Anthony Martial is set to remain at Old Trafford, but United now know they can’t rely on the ‘con’ merchant.
“The problem with United’s forwards is that none of them is an actual centre-forward. Martial almost conned us into thinking he was one…”
Paul Scholes’ comments at the end of last year came just two months after he had described Martial as “unstoppable” as a centre-forward. But after no goals and no assists by mid-December, his previous season’s exploits were deemed smoke and mirrors; he had been “misleading” us all.
That was a slightly odd turn of phrase: it suggests some sort of deliberate deception on Martial’s part. When really, that six month spell – in which he was very, very good and then very, very bad – is simply who he is.
Martial’s PL numbers and their effect on Man Utd transfers. A thread.
2015-16: P31 G11 A4
Decent first season as LW or CF. Zlatan signed in the summer. Martial seen as a versatile option.
— Will Ford (@willfordy25) August 10, 2021
His United career has been a series of peaks and troughs; just when he’s written off, he puts together a run of performances to suggest he could be the answer to one United problem or another, before it becomes apparent that he definitely isn’t the answer to any question and the club are forced to think again. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Daniel James and Jadon Sancho have all been signed since Martial joined United, with the Frenchman prompting – or at least playing a significant role in – those moves, according to form, fitness and flights of fancy.
The summer of 2019 is the prime example. United opted against signing a replacement for Lukaku, instead bringing in James to play on the right wing. With James on one side and Marcus Rashford on the other, Martial was handed the No.9 shirt – he was to be the centre-forward. This was a decision made on the back of just ten Premier League goals the season before; just two after the turn of the year. It was a gamble that happened to pay off, with Martial scoring 17 league goals in what was comfortably his most productive season.
That form didn’t prevent them moving for a top striker the following summer, but it did prompt them to rethink their strategy. Instead of spending a huge amount on a younger striker, they instead went for Cavani – presumed at that stage to be back-up or competition for Martial, rather than the absolute first choice. Of course, he then accidentally became first choice after another protracted Martial slump.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed that Martial will be staying at the club for the coming season. But it feels different this time.
For Solskjaer and United, it makes sense for a few reasons. With Marcus Rashford out until October, United would look a little light on the left side were Martial to leave. Similarly, without Martial – who remains an option as the central striker – there would be a lot of pressure on the 34-year-old shoulders of Cavani who, despite his excellence, can’t be expected to play two games a week for the entire season. And, of course, there is a place for a player like Martial in this and any squad – someone who could hit a hot streak if the stars align or the mood strikes him.
But it’s not a great situation for Martial himself. When everyone is fit, he will be second choice – at best – on both the left side and through the middle. And given Mason Greenwood’s superior finishing and Solskjaer’s penchant for squeezing square peg Paul Pogba into the round hole on the left, he could easily be third in the pecking order in both positions. He remains home but with nowhere to go; little more than insurance at a club that have continually bought players to play with him or threaten his position in the hope he will fight for his place, often without success.
And that is the crux of the matter. United have done plenty in the last six years to improve their forward line, with Martial in mind as key to that improvement. But it now feels as though he’s little more than a safety blanket, rather than someone to build with and around. God knows, they’ve tried to make it work, but Martial’s inconsistency makes that impossible. If he’s the main man, they need a back-up. If he’s the back-up, they need a back-up for the back-up.
This could be a long con. Another change of formation or some tactical sorcery could create the perfect set of circumstances for Martial to flourish consistently. But that’s more unlikely now than it’s ever been. And despite Martial not moving on, United are now in a position where they can.