Thu. Mar 4th, 2021

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Man United might have to start considering the unthinkable with Martial

3 min read

When Anthony Martial was scoring 23 goals to end last season as Manchester United’s top goalscorer it felt like he was on his way to proving his future lay as a centre forward.

Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood looked like a front three United could bank on long-term, but they’ve all had difficult patches this season and it feels like the Frenchman’s has been more elongated than the others.

Last season Martial looked like United’s best bet for the No.9 role, part of a front three designed around speed and movement. He didn’t yet have the habit of scoring the scruffy goals that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer adores and he was often loitering on the periphery of the penalty area rather than getting the whites of the posts in his tunnel vision.

The theory was that would come. He was learning from the master in Solskjaer when it came to poaching goals and he was still relatively young in his development as a striker. But the summer arrival of Edinson Cavani on a free transfer has inadvertently highlighted what Martial doesn’t offer United in the centre forward role, and what he may never be able to offer them.

Cavani may be eight years Martial’s senior but he is a more energetic presence as the fulcrum of this attack as well as a more consistent goalkeeper. Both have seven goals this season but while Cavani’s are coming at a rate of 0.53 per 90 minutes, Martial’s are arriving at 0.33 per 90.

Martial is more or less taking the chances expected of him, with an xG of 7.8 this season, but Cavani is outperforming his expected goals number of 5.3. It’s no surprise that Cavani is the more ruthless finisher and while Martial is capable of the spectacular, it’s Cavani you would want if there was a one-on-one with the goalkeeper to be devoured.

There is also a noticeable difference between the intensity with which United press when Cavani is leading the line. Martial averages 10 pressures per 90 minutes while Cavani is up at 16.5.

It was noticeable in the early stages of the FA Cup fifth-round win against West Ham United on Tuesday that United’s coaches were urging their team to press, but neither Martial or Rashford are particularly energetic pressers, which can allow defences to play out.

However long Cavani’s spell at Old Trafford lasts, it has only heightened United’s need to sign a centre forward in one of the next two summers. Doubts have grown this season over Martial’s ability to operate in the role.

And if he isn’t a striker at United, then his role isn’t clear. He’s often been moved back to the left when playing with Cavani and that is probably his best position, but it’s also Rashford’s best position. Rashford has been forced to the right when the three have played together but he is nowhere near as effective on that flank.

Neither Martial or Rashford had a particularly good game against the Hammers when both were bringing up their 250th United appearance. But while we know what Rashford can produce and it feels like he’s still improving as a player, Martial has reached the milestone with as many questions as answers over his United career.

If the idea of repurposing him as a striker is beginning to wane, then it might be approaching the time to consider cashing in on Martial. Rashford is surely the better option on the left and if United want to fund a move for a world-class centre forward then a departure for the Frenchman might make sense.

It would keep a pathway clear for Greenwood to move centrally as well, while also making room in the squad for a winger, Jadon Sancho perhaps, and giving room for the crop of exciting attacking talents coming out of the academy to edge nearer the first-team squad.

Nobody plays 250 games for Manchester United without being a good player, but there is still a question as to how Martial fits into the long-term development of this squad.

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