Gary Pallister Exclusive: Martial can be world-class

Following the end of Manchester United’s season,  former United centre-back Gary Pallister spoke exclusively with The former England international, who also played for Middlesbrough, spoke about the club’s future title aspirations, the need for a dominant centre-half and Pogba’s future at the club. Pallister also shared his admiration for the current crop of players, naming Bruno Fernandes as the club’s most important player and highlighting Anthony Martial’s ‘world-class’ potential.

DB: We’ve just seen United’s season come to an end with a defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League. Despite this, many would say the second half of their season has been a success, securing third spot and Champions League football next season. Do you think United can get back to winning silverware under Ole’s stewardship?

GP: We’ve come very close this season. I know it’s a disappointment to lose three semi-finals and I’m sure that’s something that Ole will be looking closely at. But there’s a genuine feeling of optimism, certainly at Old Trafford before the lockdown and after when we came back and finished the season off. The style of football is as close as we’ve seen to one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides since he left. There’s a really good feeling from the fans that he’s getting it right. He’s letting the players enjoy themselves, he’s letting them play an attacking style of football, an entertaining style of football and I think that’s the way forward and what the Old Trafford crowd has been crying out for. Ole has ticked quite a lot of the boxes, but I’m sure he’ll be disappointed with losing the three semi-finals but I think everybody feels as though he’s on the right path.

DB: Paul Pogba appears to be happier, following a period where he was rumoured likely to depart. His contract is set to expire in June 2021, though United have the option to extend for an extra 12 months. Do you think it’s in United’s best interest to tie him down to a long-term deal?

GP: That’s a good question. There’s been that much turmoil around Paul, the stories that he and Jose didn’t get on, I think during that period of time it’s possible that he did want to leave the club. I don’t think the style of football suited him; I think he was a little lost, a bit frustrated and had the injuries on top of that. He may well have been looking for a way out. His agent didn’t help, coming out and trying to tell clubs what to do, which gets under my skin. But he’s come back and looked settled. Only Ole will know, having dealt with him since Paul was a kid in the reserves at Manchester United before leaving for Juventus. He’ll know the character of Paul Pogba and knows he’s a world-class talent, I don’t think that’s in doubt. We’ve all seen it, but it’s whether he’s produced it consistently over the years that he’s been here. Maybe that’s down to the fact he hasn’t been happy. But now he looks a lot happier, his performances tell you that and he’s enjoying the freedom that Ole’s style of play is giving him. If he’s producing that kind of form on a regular basis you’d look to tie Paul down, but that’s an issue for Ole as only he knows what’s really been going on behind the scenes. Before he’s got there and while he’s been there. He’s a world-class talent there’s no doubt about that. If everything else is right then I’m sure United will tie him down to a longer contract. 

DB: Pogba has been back in this second spell for four years and he’s operated in various roles in the centre of the park, alongside a number of different players. He was unfortunate with injury this season but his partnership with Bruno Fernandes looks promising – has Pogba benefited from his arrival?

GP: Absolutely. It may have pricked his ego a little bit. Bruno’s come in from day one and been absolutely brilliant. The energy, imagination and creativity that he’s brought in has been a breath of fresh air. As a professional footballer, when somebody comes in who plays your position and starts grabbing the limelight and stealing the headlines, you want some yourself. That’s pushed Paul into being a better player for Manchester United. He knows himself the talent that he has and everybody should be talking about him and what he can bring to the team. Bruno’s been stealing the headlines and I think Paul’s reacted to that in a positive way. And you can see the two of them have a really good understanding, they look for each other on the pitch because they know when they’re on the ball they can hurt teams. And I think that’s the massive difference with Manchester United now. We’ve been slow in our build-up play for a number of years and lacked the creativity that someone like a Paul Scholes would give you. In Bruno, we’ve found a little diamond. I absolutely think they could be terrific for Manchester United in the coming seasons. It gives us a midfield that other sides in the Premier League will be scared of. 

DB: Do you think Pogba’s second spell at the club has been a success and do you see him as the best player at the club?

GP: Since we’ve come back from lockdown our most consistent player has been Martial. Bruno’s had the headlines for so long, so it’s difficult to say Paul’s been the best player. In terms of ability, if he had that consistency, then you would say Paul Pogba is the best player at the club. Right now I’d say the most important person at the club is Bruno Fernandes because of what he’s brought from the get-go. He’s been sublime and has everybody ticking around him. I think Ole should take some credit for that as well. He’s given them that freedom, which is what you want as a player. You don’t want to be constricted, which I think has happened with United’s managers since Sir Alex. They’ve tried to play a style of football that nobody recognises at Old Trafford. He’s taken the shackles off and told the players to enjoy themselves, which is something that Sir Alex would do every time when leaving the dressing room. “If you enjoy yourselves you express yourselves.” And I think that’s a mantra that Ole has brought in, and the players have reacted to that. The shackles are off, and they have the freedom to try things on a football pitch that maybe wouldn’t as they were too scared to under other managers. I think it’s been wonderful to watch.  

