Manchester United’s overall performance in Sunday’s 3-2 victory over Southampton wasn’t particularly impressive. The defence struggled to cope with Graziano Pelle’s strength and Sadio Mane’s pace, the midfield was unable to control possession in the opening stages, and Wayne Rooney’s poor display meant the attacking quartet rarely linked.
But football matches are won and lost in the penalty boxes, and United’s two star performers were their goalkeeper and centre-forward.
Both were late ‘captures’ in the transfer window; David de Gea was already at the club, of course, but with everyone expecting him to leave for Real Madrid, it felt like a fresh arrival.
And then there’s Anthony Martial, literally a new signing for a transfer fee widely mocked. Already, however, the Frenchman is starting to justify the price tag.
More than Marouane
Having scored a wonderful goal against Liverpool as a substitute last weekend, this was Martial’s first start in the Premier League, and his name on the team-sheet came as something of a relief considering Marouane Fellaini’s terrible attempts to play up front last week. Martial doesn’t offer such an aerial threat but he boasts pace, movement and efficient finishing: three qualities that were obvious in this fine display.
Arguably the most notable thing about Martial’s performance was that he wasn’t particularly involved in build-up play. Louis van Gaal often likes his centre-forwards to move deep between the lines and keep passing moves flowing, which was presumably why he started the season with Rooney up front, and perhaps why he was happy to sell Javier Hernandez too.
But Martial concentrated on playing off the shoulder of the opposition defence. A comparison with Southampton’s Pelle, who also scored two goals, is very interesting. Pelle had 55 touches of the ball (the second-most of the Southampton side, after Jose Fonte) because he was always coming deep and receiving the ball into feet. Martial only touched the ball 41 times, the least of any United player who lasted 90 minutes. In terms of ‘received passes’, that works out as 45 to Pelle and just 30 to Martial. Two different styles, and yet two strikers who enjoyed very good games.
Martial’s movement was particularly impressive because it was very selfless. At 19, many centre-forwards are concerned only about making runs which will benefit themselves, putting them through on goal. For Martial, however, there were some clever decoy runs into wide positions which opened up space for Memphis Depay, a fellow newcomer who’s happy to charge into centre-forward positions. Juan Mata also took up goalscoring positions more regularly than you might expect, while Rooney was quiet but would also benefit from Martial’s movement if he played 10 yards higher up the pitch.
The only problem with Martial’s movement is that he clearly favours the inside-left channel, much like the most obvious comparison in terms of style, Thierry Henry. From that zone he’s scored all three of his Manchester United goals, with his second here – courtesy of a horrendous Maya Yoshida backpass – being particularly Henry-esque. That meant he was usually fighting against Jose Fonte, whereas Virgil van Dijk seemed the weak link and should have been tested more.
Martial was also surprisingly effective at winning aerial duels, marginally getting the better of the Southampton centre-backs. Although only 5ft 11in, he’s a brave player with a good jump, and provided De Gea with a target through the middle – which, of course, is the one thing Fellaini did offer. He also won two free-kicks in dangerous positions just outside the penalty box.
Van Gaal is understandably delighted with his start. "He has talent at a high level and has adapted to the system," said the Dutchman. "He shows that he wants to do that. As a striker, the most important thing is to score goals."
Ultimately, the fee United paid to Monaco makes little difference to Martial. While dips in form will be inevitable, they have clearly signed an extremely promising young attacker.
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