Manchester United were excellent on Tuesday night, putting three goals past Stoke City, playing some fantastic attacking football and getting the fans on the edge of their seats. Somehow, thanks to this wide-open Premier League season, they find themselves hanging on to the coat tails of a title race and with a decent chance of finishing in the top four.
However, the Stoke performance was an anomaly compared to United’s form since December. The common talking points this season have surrounded their general lack of attacking flair and an absence of goals or even shots on goal.
Before Christmas, United were well placed to move top of the table, but Louis van Gaal’s side have blown that chance.
One of the biggest grievances for fans and observers in their poor run of form has been the selection of Anthony Martial, the club’s £36 million (Dh190.3m) summer signing, on the left wing, while Wayne Rooney has toiled down the middle. The instant impact of Martial, along with the performances of Chris Smalling and David de Gea, has been one of the bright spots in a mediocre season for United
The feeling is that Martial, with his pace and finishing ability, is a much better No 9 than left winger and far more effective than Rooney as a traditional centre-forward.
On the occasions Martial, 20, has been played down the middle, he has done well, most notably away at Southampton in September. His constant selection out wide has added weight to the idea that Van Gaal is not the tactical genius his reputation sets him out to be.
The evidence has been blatant. After a couple of good displays early on out wide, teams have worked out how to stop Martial. Put two men on him when he gets the ball and he will invariably try to do too much with it and lose it. His pace is nullified when he has no space to run into.
However, the French youngster has been superb in his last two games, running the right-back ragged against Derby County in the FA Cup and then against Stoke. He set up a goal in each game and also scored on Tuesday. And, although it may not please all United fans this season, Van Gaal’s decision to stick Martial out wide will pay off in the future and should make him a better player.
When United signed Martial for a fee that could rise to £58m, some instant comparisons were made with Thierry Henry.
Both French, lanky, pacey and brought into the game by Monaco. And Henry’s career began in a similar vein. He often played out wide in his early days for Monaco and Juventus, when he was all pace with very raw technique.
Martial already seems to be a more rounded player technique wise at this age. He is learning the game on the left, adapting to the pace of the Premier League.
What troubles defenders so much is the threat of him pushing the ball past them to the byline and getting a cross in. That means they leave a little too much space the opposite way and Martial can then cut on to his right and take a shot.
This is exactly what made Henry so dangerous – the potent combination of pace, close control and being a threat with either foot.
Martial’s decision making is improving with each game and that was an obvious sign of Henry’s rise at Arsenal, where he became the best player in the league a couple of seasons after he arrived. United hope the same will happen with Martial. He has all the attributes to succeed at the top and, when he does take over as United’s No 9, this stint under Van Gaal will stand him in good stead.
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