One of them was, until recently, the most expensive teenager in football history; the other joined the Manchester United academy at the age of seven. One of them scored on his debut against Liverpool; the other scored twice in his first two games for the club. One of them won the Golden Boy award in 2015; the other finished third in the reckoning for the same award in 2017. One of them is 22 years old; the other is 20.
Both have suffered dips in form and confidence over the past two years; both have been shunted out wide for their club when they would much rather be playing centrally; both possess speed, skill and finishing ability to terrorise defences on their day, and yet only one of them looks like he will stay at the club. I am, of course, talking about Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and while it may seem as if the Frenchman’s days at the club are numbered, there may be value in comparing United’s two dynamic attackers to see who is actually better, and therefore worth retaining.
Before you come at me on Twitter, let me clarify: there is no inkling that Rashford is anywhere close to leaving. This is purely an academic discussion, one geared towards stripping away all the hyperbole and using cold, hard numbers to try and judge if Martial has actually been as bad as some rabid social media accounts would have you believe, or if Rashford has genuinely gone off the boil. Primarily, it serves to answer the question: if United can keep only one of these two (which is ridiculous, to be honest; both should ideally have long careers at the club), who should they keep?
Before we get into the numbers, a few pointers. I’ve used data from Squawka for this analysis and looked at Premier League stats only. Finally, to ensure proper comparison, I’ve considered their stats from the 2015/16 season onwards, when both of them made their United debuts and used numbers per 90 minutes. Let the games begin!
Both Martial and Rashford are good finishers, with Martial probably slightly better at beating the keeper. Nevertheless, they are quite similar, in that they usually score from inside the box with calm, placed strikes. Their goals/90 numbers are quite similar over the last three seasons: Martial averaged 0.38, 0.23 and 0.48 goals per 90 in the three seasons since 2015/16, while Rashford scored 0.53, 0.26 and 0.36. An interesting addition to this is their respective shot accuracy rates: Martial has been a model of consistency, getting 56%, 56% and 50% of his shots on target; however, Rashford enjoyed a clearly unsustainable debut campaign with a whopping 89% of his shots/90 on target, before falling to a more realistic 52% and 57% in subsequent seasons. These numbers are quite impressive for young forwards like them, as the best strikers in the world usually hit around 60% of their shots on target, suggesting that while there is room for improvement, these two are already quite good at making the keeper earn his living.
One thing is abundantly clear; they both enjoyed stellar debut campaigns, tailed off in the second season when Zlatan Ibrahimovic literally dominated United’s attack and picked up significantly last season. Overall, Martial averages 0.36 goals per 90 in the league, while Rashford is at 0.38. An extremely marginal difference and it is safe to say that this round ends in a tie.
Of course, only scoring goals is not good enough; forwards must also be involved in all-round play and chance creation. I have looked at key passes, chances created and take-ons as the parameters here; the first two indicate creativity in an obvious sense, while take-ons reflect the players’ ability to beat their opponent and thus create an opening.
Martial made 1.13, 1.04 and 1.56 key passes every 90 minutes; Rashford lagged his teammate here, only managing 0.42, 1.00 and 0.87 key passes/90. It is a similar story when it comes to chance creation: Martial created 1.27, 1.39 and 1.86 chances/90, while Rashford made 0.63, 1.05 and 1.13 chances. Both players are strong at dribbling, possessing speed and quick feet which makes it difficult to stop them if they isolate an opposition defender one-on-one. Here too, Martial wins out: he made 2.87, 2.55 and 2.39 successful take-ons per 90 in the last three seasons, with success rates of 46%, 55% and 51%. Rashford, on the other hand, only beat his man 0.95 times per 90 minutes in his debut season, before ramping it up to 2.04 and 2.26 successful take-ons/90 in subsequent campaigns. His success rate has a similar trajectory, going from 26% to 45% and then 52% in the season just ended. The Mancunian has clearly improved this aspect of his game, both in terms of chance creation as well as dribbling, but Martial remains the better player in this regard.
Again, the days when forwards only needed the ability to stick the ball in the back of the net are long gone. Pressing and counter-pressing are no longer terms used by the hipster football fan but have now entered the lexicon of even a casual football watcher. Attacking players are expected to contribute defensively as well, whether by pressurizing opposing players or by tracking back to the edge of their own penalty area at times. This is admittedly not an area where either of these two players excels. They have arguably been hindered by playing under Louis van Gaal and then Jose Mourinho; managers who require hard-working, diligent players in attack. However, a cursory glance through their defensive numbers is revealing. Martial has averaged 0.34 interceptions and 0.76 tackles every 90 minutes over the last three seasons, and Rashford has made 0.34 interceptions and 0.57 tackles per 90 over the same period. These numbers are quite reasonable for attacking players, and they show that these two youngsters have been working on the defensive side of their game as well. Martial marginally shades this aspect too, on account of his higher tackling numbers.
The numbers reveal one thing: both these players are quite similar in terms of their style of play as well as stage of development. Both arguably need greater game time if they are to fulfil their undoubted potential, and it does mean that there is probably space for only one of them at Old Trafford at the moment. Judged purely on the numbers, it seems as if Martial is slightly ahead of Rashford in terms of his all-round game, which is understandable given that the Frenchman is also a couple of years older than the Englishman. Nevertheless, if a decision was to be made on the basis of data and statistics alone, it would be Rashford getting the cull. Thank god it is humans and not computers who make these decisions though, right? *cue brickbats*