Tue. Aug 4th, 2020

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Inside No 9: Martial excelling in central role with Solskjær’s support

3 min read

What’s in a number? Plenty, it seems, if your name is Anthony Martial. Before Manchester United’s battling victory against Crystal Palace on Thursday, the Frenchman revealed the contents of a text Ole Gunnar Solskjær had sent him last summer.

“He said: ‘Do you want to take your No 9 shirt back?’” Martial said. “I straight up said yes! He told me: ‘Now it’s up to you to show me you deserve it every time you’re on the pitch’.”

Martial was assigned the shirt when he signed from Monaco in September 2015 as a teenager. He made an encouraging start to his career at Old Trafford under Louis van Gaal, ending his first season with 17 goals in all competitions playing both as a central striker and out wide. The arrival of José Mourinho a year later saw him shifted to the No 11 shirt to accommodate Zlatan Ibrahimovic and rarely used through the middle.

There were serious doubts over whether he would be offered a new contract before Solskjær took over in December 2018. More than a few eyebrows were raised when Martial agreed an extension until 2024 six weeks later, given he had scored only 21 times in the Premier League since his breakthrough season. By April last year, Martial had started just 25 matches as a central striker and scored only seven goals. He had shown only occasional glimpses of the talent that saw him win the 2015 Golden Boy award for Europe’s best under-21 player.

Yet while most people expected Solskjær to bring in a direct replacement for Romelu Lukaku when the Belgian striker was sold to Internazionale last summer, he instead placed his faith in the player who started out in the youth team of Les Ulis – a club in the southwestern banlieues of Paris which also produced Patrice Evra and Thierry Henry. Thanks to his manager’s motivational tactic straight from the Sir Alex Ferguson school of inspiration, the 24-year-old has grasped his opportunity with both hands.

Wilfried Zaha and Anthony Martial both struggled to make an impact early in their United careers.
Wilfried Zaha and Anthony Martial both struggled to make an impact early in their United careers. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/AFP/Getty Images

At Selhurst Park, Martial’s 22nd goal of the season in all competitions ensured he remains level with Marcus Rashford in their battle to finish as United’s top scorer. It also capped an excellent all-round display from a player finally fulfilling his early promise. The burgeoning partnership with the England striker has parallels with the 1999 Champions League-winning Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole combination.

Earlier, Martial had created space for Rashford to score at the end of the first half after a clever decoy run following an exchange of passes with Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese is still the architect of it all, of course, and was unlucky not to extend United’s lead in the second half after striking the post.

“It was a tight game and we didn’t get the rhythm in our passing but two fantastic goals won it for us,” said Solskjær. “The finish was great for Rashford’s goal but there was quick interchanging passing in the buildup. We did not do it enough because they are a handful to play against; they have to trust themselves more.

“Marcus and Anthony are enjoying themselves. When they go out on to the pitch for a shift, they go out with a smile and they defend each other too. When I see those boys with that body language, I’m delighted.”

Wilfried Zaha, who was only 20 when he moved to Old Trafford in January 2013, rightly felt aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty just before Rashford’s goal and showed plenty of the ability that persuaded Ferguson to make him his final United signing. How he must wish someone had shown the same faith in him as Solskjær has with Martial.

Martial, having scored twice in the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge last season, after starting on the wing, has also found the net in both of United’s Premier League wins over Chelsea in this campaign – including the 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford on the opening day. Frank Lampard knows his defenders will have their hands full in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final.

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