Anthony Martial arrived at Manchester United a man destined to lead the Red Devils’ line for many years to come. And, in scoring a magical debut goal against Liverpool from the bench, his first impression could not have been greater. In Manchester United’s next league fixture came a starting role up front against Southampton, and two more goals. Furthermore, supporting Martial from the left-wing was Memphis – another new acquisition, whose twenty-eight goals for PSV Eindhoven promised Manchester United a natural successor to Cristiano Ronaldo. A fresh attacking line-up had been constructed, and the excitement felt around Old Trafford was palpable.
Relocated to the Left-wing
Things then turned sour: Memphis failed to live up to early expectations, and Martial found himself continuously alternating between playing up front and out wide on the left. He scored just two goals in sixteen appearances, and both of these (a poaching effort oozing with technique versus Norwich and a header versus Swansea) bore the hallmarks of a natural striker whose gifts were being wasted by a manager who insisted on playing him as a winger. The fans called for change. Shockingly, Van Gaal did not waver and Martial spent the rest of the season playing on the left-hand-side of an attacking trident.
In the meantime Rashford emerged as a devastating new talent, and the iconic Zlatan Ibrahimovic has since arrived at the club. From competing with Wayne Rooney for a starting role up front – a player who has inspired doubts for the last several years, Martial is now going to find it even harder to reclaim this gilded position. All this, plus his shirt number being changed from no. 9 to no. 11, suggests that a future on the left-wing beckons – but is this necessarily the worst option for him?
For one, Martial’s output from the left-hand side had improved in the latter half of last season: in the first half of the league campaign he attempted an unblocked shot every 75 minutes, whereas in the second this had gone down to one in every 56 minutes. He was by no means an overly creative force on the left-wing – attempting more shots (45) than chances created (37) – but he was clearly adapting to this position better than general consensus suggested.
An Unconventional Winger
The interesting thing is that Martial was still clearly performing his role as a poacher – just from the left: 4 out of his 6 league goals in the second half of last season saw him drift into the box from the left and shoot first-time. He had learned to take advantage of the fact that United’s usual strikers – Rooney and Rashford – were wanderers, whose movements preoccupied the oppositions’ defences and pulled them out of place – allowing himself to find acres of space to exploit in the penalty area.
For example, against Stoke City he managed to score [picture a] and assist a goal for Rooney [picture b] when there was at least 10 feet between himself and a Stoke player.
In a later match Seamus Coleman, the Everton right-back, was nowhere near Martial following a Manchester United counter-attack [picture c] – despite the Frenchman being the only United player in his half of the penalty area!
And he had even more space against Leicester City, when their right-back Danny Simpson was more interested in man-marking Marcus Rashford [picture d].
This is all very different to a conventional inverted-winger, such as Memphis Depay, whose modus operandi is to retrieve the ball deeper out wide and then cut inside towards the ball. We know that Anthony Martial is more than capable of performing this type of role – his very first goal for Manchester United, against Liverpool, followed this blueprint to a t, so the way he has been playing has to be a matter of preference rather than of necessity. Martial wants to poach, and has found a way to do this time and time again from the wing.
Exploiting the Status-quo
This aspect of Martial’s game is noteworthy given that the poacher has been a dying breed in the top-end of modern football. In an age obsessed with building a cohesive unit wherein everyone complements everybody else, a player who is only interested in finishing attacking moves is regarded as an unnecessary luxury at best, and as a liability at worst. Jonathan Wilson in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ remarks how no Champions League club would take a chance on Michael Owen when he left Real Madrid; and Michael Cox observes how, for all Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s impressive goal-scoring feats, Manchester United won three consecutive Premierships immediately before he arrived at the Red Devils and another three after he left, but only one title in five seasons during.
But another casualty in modern football is the defensive full-back: more and more teams are relying on their full-backs for attacking width, and nowadays the players in these positions are far more rounded, at the expense of defensive nous. As the previous examples have shown, Martial has found so much space because his defensive marker is either caught further up the field when Manchester United have launched a counter-attack, or because his marker purely does not know where he should best be positioned. By not completely abandoning the concept of a poacher in one’s team but instead relocating them to out wide there will still be some sacrifices (there is the risk of the opposition enjoying an overload on the poacher’s respective flank, for example), but having somebody dedicated to exploiting the vacuous spaces in the outer thirds of the penalty area can be a potent weapon.
An Exciting New Season Beckons
With the arrivals of Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who replaces Juan Mata as a far more direct presence on the right-wing, Anthony Martial may enjoy even better service next season. So even though nobody (especially not Memphis!) was expecting Martial to predominately play on the left last season – let alone blossom on it – we should look forward to an exciting new season for Manchester United’s unconventional winger.
This piece was written by Shaun May.