually averaging roughly the same amount of big chances per 90 minutes this season as in 2019-20 (0.7). However, he had been proving more wasteful from such situations, with Martial's big chance conversion rate of 0.15 per game down from 0.3.

Martial particularly excelled with regards to expected goals in 2019-20, with his xG rating of 11.3 meaning he netted six more than he would have been expected to – by comparison, ahead of the Southampton win, he had two goals from an xG of 4.5.

Positionally, Martial has generally occupied the same spaces as he did in 2019-20 but given his emphatic out-performing of xG was seemingly unsustainable, perhaps this is part of the problem.

A NEW THREAT

Edinson Cavani's signing, while initially criticised as a knee-jerk or 'panic' acquisition, was always likely to be a positive move for United as it offered them a new dynamic in attack. Martial may like to play at being a number nine, he may wear that shirt, but his characteristics are much different to those of Cavani.

Even though Martial has been regularly deployed as the focal point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's attack over the past 18 months, his positional maps still prove a predilection to operate from the left.

 

Being involved more towards the left than the right flank is understandable in one sense, given United carry greater threat there with Luke Shaw than they do on the opposite side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

But Cavani takes up central positions with greater regularity than Martial. As such, the Uruguayan's far greater goal frequency this term (one every 133 minutes, compared to one every 312.5 minutes for Martial) cannot be a surprise, even if Martial actually averages more touches of the ball in the area (7.6 per 90 mins, to 5.3).

There is also a school of thought that Martial's mentality becomes affected when he feels threatened. It's not a secret that he had long seen his future as a central striker, but Louis van Gaal felt he was better suited to playing on the flank and Jose Mourinho openly questioned his suitability to the number nine role.

The latter's arrival in 2016 coincided with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who essentially killed Martial's chances of playing as a striker, and his form subsequently suffered almost across the board after a positive first season.

Although he showed signs of improvement in 2017-18 despite Romelu Lukaku's arrival, Martial was no more productive than when he first joined.

And now there's Cavani, who is out-scoring Martial five to four despite playing less than half the number of minutes in the Premier League this season. It seems he's treading on Martial's toes rather than keeping him on them.

CAVANI THE MORE DEPENDABLE OPTION?

For what it's worth, Martial's dip in form hasn't impacted United massively – after all, they've a better xG differential this term (5.7) than they did in 2019-20 (3.2) and are challenging at the top of the table, something they haven't really managed since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

 

Tuesday's mauling of Southampton might have been just what the doctor ordered for Martial, who had previously gone a month without a goal in all competitions, though few would have any complaints if Cavani was just starting out on a run as United's first choice in attack.

He may not possess the pace of Martial or indeed his ability on the ball, but he has proven more clinical as evidenced by his greater conversion rate of big chances (45.4 per cent, over 33.3), such as his nonchalant header against Southampton.

The experienced Uruguay international is also being presented with more big chances (1.5 per 90 minutes) than Martial (0.9), suggesting Cavani boasts a greater ability to create openings with his movement.

It is, of course, always handy to have players with varying skillsets and it offers Solskjaer the ability to choose individuals based on his set-up or the opposition on a given day.

But on current form, the more consistent talents of Cavani might just offer United the greater reliability they need if they're to sustain a title challenge.

At the very least, he would seem a smart choice on Saturday if fit having already netted three times in two games for United against Everton.

Manchester United's forwards have their "mojo" back after leading Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of nine-man Southampton at Old Trafford.

It was only the third instance of a team winning a Premier League match by nine goals and the first time United have won by that margin since March 1995, when they beat Ipswich Town by the same score.

While Andy Cole was the five-goal inspiration in that 1995 win, this time United shared the goals around – seven players netted on Tuesday, making it only the second occasion so many different individuals have netted for the same team in a single Premier League match.

Among them were Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani, providing the perfect response to Solskjaer's pre-match comments maligning the loss of his forwards' "mojo".

"Yeah, of course they have," Solskjaer said with a laugh to BT Sport when asked if they had recovered that "mojo".

"You get lots of confidence from a performance like this and the result, scoring goals is always good for forwards and the team."

He added: "We have been waiting for them to show their magic and tonight was a night they could go and enjoy.

"We haven't had too many of those where you can sit down in the second half and enjoy the football, so they enjoyed it. There were some good performances."

Alexandre Jankewitz's red card for a shocking second-minute tackle on Scott McTominay – who was also among the scorers – left Saints with an uphill battle, and Jan Bednarek followed him down the tunnel in the second half in rather more controversial circumstances.

But the focus will be on United's scoring prowess in the contest, as they put Saints to the sword.