DB: Bruno Fernandes’ output has been strong – he’s reliable from the penalty spot and has chipped in with a number of assists. What do you think of his general impact on the way United play? 

GP: Imagination. It’s a different dimension for the team. He’s been allowed that freedom to roam around the pitch and hurt teams. He’s got that quality, he picks a pass in a split second. He’s technically very good on the ball, his range of passing is very good. But I think it’s that imagination, and I think Martial has responded to that as well. He’s always playing on the shoulder of defenders and, in that split second where he makes his run, Fernandes has got the intelligence to find him with that killer pass. Bruno has been the catalyst. It’s a bit like Cantona coming in, perhaps. We had a very good team before Eric came in but he gave a different imagination, a different dimension for the team. What he did when he was on the ball, we had no one like that in the side, so he was the final piece of the jigsaw. Is Bruno the final piece of the jigsaw? Probably not, I think there’s still a bit of work to be done. I think we need to add more quality to the squad, but he’s got to be delighted with the way he’s come to a foreign country and really impacted on the Premier League.

DB: The third midfield spot has been shared between Matic, Fred and McTominay. We spoke to Louis Saha recently, who said United need a Fabinho-like player, what do you think United need in the middle of the park?

GP: I suppose, if Pogba or Fernandes is injured, have we got anybody else with that kind of vision? Everybody was talking about McTominay and Fred doing really well before Paul Pogba came back into the side and before we bought Bruno. Especially Fred. I think he’s had a tough time at Manchester United — everybody was saying that he was a waste of money, that he looked out of his depth, that he didn’t really look as though he’d settled in England. But up until lockdown this season, he’s probably been one of our more consistent players, so he’s turned it around. Scott McTominay is a young kid who’s done exceptionally well. You know, they haven’t got the vision that Pogba and Fernandes have got, but I think they give you a bit of steel. Scott’s a Manchester United boy, he’s come up through the system, he understands the club, so I’m not panicking that much about the midfield area. Maybe, as I say, we need somebody if Pogba or Fernandes is injured. Somebody who can play that holding role, you’ve seen that Matic does it a different way. He’s not as dynamic as Fred and McTominay in getting around the pitch, but he’s got a cool, calm head. When he plays in that role, in front of the back four, he probably goes under the radar a little bit, but I think his fellow professionals appreciate what he actually brings on the football pitch. He has a calm head, he does see things, he reads the game really well, and he’s a very calming influence as well. 

DB: Have United been reliant on too many moments of individual brilliance in the second half of this season? What do you think of what we’ve seen so far from Ole as a tactician when games haven’t been going their way?

GP: I think it’s what we said, Ole needs a bit more quality on the bench. That’s why they’ve tried to push the boat out in bringing Sancho across, because of what he gives you in terms of goals and assists. He’s one of the best young players in Europe. So, he probably wants more options from the bench. But listen, I think Ole’s grown into the job. I think he’s become more his own man, and I think you can see that in his interviews. He’s given that team the freedom that he enjoyed as a Manchester United player, and I think he’s decided to do that because it’s what the club has been about for years – individual brilliance, playing with that abandon, not being restricted to tactics and formations, and things like that. He’s given players the responsibility when they go out on to the football pitch to be creative and score more goals than the other team, and I don’t think that’s been the case at Old Trafford for quite a while now. We’ve tried to dig results out. I go to all the home games and watching this team right now you can see that they’re enjoying their football. They’re a different side, completely, from what they were a year ago. You’ve got to give Ole a lot of credit for that. 

DB: United have been heavily linked with Jadon Sancho. Should that happen, do you think that’s a signing that could move the needle for them when it comes to breaking the duopoly established by Liverpool and City?

GP: It would certainly help. Sancho’s much sought after, he’s English, and I think he’s the type of player that you love to see at Old Trafford. He’s entertaining. Whether they can break up the City-Liverpool dominance remains to be seen, but certainly, as I say, we’re on the right track to do something about that. Is it too early right now? We need to get a little bit more quality into the squad, there’s no doubt about that. But we’re on the right track. It might take a couple more years before we’re fighting for the Premier League title. I’d maybe say that next year is probably too soon, but Ole’s putting things in place. There’s a fresh feel to the squad, it’s a team that looks hungry, and we’ve got to three semi-finals. Okay, we fell short, but things are going in the right direction.

