The symbolism of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handing Anthony Martial the number nine shirt just a few months after his appointment as Manchester United manager was clear.
Having been pushed to the peripheries, and very nearly out of the club, by Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer wanted Martial to be a key figure in his team, and he wanted him front and centre of his attack.
17 goals in 32 Premier League appearances in the 2019/20 season suggested Solskjaer’s instinct to use Martial through the middle was right, but the Frenchman struggled for form last term. With Manchester United gearing up for a title challenge after finishing second in 2020/21, Martial’s contribution can no longer be counted on.
📉 Anthony Martial's WhoScored rating regressed the third most of all outfielders in the Premier League from Project Restart in 2019/20 to performances last season (-0.84)
🗞️ Man Utd are reportedly open to his departure once Jadon Sancho signs pic.twitter.com/Inf9xFt00L
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 25, 2021
Edinson Cavani might not have the number nine shirt, but the Uruguayan has taken Martial’s place as Solskjaer’s first-choice centre forward. Marcus Rashford is established on the left wing, with Paul Pogba also proven as a good option in that position, while Jadon Sancho has been signed to play on the right, although he is also comfortable on the left.
So where does Martial fit in? Solskjaer is building a team capable of challenging for honours on all fronts, but there’s a good chance the 25-year-old will find himself on the outside looking in, just as he was under Mourinho. Once again, Martial has a point to prove. He must justify the faith Solskjaer placed in him two summers ago by making him his number nine.
Martial’s best hope might be for Solskjaer to shift to a 4-3-3 formation. This would only be possible with the addition of a midfield anchor who can perform the combined roles of Fred and McTominay which would, in turn, free up a spot for Pogba to drop back into the centre. While Pogba impressed on the left last season, he was only there because Solskjaer had no other place for him. He is most effective on the left side of a midfield trio.
Even in this scenario, Martial would still have to displace either Cavani or Rashford, depending on whether he is used on the left or through the middle of the pitch. Either way, the Frenchman will be a depth option, albeit a very strong one. Martial gives Solskjaer the chance to rotate, but will also face competition from Mason Greenwood, Jesse Lingard and even Amad Diallo to merely sit on the bench.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) July 16, 2021
Early on in his United career, Martial’s dribbling gave his team another dimension. The Frenchman averaged 2.7 dribbles per match in his first Premier League season in 2015/16. Last season, though, saw Martial’s average drop to 1.6 dribbles per match. In contrast, Rashford averaged 2.2 dribbles per Premier League match last season. Even Pogba averaged more than Martial – 1.7 per match.
The 2020/21 season saw Martial average just two shots per Premier League appearance compared to 2.5 per appearance the season before when the Frenchman was also much sharper in front of goal. By a number of metrics, Martial’s performance levels dropped season-on-season even when he was fit enough to play. He isn’t as productive in front of goal as he once was.
In general, Martial frequently finds himself less involved in Manchester United’s possession play. In 2015/16, he averaged 29.8 passes per match. Last season, that number dropped to just 21.9 passes per match. This might be related to Solskjaer’s decision to deploy Martial as a centre forward, but still raises questions over his purpose in the United team.
At his best, Martial is a facilitator who brings the best out of others around him. It would be hyperbole to describe him as Manchester United’s Roberto Firmino, but the Frenchman still plays a key role in constructing passing triangles and patterns in the final third of the pitch. He operates on the same wavelength as Pogba and Rashford and has shown signs of an understanding with Bruno Fernandes too.
While Cavani offers true cutting edge as an orthodox centre forward capable of getting on the end of crosses, Martial might actually be a better fit for a frontline that includes Rashford and Sancho. The wide pair are geared to burst in behind and Martial’s natural tendency to drop deep and link up place could create space for his two teammates.
Only Marcus Rashford (10) has scored more non-penalty goals than Edinson Cavani (9) this season for Manchester United in the Premier League. ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/ZhRS2QNIBO
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 10, 2021
Rashford’s shoulder injury, which could see him miss the first two months of the 2021/22 season, might be Martial’s best chance to find a role for himself in Solskjaer’s new-look team. Sancho will also need some time to settle after his £73m transfer from Borussia Dortmund while Cavani can’t be counted on, at 34, to play every minute of every game. After an underwhelming season last term, Martial must hit the ground running in United’s opening Premier League fixtures.
Signed for £58m as a teenager, Martial has long been spoken about in terms of his undeniable potential. However, the France international is now 25 and is no closer to growing into the player Manchester United, and many others believed he would become. He has been bypassed by Rashford and maybe even Greenwood, who might now be ahead of Martial in the pecking order.
Nonetheless, there have been just enough glimpses of brilliance to suggest United should persevere with Martial for at least one more season. This time next year, with Cavani out of contract, the picture will be clearer. Solskjaer will have another season of evidence upon which to base a decision with the Old Trafford club believed to be plotting a move for Erling Haaland.
If Sancho, as their most significant signing since the capture of Pogba in 2016, is Manchester United’s future, there’s a chance Martial could be left behind as the epitome of the club’s directionless, post-Sir Alex Ferguson years. In past seasons, Martial was left without a suitable platform to thrive, but with that platform now in place the Frenchman no longer stands so tall. Sancho’s arrival, among other things, will truly test Martial’s Manchester United future.