Rashford's goal saw him move on to 83 for the club, overtaking Eric Cantona, and Solskjaer took the moment to praise the England international as he has occasionally had to contend with critics urging him to concentrate on his football amid his charitable efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's not bad," Solskjaer said of Rashford surpassing Cantona. "Eric was a fantastic player to play with and Marcus has a great career ahead of him.

"What he's done this season, this year, it just shows he can still focus on his football as well."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes Manchester United's dressing room is being "driven to success" by Bruno Fernandes, Edinson Cavani and Paul Pogba.

United sit top of the Premier League table on 40 points, six clear of defending champions Liverpool, who Solskjaer's team face in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, seven days on from a 0-0 draw at Anfield.

Liverpool have been eliminated from the FA Cup by United more than they have any other opponent in the competition's history, though the Red Devils have lost two of their past three against the Reds in the competition.

Integral to United's recent success has been the form of Fernandes, who has scored 19 league goals and created a further 14 from 33 top-flight appearances since joining from Sporting CP last year.

Veteran campaigner Cavani, meanwhile, has netted five times in all competitions since arriving as a free agent in October, while United's club-record signing Pogba has enjoyed a resurgence after a difficult start to the campaign, and scored a superb winner against Fulham last time out.

Buoyed by the performances of Fernandes, Cavani and Pogba, Solskjaer sees his squad having experienced a drastic shift in mentality, comparing the trio's influence to that of his former United team-mates Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs.

"I think that runs through the squad and that's part of my thinking when you bring players in," Solskjaer told a news conference.

"You don't just bring big talents in, you research their character as much as you can to have the right types.

"Because there are always players who think 'there's a game next week and I'll still get my wages'. That's the mentality we had to get away from.

"I wanted players to come here to push the boundaries, the levels and drive it on from the inside. It can't come just from the outside. With players like Bruno, Edinson and Paul Pogba, I feel I have a dressing room that is driven to success. That makes my job easier – 100 per cent.

"When you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. We had players here when I played – Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs – they drove it on.

"When they spoke you knew you had no leg to stand on to ­argue, because you knew that they did it every single day.

"That's what we need from our players. Many of us in the game have been in dressing rooms where people talk – but you think what are you ­talking about? 

"They talk the talk, but don't really walk the walk. But the players we're talking about – Pogba and Cavani and Bruno – they've been there, they know what it takes and they ­demand it off their team-mates."

The omens are good for United ahead of Sunday's encounter with their bitter rivals, who have reached the FA Cup fifth round only once during Jurgen Klopp's tenure.

United are also unbeaten in their past seven home games against Liverpool in all competitions (W3 D4) since a 3-0 loss in March 2014. They last had a longer unbeaten run against the Reds at Old Trafford between 1990 and 2000 (12 games).

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants Manchester United to harness the spirit of the 1999 treble-winning side when they face Liverpool in the FA Cup.

Solskjaer will make changes for the tie of the fourth round at Old Trafford on Sunday after a 2-1 win at Fulham on Wednesday, which put United two points clear at the top of the Premier League.

The Red Devils are still in the hunt for three trophies this season and face an out-of-sorts Liverpool side who are smarting from a shock 1-0 home defeat to Burnley on Thursday.

United dramatically beat the Reds 2-1 at the same stage of the FA Cup 22 years ago courtesy of late goals from Dwight Yorke and Solskjaer, then went on to complete a famous treble.

Solskjaer says dumping the Premier League champions out once again could be a big moment in what he hopes will be a glorious season.

"Of course we can transform a few things from that season. We know that there's tight moments, very fine margins. We know in that season we were close to going out against Liverpool," said the United boss.

"Peter Schmeichel saved a penalty from [Arsenal's] Dennis Bergkamp in the semi-final in injury time. Those moments, I think they gave us the mental advantage, especially in the semi-final.

"But against Liverpool as well in that fourth round, when you get that boost of turning 1-0 down to a 2-1 win against a big team it's massive.

"The FA Cup is a run we've got to enjoy as long as it lasts. We got to the semis last year and we're going to make a few changes but we'll put a team out there that I hope can go through."

Victor Lindelof is available to return from a back injury and Solskjaer will rotate his squad just a week after a drab goalless draw between United and Liverpool at Anfield in the top flight.

"Of course the focus is now on the FA Cup," said Solskjaer. "We know it's a difficult tie, I'm not the best on draws, I think they should try to get someone else in if they want an easy draw."

Solskjaer also said forwards Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani could all feature in the same side at some stage.

He said: "I used to play in a decent team and the gaffer [Alex Ferguson] had four centre-forwards at least to choose from and with the four front men we've got, we have players to choose from who can get us goals in any game, against any opposition.

"I'm very pleased with the ones I've got and we’re working hard to get the relationships with all of them so we can use them in different ways and sometimes maybe all four of them will play."

Page 4 of 4
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.