DB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka came in for £50m, do you think he looks a good long-term option for United and how do you think he compares to some of the other right-backs at United’s Premier League rivals?

GP: I think he’s still learning the game. He can be pleased with his first season. I think he’s still got so much more in him though. We know what he’s like defending one on one but at times I think he has been caught at the back post ball watching maybe when balls are coming into the box and that’s something he can work on. But going forward I think he’s got all the attributes to be a great overlapping attacking full-back. He looks like he almost doubts himself at times but he’s got all the tools in the box to be whatever he wants to be. I’m sure with Ole there giving him that freedom he can go on and express himself even more because I think that’s something I certainly want to see more of because he’s got the pace, he’s got the raw ability and he’s just got to take advantage of that. He could be a real threat for United, they got so many threats already with the players they’ve got in there now, but he can add to that. You got to think how Gary Neville started as a centre-half but became a right-back, learning how to be more of an attacking full-back because you know Gary had grown up as more of a defensive sort of player all his life, but then all of a sudden he had to learn this right-back role. But he put the hours on the training pitch to become a better player and probably ended up becoming one of United’s best-ever right-backs. I’m sure Ole’s in his all the time saying ‘you can give a little bit more.’ But for a first season, I know what it’s like, it’s hard. It’s a different environment from being at Crystal Palace and the pressure and demands of being a Manchester United player are far in excess of that. I think he can be happy with his form this year and his introduction into the United side in his first season, but I think we’ve got so much more to come with Wan-Bissaka. 

DB: It’s been one year since United made the £80 million move for Maguire. Can Manchester United be successful with him as their leading centre-back? What kind of profile should his ideal partner have and if United look to buy another centre-back, are there any names that come to mind?

GP: I think I look at United and go how many leaders and talkers have they got in that camp of players? When things aren’t going well they point a finger and push others to do better, and I think Harry’s got a bit of that in him and I think they made the right decision in making him captain. I think he can be pleased with his time at Manchester United. It’s hard, you know, the centre-half situation. Victor Lindelof who has come in and done well, Bailly who was doing OK before he had that really bad injury and he’s come in and out of the side since lockdown. But I think it’s a position that Ole might still be looking at and bringing in another dominant centre-half, but it’s so hard to find. You look at Virgil Van Djik who came in and had such a massive impact at Liverpool, can you find someone like that? I quite like the look of Aké but obviously City have signed him, because he looked like a real athletic centre-half who was comfortable on the ball and always looking to break out of the back four and get forward, I would like to see someone like him come into the squad. But I think it’s a position that Ole will be looking at, you know, we’ve got a few people coming back. Chris Smalling is coming back, Rojo’s coming back, Phil Jones is there, Bailly, Lindelof, you can’t keep all them happy so there’ll be some of them leaving and Ole’s just got to decide which. On top of that, I think he will try and bring in another centre-half. 

DB: Strong ball-playing ability is often a requirement of defenders in today’s game. However, we’ve seen it produce some real calamities, particularly in the knockout stages of the Champions League, where we saw it was a part of Barcelona and Leipzig’s downfalls. Having played in an era where playing out from the back was perhaps less of a feature amongst sides, what do you think of so many teams choosing to play this way?

GP: It scares me. I just thought of the Sir Alex going in my ear saying ‘play in front of you, don’t play in front of your goal, make sure the ball is away from the danger areas.’ But this is what they tend to do and it sends my blood cold to watch it. I understand the better sides doing it, you watch City do it or Barcelona. They want to stretch the game, they want spaces out there for their players to run into. And I understand that when you’ve got a great side when you’ve got Xavi, Iniesta or Messi you can maybe play like that. But some of the teams that try to play like that in the Premier League, I’ve just my hands over my eyes because you’re inviting so much pressure onto yourself. I’m old school, so like I say it’s not something I like to see because it can go horribly wrong and cost you. But I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon, I think it’s going to happen, I think young managers buy into this style of football, it is total football, but I really like to play risk-free football like when I played and every other team did. Back in those days when you had Arsenal backline, can you imagine them trying to play out from the back? Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown playing like that – it wouldn’t have happened, their manager would have come down on them like a tonne of bricks. I get if you’ve got the players who can play that way, but I don’t think a lot of teams have. 

DB: David De Gea has faced some criticism this season. Bournemouth have accepted a bid for Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United, which would likely indicate that Henderson is going to be recalled from his loan. Given Henderson’s stellar form last season, how do you assess the goalkeeping situation at the club? Could we see one of De Gea or Henderson leave the club? 

