It was a simple demand from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that was not heeded. “Antho, move. Start moving.”
Solskjaer had already had to holler Martial ‘s name and jolt him into sprinting towards the Newcastle area when he was loitering by the halfway line. Martial failed to keep with Daniel James when had he done so he would have met the Welshman’s drilled cross.
The linesman was later upbraided for flagging Martial offside by Solskjaer, almost out of pity. The movement was provided by James and Marcus Rashford for all three goals, their direct running and decisive shooting salvaging a stagnant Manchester United performance.
At Tottenham last year, Solskjaer had to tell Martial to ‘get in the box’ and he stayed out of it. Martial rallied to end the season as United’s highest scorer and seemingly banish doubts of his status as a number nine. Last season seems to have been an anomaly.
Martial is playing so dismally it is difficult not to feel sorry for him and starting him is doing more harm than good. Martial has been subjected to vile racist abuse by keyboard cowards and his wife has received death threats. That is bound to compromise a player’s focus and Solskjaer is putting Martial in the firing line to misfire.
On Zoom calls, Solskjaer is speaking encouragingly of Martial but for the second Sunday running he produced an identical performance in another game the in-form Mason Greenwood was inexplicably dropped for.
Martial’s statuesque stance and surly body language have been familiar to United supporters for years. He is the antithesis of Edinson Cavani, almost nine years Martial’s senior but more energetic, a striker matchgoers would buzz off, as they did with the committed Carlos Tevez.
Martial must pine for supporters to click through turnstiles again.
They would serenade him, however well or badly he was playing. Their absence does not excuse Martial’s form when he pillaged eight goals in 12 games with the turnstiles locked following last year’s restart.
It cannot be a coincidence Martial’s regression has coincided with the arrival of Cavani. Martial reacted badly to having his nose put out of joint by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alexis Sanchez and this season he has been fazed by the competition from a specialist striker in Cavani.
“Cavani will f–k Martial,” a source said following the Uruguayan’s deadline day deal. Martial has started 23 times and been hooked on 13 occasions. Cavani has had 12 starts and poached as many goals as Martial – seven.
The chasm between their pressing stats is startling. Cavani has attempted 14 presses per 90 minutes, with 7.89 registered in the attacking third. Martial has managed 8.89 presses, with 5.95 in the final third. Whenever Cavani returns, Martial will be shunted to the side again, or just dropped.
United kowtowed to player power with Martial, whose agent undermined the extension of his contract by expressing pessimism over a new deal the day before Jose Mourinho was sacked. Thirty-eight days later, Martial’s management jumped the gun and announced his five-and-a-half year deal.
It was unedifying a club built by the fiefdoms of Sirs Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson was so in thrall to a player just because he was cherished by the absentee landlord Joel Glazer. Martial has been indulged enough and is too mercurial to be depended on.
United are hopeful Cavani will stay for a second season and staff at Carrington have been in awe at his professionalism. That would likely delay a move for a long-term number nine until next year, with a centre-back regarded as a priority for the summer transfer window.
Come next year, Martial will have two years left on his deal and there would have to be a drastic transformation over the next 15 months for United not to consider cashing in. He is too flaky, turns 26 in December and is approaching six years at the club.
Harry Kane and Erling Haaland’s contracts run until 2024 and United have to hope the pandemic prevents a competitor from snapping up the Herculean Haaland in the summer. Haaland, 20, has already outgrown the Bundesliga and could be this generation of United fans’ Alan Shearer, a great number nine that got away.
Realistically, United are not going to be able to finance marquee moves for a centre half and a striker in the same summer amid depressed revenue. Their summer spending was skewed by four arrivals on deadline day, with Cavani a free, the cost of Alex Telles covered by Chris Smalling’s sale to Roma for the same fee, and staggered investments in Amad and Facundo Pellistri.
United’s previous number nine, Romelu Lukaku, has four times as many goals as Martial in 2020-21. However understandable it was of Solskjaer to jettison the wantaway Lukaku, that call is utterly undermined by the impotence of the incumbent number nine, as well as the desperate deadline day swoops for Cavani and Odion Ighalo.
Mourinho urged Martial to embrace a winger’s role and Solskjaer got a tune out of the Frenchman as a nine last season when he tallied 23 goals, claiming United’s first Premier League hat-trick in over six years against Sheffield United. All the evidence since suggests he should swap squad numbers with Cavani and return to the flank.
Only Martial will struggle to oust Rashford, with 11 more goals this term, on the left and he regards the right-hand side as the graveyard shift, where Martial also offers little movement.