The French forward enjoys the backing of his manager – in public at least – but it is time for him to step up and make the No.9 slot his own
Anthony Martial is well into his sixth season as a Manchester United player and has not yet consistently hit the heights demanded of a forward at the club.
For a player who requested the No.9 shirt after the departure of Romelu Lukaku in 2019, he has done little in recent times to suggest that he has what it takes to fulfil that role.
The racial abuse Martial and team-mate Axel Tuanzebe received from a small section of supposed supporters in the wake of Wednesday’s defeat to Sheffield United was deplorable and the club were quick to condemn the online attacks.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also addressed the issue in his press conference on Friday, saying those responsible were not true fans and that he had been “disgusted” by their actons.
The Norwegian has no issue with criticism, as long as it is constructive. As he had accepted after the 2-1 loss at home to Sheffield United, “I think the whole team will probably get some stick, and myself as well.”
Solskjaer is certainly right to protect his players, and indeed Martial, as much as he can.
The Frenchman’s form had already come under increasing scrutiny of late and Edinson Cavani’s performances have only been making things worse for a player who has netted just twice in the Premier League this season.
Indeed, the former Paris Saint-Germain striker has twice as many top-flight goals – and from 10 fewer starts (four). He also averages more shots on target, covers more ground, is faster and puts more pressure on defenders in the box.
Even Paul Pogba admits that there is a certain “quality” that Cavani possesses which remains out of reach for his compatriot.
On one level, it is unfair to compare them. At 33, and having played as a top-level centre forward for 16 years, the Uruguayan has spent season after season honing his craft.
However, Martial is 25 now and has been given a fair opportunity to nail down his position as Solskjaer’s target man. He has played only four of his 16 league matches this season on the wing and the rest have been up front.
“I know Anthony is working really hard in training, working on his finishing and working on his movement,” the manager said about his striker’s patchy form. “I’ve got no qualms that he will come good.”
But how long will it be until he comes good?
Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho were never convinced by Martial’s credentials to lead the attack and that scepticism is shared by a prolific forward from United’s recent past.
“If he gives you consistency, game in and game out every season, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation about whether we need a No.9,” treble-winner Andy Cole told Goal.
“One week, he can be absolutely fantastic and then another week, it’s like: ‘What happened to him?’ It’s like his twin brother is playing.”
Consistency is a problem which has blighted Martial’s time at the club.
Solskjaer said back at the start of December that he was not worried about the Frenchman’s goal tally and that he would “get going” soon enough.
After a goal and assist against Sheffield United, and coming off the bench in United’s Carabao Cup win against Everton at the end of December to score again, it looked like he had hit his springboard for the remainder of the season.
But it just hasn’t worked out.
He hasn’t found the net since January 1 and is averaging a goal only every 576 minutes in the league. Compare that to the other forwards in the top flight and it makes for quite damning reading.
Diogo Jota was averaging a goal every 100 minutes before his injury, Mohamed Salah one every 120, and Jamie Vardy one every 135. Then there’s Cavani, who is averaging a goal every 133 minutes – not bad for a last-minute signing who many deemed a panic buy.
However, Solskjaer is still not concerned and had some advice for Martial ahead of the crucial clash with Arsenal at the weekend.
“Keep working,” the United boss said. “His talent will always take him through. I’ve got no doubt about that whatsoever.
“Yes, he’s missed a couple of chances but that happens to everyone. It’s just about being ready when the chance comes, like tomorrow (Saturday), for example. Just be mentally ready. Don’t be frustrated.
“I’ve been there myself going through patches when you don’t really score goals. He keeps practising in training, so we know how good he is and we know he will come good.”
While Martial will continue to have Solskjaer’s public backing, the forward will not have it privately for much longer if he puts in performances like he did against Sheffield United.
It wasn’t only that he didn’t score. While Solskjaer has pointed out that the 25-year-old has improved with his running and pressing in the last few months, he inexcusably ambled back after losing the ball on Wednesday night and that is not the attitude or commitment the Norwegian is after.
Cavani is the stop-gap answer to United’s No.9 problems but Martial is running out of time to prove that he’s the long-term solution.
It’s time for him to step up. And the Emirates would be a perfect place to start.
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