On Sunday, Manchester United came out on top 3-2 in what turned out to be a tight away match against Southampton. The Red Devils were a bit sloppy on defense, but looked in great shape going forward, particularly as one key man up front was at the top of his game: Anthony Martial.
The 19-year old looked sharp on and off the ball, and particularly in front of goal. Despite his young age – and all the media pressure that comes with, say, an €80 million fee – the Frenchman has been able to cope quickly with his move to the Premier League, and has managed to score three times in his first two league matches.
Now, it’s still far too early to say Martial is living up to all expectations – some in the French media have gone as far as calling him “the new Thierry Henry.” But his early form is a welcome confirmation for Manchester United that their new man can actually make an impact on the team right away – much unlike their previous striker signing, Radamel Falcao.
But exactly what influence can Martial have in Manchester United? Is he enough to push the team back to the top spot of the Premier League?
Here is some of what we’ve learned:
Martial has a killer instinct
Last week, against Liverpool, Martial scored his first-ever goal for Manchester United, with a staggering solo effort that he finished with a smooth, accurately-placed shot. The play was a show of athleticism and skill. However, many fans saw more: A cunning intuition to find a hole into the box from a wide position, and then spot a small opening to the goalkeeper’s right.
That notion was reinforced with both of the Frenchman’s goals against Southampton. For the first one, he calmly cut inside with one foot right on the penalty spot to then finish deftly with the other one. And for the second one, he anticipated a rival defender’s bad pass in order to score with another elegant finish.
Martial is a skillful forward, yes, but the attribute that will set him apart might have more to do with his gut reactions. He is a born striker, with the mark of goal stuck between his eyes, and the steel nerves to find it.
Martial will add a little much-needed width
Van Gaal’s preferred lineup for the rest of the season will most likely feature both Juan Mata and Memphis Depay. Both players have been in good form so far – especially the former – and they will probably be Manchester United’s main attacking outlets on the flanks.
But having these two players also poses a problem: Since they both prefer to drift towards the middle, the team often ends up losing width when attacking, and has trouble keeping possession and finding spaces as a result. It’s a problem that has become even more prominent with the injury of Luke Shaw.
Martial has helped fixed this with his ability to drop to wide positions close to the flanks. Even though the Frenchman prefers the middle and the areas close to the box, he is also comfortable receiving the ball in more open positions close to the touchline – perhaps more so than Rooney, and surely more so than Marouane Fellaini.
Rooney will play in midfield
Despite adding an extra striker to his squad, Van Gaal is determined to stick to his 4-2-3-1, lone-striker formation. Instead of changing it, the Dutchman has preferred to simply move Rooney to midfield in order to leave the striker spot closest to goal to Martial.
Now, we all know Van Gaal is not the first to play Rooney in a deeper position, but the move might still earn him some criticism, particularly since the 29-year old – who last week happened to become England’s most prolific international goalscorer – just completed 11 Premier League matches without scoring for his club. Still, if Martial’s good form continues, Rooney should get plenty of chances to assist and make late runs towards the box in order to score himself.