The idea of a confidence player is a well-worn cliché in football, but few epitomise the point quite like Anthony Martial, who has shrunk in stature this season as his form has dipped.
Martial scored 23 goals in 48 games last season and looked to be growing into the Manchester United No. 9 shirt he’d been handed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But the Frenchman has always been a player who can turn colder quicker than the Manchester air in December and his emergence as a centre forward for United has stalled this season.
For long spells last term Martial strutted around the pitch like he truly belonged, a world-class centre forward in the making, but in recent weeks he has visibly shrunk. His shoulders have slumped, his demeanour has changed, and it’s no coincidence it’s come as the goals have dried up.
Solskjaer gave Martial the confidence boost he needed when he gave him the No. 9 shirt in the summer of 2019, but it doesn’t take much to dent that equilibrium and a run without goals and his demotion to the left-wing for two successive Champions League games might just have done it.
Martial has scored only three times in his last 16 United appearances and his crucial miss against Paris St-Germain on Wednesday night summed up his struggles this season. He blazed over from Marcus Rashford’s low cross when he had to score and then saw a shot blocked by Marquinhos after Edinson Cavani’s chip had rebounded off the bar. At least one of those chances had to find the back of the net.
Solskjaer refused to point the finger at Martial post-match, even if a goal then would have rewarded United’s domination at that stage of the match.
“Missing chances happens and it’s a matter of running through the ball and keeping it low and sometimes you miss and that’s allowed,” the United manager said.
“I thought we played really well and I don’t put any blame… you don’t sit here and blame people. We know we could’ve done some things better, it was decided by fine margins, their goal from corner kick, it almost looks like he’s offside, there was not even an inch in it.
“There is no blame culture in this team, we all look at ourselves and know we could have done bits and bobs better but in general I thought we played a very good and it was a very good game of football.”
Martial is characterised as a streaky goalscorer, a scorer of great goals but maybe not a great goalscorer, and Solskjaer has been on at all of his forwards to make sure they’re scoring the simple goals as well as the stunning, a trait that Cavani will reinforce.
But Martial has actually outperformed his expected goals (xG) at United in every season he’s been at the club, until now. His 23 goals last season came with an xG of just 14.6, according to fbref.com, but this year he has just two goals from an xG of 3.2. Martial’s xG figure against PSG was 0.9, which shows how good those chances were.
It’s still early days in this season and it won’t take much for Martial to accelerate past his xG figure once again, but he might have to do it from the left this season, having lost control of the centre forward role in this side.
This season was a challenge for Martial, as it is for Rashford, who scored 22 goals last term. For both it was their best return in a single campaign, but that should have been the low benchmark this season. To become truly world class those sort of numbers should represent an okay season. They should be aiming to hit 30 goals in all competitions.
Solskjaer hinted as much a couple of weeks ago on Martial’s form, but in mentioning some missed chances for France during the November international break he also struck upon the element of the forward’s game that can prove so frustrating.
“Anthony last season showed he made big strides, now it’s time again to make even bigger strides, to develop more,” Solskjaer said. “He scored 23 goals last season, which was a big return.
“Every season is a challenge and you cannot rest on your laurels as a right-back, a left-back or a centre forward at Man United, there are demands in every position. We want Anthony to kick on.
“With France against Portugal, when he showed his qualities as a centre forward, getting into positions, then [Rui] Patricio made a few good saves and that might have affected Anthony’s confidence.
“For me, it’s him getting the chances, that’s the big thing. His conversion rate has always been good. Maybe at the moment the keepers have made a few good saves against him but that will change quickly.
“Anthony really developed last season. I thought he took big strides towards becoming a striker we know he can be. Then again, Anthony is no different from other players in our team in that he’s not had a pre-season as normal and is working to get to his peak form.”
Martial is still not in peak form at the moment and his missed chances will be concerning Solskjaer. The Frenchman turns 25 on Saturday and now is the time for a level of consistency that leads to 20 goals a season, at the very least. At the moment that has gone missing from his game.