GP: It’s a good problem to have for Ole in a way, but it’s a difficult one to deal with. I think David is going to be the focus of attention, he’s made some high profile errors during this season and he’ll be disappointed. But he’s got a lot of credit in the bank, De Gea, because I think four out of five years when he was player of the year at Manchester United, which probably tells you more about how bad we were playing back then. But David’s form was fantastic. He had that difficult tournament at the World Cup with Spain, it didn’t go as he would have planned it, and I don’t know if there’s been a bit of a hangover because he’s made mistakes that you wouldn’t associate with David De Gea. He did have a tough time when he first came to this country and now Ole’s found himself defending him. But as I say he’s got a lot of credit in the bank and Ole will know how that’s affecting him. But as I say it’s a great problem to have. I mean Henderson has been fantastic for Sheffield United for a couple of seasons now and looks like an England #1. And I can understand the stories saying he doesn’t want to come back and be a #2. Once you’ve been in the limelight of getting Man of the Match playing for a Premier League side, it’s so difficult to come back and sit the reserves or get a League Cup match or a Europa League match, maybe only playing seven or eight games a season. It’s a difficult situation for Ole to deal with, he probably knows David better than he knows Dean, but by the looks of it, he is coming back to the club. Where that leaves Romero I don’t know because he’s never let the club down either. So Ole’s got a tough decision to make when they all come back into pre-season, well you say pre-season, they’re not really gonna have a break, are they? It’s something he’s gonna have to deal with straight away. 

DB: United’s #9, Anthony Martial, has shown some great form this season, grabbing 17 league goals, his best return at the club so far. Do you think he’s nailed down his spot as United’s starting striker for the long-term future?

GP: Yeah, he’s wanted to play there ever since he came to the club. To be quite honest with you, up until this season, he hasn’t looked like a striker, he’s been more of a threat coming from the wing. He’s not looked happy on occasion. Again, I’d put it down to being allowed freedom. We’re a team that looks forward now, a team that’s not scared anymore. He  [Martial] looks a different player now. Maybe before, I would have said we were desperate for an out and out centre-forward – we brought Ighalo in to do a short-term job and he did really well before the lockdown. If he [Martial] was still playing the way he did in previous seasons when he did play up front, I would have said we still need a centre-forward, but he’s come alive. He’s been sensational since the season has resumed. He’s scoring goals, he’s on the shoulder of defenders, making great runs, he’s got good ability on the ball to beat a man in the penalty box. If he continues that, all of a sudden we’re saying we’ve got a world-class centre-forward and that’s got to be a fantastic feeling for Ole. Whether it’s just the arrival of Bruno that’s given him that belief that he can make that kind of run and be found in the box? Possibly. His body language is a lot better now. We’re seeing the end product of Ole working with the strikers – Marcus, Greenwood, Martial. Ole was a fantastic striker and these lads must be eating up any knowledge he can impart. I think Martial has been our most consistent performer since lockdown ended. 

DB: Looking ahead to next season, do you think expectations will be higher, given this strong end to the season?

GP: Yeah and that’s the way you want it to be. You should have expectations at Old Trafford –  you’re playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. We’ve been in the doldrums for quite a while now, we haven’t looked like a Manchester United side. The feeling around the place is like chalk and cheese compared to how it’s been. There’s an optimism, there’s an excitement around going to watch this team at the moment. Next year I think we look to get even better. We already know he [Ole] is looking to add quality to the squad, so I think it’s onwards and upwards for Manchester United.

DB: With City experiencing a down year and Liverpool quiet in the transfer market so far, do you see an opportunity for United to enter the title race in the 2020/21 season?

GP: I think they’ll be looking at it as an opportunity to not be as far behind as they were [this season] in the title race.  Right now, City and Liverpool are ahead of us. Klopp has created this side there over a couple of seasons and I think they’ve got some time left in them, even if they don’t add to their squad. There’s still a dynamism to Liverpool, they’re hungry. They’ve got a very very good manager who pushes them and doesn’t let them take a backwards step. I imagine he’d be a bit like Sir Alex, where you win it one year and it makes you a good side but doesn’t make you a great side. You need to go and win it again and again. Right now, they look like a side that can do that. Sticks in my throat having to say that about Liverpool but what they’ve done this season has been amazing. I think for United to surpass them would probably be too big a task but we can certainly be a lot closer to them. The year after that, who knows, it’s all dependent on what Ole brings on the squad.

DB: Yeah, I think the title race could be a lot more exciting next season, it seems like there’s more quality amongst the top four.

GP: Yeah, you don’t want it to be a parade like it was last season. It’s a bit embarrassing for the rest of the Premier League that Liverpool won it by so many points, winning every game that was put in front of them. It maybe told me a bit more about the Premier League than it did about Liverpool. I think Liverpool are a fantastic side don’t get me wrong, but I think overall, the challenge from the rest of the teams in the Premier League was very disappointing. 


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