Anthony Martial has drawn rare moments of praise and even warmth from his famously sangfroid manager Jose Mourinho for his sparkling run of form. Another goal to win the game against Everton – including an extremely contentious but successful penalty claim – guaranteed him the headlines. Although there was considerable pressure applied towards the end of the game by the Merseysiders, the damage had already been done by the flying Frenchman.
It should come as little surprise in one sense. Martial has scored four goals in the last four matches; the entire team have only managed three in that time. In his last 10 matches, he has started six, four of which he has scored in. Now that he is on his longest run of starts since January, he is once again reproducing his best form. In fact, he has been involved in at least three goals in each of the last three periods of four or more consecutive starts.
Mourinho warming to Martial
Last season, Jose Mourinho only allowed Martial to complete 90 minutes eight times, with two in the unloved EFL Cup. Their embrace as he came off in the fiery 2-2 draw with Chelsea recently, however, showed a rejuvenated relationship. Both were full of smiles, and understandably so. After the 2-1 defeat of Everton, Mourinho offered his explanation on the French winger’s improved form.
“When the players are playing bad, it is my fault. When they are playing well, it is my responsibility. Or we [should] go to the middle and when the player plays bad it is half me, half the player and when he plays well, it is half me and half the player.
“He took quite a long time to understand what we want, quite a long time for his brain and body to be ready for how we want him to play. At the moment he is playing very well. Even if he doesn’t score, to create what he is creating [at the moment in games] it is a solid performance for the team.”
The Portuguese’s excuse of Martial’s apparent lack of intelligence a year or two ago doesn’t hold much weight. When given anything resembling a consistent run of form, he delivers. The contrast between his impact in recent weeks and that of Marcus Rashford is telling. So how is he doing it?
A common criticism of him when he first arrived in England was his lack of connection that Mourinho’s comments allude to. Beating a marker has never been his problem. His effective use of the ball afterwards has been less consistent. His manager is nothing if not an obsessive pragmatist who prefers to take few chances. The reference to using one’s brain to fit the system appears to curtail individualism. Martial has adapted his approach to fit in by improving his awareness of his teammates.
In the match against Everton, he provided four key passes. This was double the next most incisive key passer, fellow goalscorer Pogba, despite him playing fewer total passes than any other outfield player except Rashford. By comparison, the Premier League’s most prolific key passer is David Silva with 3.7 per match.
Left flank dominance
It’s telling that Manchester United registered just three completed dribbles as a team, one of which was by defender Chris Smalling. Everton, in contrast, managed 11. The majority of Manchester United’s attacking touches this season have come down the left flank where Luke Shaw has excelled. With Shaw’s powerful running with the ball to add to Martial’s potency, it is no surprise that 53% of United’s attacks went down the left.
Rashford, already on a poor run of form, was left isolated. Juan Mata was moved slightly wider than his favoured number 10 role to accommodate Pogba centrally, which didn’t help matters. His natural tendency to cut onto his left foot compounded the overload of Martial-centred attacks down the only wide flank.
All smiles from Martial
On a simplistic level, to see a player filled with confidence makes life easy for a manager. Martial depends on trust and confidence in his ability to carve open defences with the ball. If he can given an extended run of matches from the start, he could be the key to unlocking United’s attacking potential.