If the chemistry between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Anthony Martial was not already plain for all to see, it should be now.
Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over LASK was a game that spawned few genuine talking points, aside from Jesse Lingard’s goal and the confirmation of a Europa League quarter-final spot; though the strong bond between manager and striker was evident.
According to Solskjaer, Martial “begged” to be brought off the bench as he sensed the chance to score the winning goal. He duly obliged and his first reaction was to smile broadly and look back towards Solskjaer, who allowed himself a smirk too. Not only had United won the game on the night, sealing a 7-1 aggregate triumph, but the goal was Martial’s 23rd of the campaign, putting him one ahead of strike partner Marcus Rashford. No wonder he was grinning. Rashford’s smile wasn’t quite as wide.
It’s easy to forget how far Martial has come in a short space of time at Old Trafford. He now has a manager who truly believes in him.
So, simply put, why on earth would Martial not be enjoying his football under the Norwegian?
Since Solskjaer arrived at United, he has done nothing but place faith in the Frenchman. He sanctioned the high-profile sale of Romelu Lukaku to Inter Milan, returning Martial to his old No.9 jersey and giving him the corresponding centre-forward role at the same time. He resisted calls for United to sign an experience striker last summer.
After a period of huge uncertainty for Martial at United under Jose Mourinho, after his initial emergence under Louis van Gaal, he is now thriving again. Talk of United needing a marquee striker addition, such as a Harry Kane, this summer is drifting into the background. Solskjaer is seeing results from a player who he loves.
“Anthony has upped his work-rate,” Solskjaer said after the LASK game. “He’s working harder in training, he’s working harder in the games; his physical stats show that. He’s been an absolute joy to work with.
“His attitude has been spot on and him and Marcus have found and hit off a really good relationship. And with Mason and Bruno coming in, that’s improved us creating chances, the team’s creating more chances.”
Solskjaer is right to identify the arrival of Bruno Fernandes and the emergence of Mason Greenwood as key factors to Martial’s improvement, not to mention that Rashford relationship, which is part rivalry and part friendship.
But the signs were always there with Martial: an expert finisher, a natural with the ball at his feet and, when on form, an unstoppable centre-forward. Mourinho did not get the best from Martial’s raw materials but Solskjaer has harnessed them.
In many ways, the manager’s handling of Martial is reflective of United under Solskjaer in general.
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He has picked his favourites carefully, players he believes have the pace, ability and attitude to thrive, and he’s put an arm around their shoulders. Rashford is another prime example, so too the likes of Scott McTominay, Fred and Luke Shaw. He has added quality around them to ensure they are not isolated, with Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire all canny acquisitions.
Solskjaer has been criticised fairly heavily in some circles for a supposed tactical naivety. Yet his desire to move United towards a more fluid attack, with Martial at its nucleus, was a masterstroke. Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez may be doing well with Inter Milan, but Solskjaer has recognised that to succeed in the Premier League, United need more dynamism.
Martial has always had the ability. He’s always been dynamic and exciting to watch. But he needed the work rate that would produce goals aplenty. He needed Solskjaer.