Anthony Martial lived up to his billing as a number nine at Manchester City and it came 53 minutes after he earned United‘s 14th penalty of the season.
Martial was alert to Harry Maguire‘s hoik from his own goal line and was rumbustiously barged in the back by Ruben Dias. Referee Anthony Taylor was positioned no more than 15 yards away and Rodri stood in his line of vision, though the City midfielder’s positioning could not excuse the official’s failure to give Martial a free-kick.
Taylor contemptuously instructed Martial to get up and the Frenchman was audibly angry. For a few seconds, Martial was the statuesque striker again as he expressed his disgust and glared at the referee. Martial sidled up to Taylor as he was tying his shoelace during the next stoppage to remonstrate once more.
The next time Martial received the ball, via a purposeful pass from Victor Lindelof, he was practically in the same area where he dueled with Dias and, this time, spun John Stones and sped away from Rodri, leaving the Spaniard in the dust.
Rodri might have emerged from the turf scalded, for Martial could have burnt the rubber on his boots as he switched through the gears and laid the ball off to Daniel James.
James naively shot at goal when Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford were free. Fernandes rebuked James but the filthiest glare came from Martial following a jig of frustration at not receiving the cross he was running for.
Too often, Martial is apathetic but his demanding demeanour was more befitting a striker and Gary Neville chose him as man of the match when a United defender seemed the likelier recipient, especially given Neville’s occupation as a player.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer showed his striker solidarity. “Anthony Martial was man of the match and he was an even bigger doubt than Luke,” he said afterwards. “That was the Anthony we know, strong, positive and taking players on. Delighted for him.”
All that was missing from Martial’s bullish performance was a goal. He was careless and casual with a tame side-footer when the ball broke for him, one-on-one, with Ederson and lost his balance for a presentable header.
Martial now has two goals in 16 games – both of them in the 9-0 annihilation of Southampton – but he will have left The Etihad satisfied with an uplifting performance. His form has been poor all season and the mitigation behind that – the lack of a pre-season, a three-match suspension for lashing out at Erik Lamela and criticism in his homeland of his France form – was irrelevant months ago.
A mercurial talent, Martial’s confidence must have been deflated by the racist abuse he was subjected to and the death threats his wife opened in her Instagram direct messages. Solskjaer should have taken Martial out of the firing line sooner but he started against West Brom and Newcastle in successive weekends and misfired.
News on Saturday night of Edinson Cavani’s probable absence for the derby caused consternation among United supporters. Cavani has as many goals as Martial – seven – but has started in 13 fewer games and, rather than keep Martial on his toes, he has trampled all over them. If fit, Cavani would have started at City.
Martial must have been buoyed by Cavani’s omission. The Frenchman does not react well to adversity, be it his passive aggressive social media activity after Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the ‘9’ off of him in 2016 or how his form suddenly nosedived in the wake of Alexis Sanchez’s signing in 2018.
His stock was so low prior to kick-off on Sunday there was a compelling case to start without Martial than with him, despite Cavani’s muscular injury. Mason Greenwood has a measly four goals all season but has produced a higher performance level and James’s bench berth at Selhurst Park was a giveaway he was being saved for the derby.
Martial had to impress against City and did so after 35 seconds, drawing a panicky foul from Gabriel Jesus inside the City area. Martial has won four spotkicks this term and his penalty box presence in the derby was impressive: Martial had the ball four times, drew two saves and teed up Fernandes for another 12-yard conversion.
Against the league’s meanest defence, Martial recorded 20 accurate passes out of 21 and he added a string to his bow by dropping deep to accelerate United’s breakaways. United were more incisive on the counter-attack in the second-half and that was chiefly down to Martial’s hold-up play.
In the sixth minute, Martial hared after a clipped pass from Fernandes into the left-hand channel that he ought to have got to quicker. Joao Cancelo caught up and appeared to win a throw-in that was erroneously given to United and it was forgivable for wondering whether Martial had already peaked.
Then he showed Rodri a clean pair of heels.