Having signed for Manchester United for a world-record fee for a teenager, Anthony Martial has struggled in his second season of English football. The 21-year-old Frenchman has found Premier League starts to be quite fleeting until recently, with the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic opening up the striker position for him.
He’s looked uncomfortable on the pitch this season, and while that may be down to him trying to adjust to Jose Mourinho’s needs, it may also be down to where he’s playing. For him to cement a place in the team, Martial needs to prove himself to be either an elite-level striker or winger, but which one suits him best?
Striker turned winger
Anthony Martial came to Manchester United as a striker, a much raved about one at that, but the then manager, Louis van Gaal, decided to play him on the left-wing for a lot of his first campaign, despite the lack of scoring power in the rest of the team.
The Dutch manager reportedly asked Martial what his preferred position was, replying to him by saying that he thinks that he can play in many positions:
“He [van Gaal] asked me my preferred position. I prefer to play in the centre but he told me I could play in a number of positions.”
Anthony Martial, Eurosport
Making his debut as a substitute against United’s arch rivals, Liverpool, Martial immediately impressed, scoring a very impressive goal that he chiselled out himself.
Over the season, Martial featured as a striker and a left winger, with van Gaal being intent on playing Wayne Rooney as the sole striker for stretches – even though he’s never been very effective on his own up top – but the young Frenchman the score sheet more often when playing out wide.
During this campaign, with the arrival of Ibrahimovic, the striker position was reserved until the Swede’s season-ending injury, so Martial took games on the left wing when they came about. He has found an okay level of production this season, as he would – being such a gifted player – but his slow adjustment to what his new manager, Jose Mourinho, wants to see from the position has cost him game time.
However, with Ibrahimovic injured, Martial has been given a chance as a striker, unfortunately for him, though, it’s come at the worst time.
A half chance for Martial
Martial has been given some chances in recent weeks to lead the line, unfortunately for him, they’ve come at a time when Mourinho is no longer worried about the Premier League and is simply shutting up shop from the first whistle, trying to avoid sustaining any more injuries.
In games that he has started as the striker, Martial has later been shifted onto the wing by substitutes coming on to play there. Whether this is because his manager is trying to ease the Frenchman back into his old position or that he genuinely thinks that he’s just a tertiary or even a quaternary option as a striker is yet to be seen.
Maybe Martial’s not as versatile as they thought
However, it looks as though the attempts to change his positional bias have stopped him from developing as a player. Now, this could also be down to the very differing schemes implemented by the two managers that he’s played under in as many years, but you can see that he hasn’t progressed significantly as either a striker or a winger during his time with Manchester United.
Anthony Martial possesses blistering pace, incredible dribbling ability, quick feet that allow for skilful manoeuvres to evade defenders, and a cold – almost cruel – shot that beats many goalkeepers by nestling just past their coverage.
However, when playing as a striker, he appears to struggle to manage the opposing defenders. He is great when he’s running at the back line, but when standing off of them to receive the ball, he often finds himself dispossessed. Martial also struggles to manipulate the line, not making the runs and moves that distort the back line to give himself running space or opening it up for his teammates – a skill that Marcus Rashford has got nailed down.
When on the wing, Anthony Martial is focussed on attack, as a natural striker would be, and he still hasn’t forged some consistent defensive responsibility into his game, or a tendency to bring the left-back into the attack. Martial will be the highest man on the left side at almost all times, ready to carry an attack but not keen on pressing the ball carrier or supporting the defence around his team’s area.
What’s also appeared to be a struggle for Martial is crossing. Sure, he has the skills and technique to charge into the box, take on defenders and then shoot, but a winger should also be looking to get the ball airborne and cross it in; especially if their full-back rarely comes up past them on the pitch to get crosses in.
Anthony Martial having to change his position from being a striker to being a part-time winger to being full-time winger has stinted his advancement as a clinical striker, and he still lacks key skills to being rated as a decent winger.
Martial needs consistency
As is the way with all young footballers, Martial needs consistent first-team football to be able to develop into the player that he has the potential to become. In terms of his natural ability, he should be played as a striker, the experiences gained from doing so will add the other aspects to his game to compliment his natural scoring ability. If he is to become a winger, there is a lot more for him to improve on first.
The major problem for him right now is that he’s at Manchester United, especially if they re-sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic. On the wing, Martial will most likely require another season or two to transition into the role that Mourinho wants him to play, which will lose him vital games in the meantime. Even though it’s his more productive position in terms of goals and assists, his traits would be far better served as a striker.
If Ibrahimovic decides that his career must now continue elsewhere and Mourinho gives Martial the starting striker spot, he could very well develop into a long-time, top scoring option for the Red Devils.
If he were to be allowed to have a leading role on the team as the striker, it’s possible that the Manchester United front line could develop into a very fluid, very speedy trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Jesse Lingard. Of course, that’s very wishful thinking – given executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s need to splash out on anyone the press links United to – but it could happen, and it could be glorious.