When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned the No. 9 shirt to Anthony Martial in the summer of 2019 it was a major show of faith in the Manchester United forward.
Martial had looked like he could be one of the players to leave the club towards the end of the 2018/19 season, when Solskjaer took aim at a number of his players, particularly after an abject defeat at Everton on Easter Sunday.
It had been no secret that Martial could have left under Jose Mourinho, had the Portuguese boss had his way, and the perception was that Solskjaer was now coming to the same conclusion.
But rather than sell Martial, Solskjaer promoted him. Instead, Romelu Lukaku was moved on to Inter Milan and Martial became the fulcrum of a United attack built around speed and purpose.
You couldn’t say the move hasn’t been a success, even if not everybody remains convinced about Martial’s merits as a Manchester United No. 9.
Since the start of last season the Frenchman has scored 25 goals for the club and formed a formidable attacking trident with Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. The success Lukaku has had in Italy, where he’s scored 41 goals in the same period of time, shouldn’t detract from the job Martial has done, with Lukaku a much better fit for Antonio Conte’s Inter than he ever was for Solskjaer’s United.
But in selling Lukaku what United did lose was competition. Rashford and Greenwood can play centre forward, but generally start wide in the front three and aren’t really considered competitors with Martial, given they often start in the same attack.
Odion Ighalo arrived in January and his early contribution in cup games was impressive, but he was never going to seriously challenge Martial. All that might be about to change, however.
Edinson Cavani may be 33 but he’s lost none of the hunger that drove him to success at Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain. The Uruguayan is a natural goalscorer, more natural than Martial, and while he offers different characteristics as a striker, he will certainly feel he can add competition for that spot.
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United entered the international break by winning what was arguably their most important match of the season at Everton on Saturday.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat the Toffees thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
United have a two-week break with many of their stars heading off on international duty – we’ll be keeping tabs on how they all perform, and on preparations for their next Premier League match against West Brom.
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As recently as earlier this month Martial was still being criticised, with Paul Scholes questioning his role as a centre forward during the disappointing 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir.
“The movement from the centre-forwards was virtually non-existent,” Scholes said on BT Sport. “Anthony Martial, the amount of times I looked up when a midfielder had the ball, he was just stood in between the two centre-backs doing nothing.
“I’m a big fan of Martial but the amount of times I looked up and he was walking, he has have to realise as a centre forward – every now and again you have to move if you’re going to score a goal.
“You can’t just be walking in front of two centre-backs doing nothing.
“When a midfielder player has got time on the ball – I look up he’s walking, Rashford is coming to the ball – it’s not his strength. Sometimes experienced players like a Matic have to tell them. They almost need coaching through a game.”
Cavani has played as a striker often enough that his movements are second nature now and this is an area he can help Martial and Greenwood with on the training pitches of Carrington.
But he didn’t sign for United to be an option off the bench and a mentor in training. He will still feel he has a role to play at the club and will give Martial some serious competition for that role.
Since taking back that No. 9 shirt Martial has had a free run at the position that comes with it. That might be about to change.