Anthony Martial’s season has come full circle. It started over the summer, when Jose Mourinho showed an open disdain for him and wanted to sell him. It’s ending with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dropping him from matchday squads and reportedly looking to sell him.
Somehow somewhere between these two points Martial signed a new five year contract.
Mourinho didn’t like Martial because he doesn’t defend. Solskjaer has reportedly become fed up regarding Martial’s attitude and effort. His work-rate is among the lowest in a United team that’s near the bottom of the league in that category. Last week a fan released a video of Martial ‘warming up’ prior to the match against Chelsea that is not sitting well with Solskjaer.
Martial is one of the few United players who didn’t take off when Solskjaer replaced Mourinho. He scored fantastic goals against Cardiff and Fulham but has just one other tally, a counter attack in the FA Cup at Arsenal, under Solskjaer.
Despite their relationship it was Mourinho who got the best out of Martial this year. Ironically Martial’s great run of form last fall probably saved Mourinho’s job on multiple occasions.
How did Mourinho do it? Pretty simple. Despite his seeming determination not to, he played Martial in his best position. centrally.
In late September Mourinho fielded a bizarre formation at West Ham with Martial and Lukaku up top. United were overrun and lost 3-1. When Mourinho was asked about it after the game he made a comment about how everyone wants Martial to play, but since he doesn’t defend he has to play him up top.
Over the next few weeks Mourinho kept tinkering with United’s shape, so to minimize the amount of defending Martial had to do. The performances continued to be disjointed and terrible, but Martial continued to reward the manager.
The Frenchman scored the equalizer in United’s come from behind 3-2 win over Newcastle, when it was reported Mourinho would be sacked that Monday. In United’s next match he scored twice against Chelsea to give United a 2-1 lead. In United’s next two matches Martial netted equalizers against Everton and Bournemouth en route to a pair of 2-1 wins.
When Martial was coming through at Monaco he drew a lot of comparisons to Thierry Henry. Not just because he was French and playing at Monaco, but because his game looked like it would take the same career arc. A player who could play out wide but would be far more dangerous in the middle.
When he arrived at United he was given the no. 9 shirt and deployed as a striker. He was fantastic.
He scored 17 goals (all competitions) in a team that didn’t score many goals. His 11 Premier League goals accounted for 25 percent of United’s scoring. Most astonishing were his 2.7 dribbles per game, considering Louis van Gaal hates dribblers.
A February injury in his first season opened the door for Marcus Rashford to step into the central role. By the time Martial was fit, Rashford was undroppable, and Martial was moved to the wing. He’s rarely left it since.
The problem is he’s not a winger.
Take a look at the difference between Martial’s radar for this season when you put him in the striker template versus when you put him in the attacking midfielder/winger template.
Both of these charts show the same thing. The things you want strikers to do, Martial does really well. He gets a lot of touches in the box, he gets a lot of high percentage shots, he gets them on target, and he converts those shots into goals at a very high rate.
The radar’s also show that the things you want your wide players to do well, he doesn’t do. He doesn’t defend, he doesn’t create a lot of chances, most of his passes into the box are low percentage crosses.
On the wing opposing teams know he’s going to try to get to the inside with the ball. They use two and sometimes three men to pin him against the touch line and trap him. It’s not a coincidence that in the season where he played mostly centrally he averaged one and a half more dribbles per 90. Being in the middle of the field gives him more options, and prevents defenses from trapping him.
Since Martial made his Manchester United debut, he’s scored 48 goals, the most of any United player. He’s done that despite playing the bulk of his time on the left wing.
Martial’s conversion percentage is a little skewed because he doesn’t get as many shots playing on the wing (he has 40 fewer shots than Rashford).
It’s hard for numbers to completely quantify Martial, simply because there isn’t a lot of data on him playing as a pure striker. But beyond the numbers, any United fan will tell you he’s a far better finisher than Rashford. When Martial is in front of the net, good things happen. Therefore wouldn’t you want him in front of goal as often as possible?
Jose Mourinho knew Martial’s preference was to play down the middle. Last May he said he would play Martial centrally more often if he stayed at Old Trafford.
With Solskjaer now reportedly ready to give Martial one more year to prove himself, perhaps it’s time for Ole to put Martial in the best position to do exactly that.
It could be very fruitful for the both of them.