How Martial became Man United's most vital attacker – and where he must play
When you’re labelled the new Thierry Henry and still manage to exceed expectations, you know you must be doing something right.
In early September, sceptics were queuing up to question why Manchester United had agreed to pay Monaco £36 million – a fee that could rise to £58 million – for a French 19-year-old. Even Louis van Gaal called the price “ridiculous”.
Indeed, few had heard of Anthony Martial and even Wayne Rooney had to ask France international Morgan Schneiderlin who he was.
When questioned about the substantial outlay, Van Gaal went on the defensive. “United are routinely quoted £10 million more for a player but I have not bought Martial for me,” he said. “I have bought him for the next manager of Manchester United.”
Yet since giving Martial his debut against Liverpool, Van Gaal has played him in every minute of the Premier League. Before the forward’s arrival, United had scored three times in four league games; after he joined the Red Devils, they notched 12 goals in four rounds against Southampton (3-2), Sunderland (3-0), Arsenal (0-3) and Everton (3-0). That represented an average-goals-per-game increase of 0.75 to 2.4.
The teenager is a clinical finisher, an explosive dribbler and a surprisingly capable target man
The ratio fell with last weekend’s drab 0-0 draw against Manchester City, though Martial has not been helped by his new role on the left wing. He has even looked dangerous out on the flank, however, with most people now fully aware of his qualities: the teenager is a clinical finisher, an explosive dribbler and a surprisingly capable targetman. Such abilities are particularly crucial for United given that they perfectly complement the attributes of the club’s existing group of attackers.
His influence transcends goals and assists because nobody at United can replicate his mobile and unpredictable nature
Analysing Martial’s displays so far, one obvious feature has been his finishing. In the games he's played as a forward, the statistics are highly impressive: four matches, 296 minutes, three goals, one assist. His efficiency is highlighted by his average of just 1.3 attempts per league game. This is far fewer than Memphis Depay (3.1), Rooney (2.1) and Juan Mata (2). Indeed, on the corresponding list of Premier League players, Martial is ranked 79th, even lower than Chelsea full-back Branislav Ivanovic (1.4).
At the same time, his influence transcends goals and assists. This is because nobody at United can replicate his mobile and unpredictable nature. On the right, Juan Mata is a playmaker inclined to drop deep and drift inside. Ander Herrera is dynamic and attacking, but he is no winger.
Depay has registered only one goal and one assist in eight league appearances. Of the other wingers, Ashley Young has started just two Premier League fixtures this term, Adnan Januzaj is on loan at Borussia Dortmund and Angel Di Maria has been sold to Paris Saint-Germain.
Even the defender with the most winger-like qualities, Luke Shaw, will be unavailable through injury for some time. That leaves a desperate need for Martial’s qualities.
Van Gaal will have appreciated this, and so when Martial has played up front he's tended to drift out wide, balancing out the tendency of Mata, Rooney and Herrera to seek spaces centrally.
Some of his best moments at United have come from positions out wide
It's no unfamiliar role for the young Frenchman, who spent a lot of his time out wide at Monaco.
Some of his best moments at United, moreover, have come from such positions: for the goal against Liverpool, he cut inside from the left and dribbled past a defender, and for his assist at home to Sunderland, he skipped past another down the right and crossed for Rooney to turn the ball home.
The strategy appeared to be similar in United’s clash with Arsenal earlier this month. In the first half, Martial often went wide to collect long passes, while in the second period, as United pressed, his movement was more varied. Interestingly, he would sometimes try to stay in front of a defender with his back to goal, then receive the ball to feet and turn. This led him to attempt dribbles in dangerous positions, often out wide.
Something similar was also evident against Sunderland. Martial, on occasion, would be used as a targetman, holding off centre-backs, turning and accelerating or bringing others into play. Once, he outmuscled Younes Kaboul to create a fine chance for Depay.
While such qualities help the collective, they also make it easier for Martial to score. The 19-year-old is capable of protecting the ball close to goal and, if he is able to turn, a quick dribble can set him up for a shot. Such speed – in both the brain and the legs – is crucial as many of his opponents will be slow centre-backs. His goal against Liverpool, for example, came after bypassing Martin Skrtel, while Kaboul was the victim when he set up Rooney against Sunderland.
Lively on the left
Martial began playing as a left winger at Goodison Park against Everton, a position he remained in for the encounters with CSKA Moscow and Manchester City. Unlike Mata, he has largely stayed close to the touchline, stretching the play horizontally and only occasionally roaming inside.
The role has put more emphasis on Martial’s pace and flair – assets he has in abundance. So far he has pulled off 3.8 dribbles per league game, which is second only to Leicester's Riyad Mahrez (4), and comfortably more than the next two names on the list, Eden Hazard (3.1) and Alexis Sanchez (3).
Unsurprisingly, the figure has increased over the last three games: against Everton, CSKA and Man City, Martial attempted a total of 38 dribbles and succeeded with 17.
Such a varied skill set is evidence of Martial’s tremendous potential. His impact has been immediate and United already rely on him, but his influence would be even greater if he was deployed as a lone striker, where his strength and finishing come into play. It remains to be seen how long Van Gaal will keep patience with Rooney in the No.9 role. One thing is certain: Martial has done enough to deserve it.