Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has avoided playing Martial there, where Marcus Rashford has thrived in the last two Champions League ties, and Martial has had the benefit of moving to the left – his best role – where he has looked just as bereft of confidence as he did up front.
Martial turns 25 on Saturday and ceased being a youngster two years ago. This is his sixth season at United and he is suffering an identity crisis with the archer Cavani now at the tip of the arrow.
Cavani, 33 and a free transfer on deadline day, was recruited deliberately so he would keep Martial on his toes rather than tread on them. Things have spiralled since Cavani touched down in Manchester on October 4: Martial was sent off hours later against Tottenham and Solskjaer feels the subsequent three-match ban set him back, and he has invited more scrutiny in his homeland by firing blanks across five matches for France. Martial’s only international goal was in September 2016.
Martial was in a Marriott hotel room while Cavani was becoming the second Uruguayan striker to hit it off with United fans at St Mary’s and he has more goals than Martial despite making two starts this season. Seven is a number synonymous with a winger and Cavani and Martial may as well swap.
It was not just Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ego that led to Martial having the number nine revoked in 2016. Jose Mourinho was so adamant Martial was a winger he did not play him as a centre forward in the Premier League until United’s 32nd fixture in 2016-17 – three days after Ibrahimovic ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. Martial soon stepped aside again for Romelu Lukaku to take centre stage.
Solskjaer is in his element rhapsodizing about strikers and his coaching cachet has been evident with Martial. Having requested to reclaim the number nine after Lukaku left, Martial enjoyed an underrated 2019-20, tallying a career-best 23 goals and claiming United’s first Premier League hat-trick since Robin van Persie in 2013.
Martial, often a scorer of great goals but not a great goalscorer, poached instinctively for his first of three against Sheffield United and his first of the campaign against Chelsea was of the ‘nasty little tap-in’ variety Solskjaer craves.
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Manchester United were hit by a double Neymar sucker-punch as they lost 3-1 to Paris Saint-Germain in their crucial Champions League match on Wednesday.
It means United travel to Germany needing a point from their final group match against RB Leipzig to qualify for the last 16.
Before then, the Reds have a tricky Premier League trip to West Ham to negotiate at the weekend.
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“It’s always important for a striker, but how do you react?” Solskjaer explained that day. “Do you drop your shoulders, ‘I’ve scored my goal now’, or do I get hungrier and realise that’s where I score my goals?
“And it’s not out wide on the left-hand side showing my skills, it’s in that box. And I was so pleased for Anthony scoring from five yards after that cross, because I’ve not seen too many of them.”
Martial is now back out wide and the shoulders are drooped. He was most blameworthy for the midweek defeat to Paris Saint-Germain and rated 3/10 by the infamously severe L’Equipe (the MEN gave Martial a 4). Martial spooned one chance over and hit Marquinhos with another at 1-1 before Mason Greenwood replaced him in the 79th minute.
Solskjaer stopped just short of mimicking Louis van Gaal’s death stare at Ryan Giggs after Javier Hernandez’s Diana Ross penalty in Bruges. “There is no blame culture in this team,” Solskjaer stressed. “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 has two goals in 14 starts this term and one was a penalty charitably presented to him by Bruno Fernandes following a shout from Solskjaer. His last Premier League goal was on July 16 and Martial has only been at his liveliest when procuring penalties against Tottenham, PSG and RB Leipzig.
The great strikers have endured droughts and Martial’s longest in this premature season is a four games. Ibrahimovic managed one goal – against Zorya Lunhansk – in 11 matches in his first United season, a spell where his profligacy was so costly United dropped like a stone in the table, falling to eighth. His heir Lukaku was costlier in the first four months of 2018-19.
Solskjaer’s might tighten the arm around Martial’s shoulder by opining he will only worry if he is struggling for chances when Martial isn’t; he had three attempts against PSG and four against West Brom, as well as a clear-cut opening at Everton.
Yet Martial has not reacted to his setbacks like a specialist number nine. His body language looks defeatist and there is little evidence of any resilience. During his spell of impotence, Ibrahimovic bragged he had met a lot of City fans that had ‘become United supporters when they meet me!’ Ruud van Nistelrooy plundered a hat-trick at Leicester a week after Arsenal players’ physical bullying.
Ibrahimovic and Cavani are spearheading the apparent rebirth of the number nine, though it was never dead. Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski have maintained their world-class levels over the last six years, Erling Haaland is the coldest of finishers and Lukaku has pillaged more goals for Inter Milan in 16 months than he did for United in two years.
Cavani has stepped on Martial’s toes.