What has happened to Anthony Martial this season?


Just like a tackle, former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes does not need a second invitation to snap into a discussion about his old club and his opinions are rarely complimentary. Back in October, Anthony Martial was on the receiving end of a Scholes volley. It wasn’t quite Aston Villa in 2006, but more stinging like Bradford in 2000. “The problem with United’s forwards is that none of them is an actual centre-forward,” he said. “Martial almost conned us into thinking he was one at the end of last season because he scored so many goals and was quite good.”

Scholes knows what it takes to be a successful striker at United, having played alongside Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney among others, but that assessment is harsh. Scholes was certainly right about Martial’s form at the end of last season though. He was brilliant when the Premier League resumed in June.

Martial was involved in nine goals during project restart, scoring six and setting up three. Only one player in the league – his United teammate Bruno Fernandes – was involved in more goals (10). It wasn’t just Martial’s output that improved, but also his work without the ball. He led United’s press from the front and everything finally appeared to have clicked for the 24-year-old.

Just like United, however, Martial has failed to kick on this season. In fact, he has gone backwards. He has more red cards (one) than goals or assists (none) in the league so far. New signings Edinson Cavani and Donny van de Beek have managed to score in the league and neither of them has yet clocked up 90 minutes of playing time. Martial’s season went from bad to worse in October when he followed up his dismissal against Tottenham with an own goal against PSG.

He has not even found solace with the France team like his teammate Paul Pogba. Martial has failed to score in five Nations League appearances for France this season and missed seven clear-cut chances in those games – at least three more than any other player in the competition.

Martial’s struggles must be even more difficult to swallow for Solskjær given that Erling Braut Haaland, who he was desperate to sign a year ago, continues to excel for Borussia Dortmund in Germany. The 20-year-old has scored more goals in the Bundesliga (10) than Martial has even attempted shots in the Premier League this season (seven). Haaland has also scored six goals in four Champions League games this season, to go with his six goals in four Nations League games for Norway.

Martial has not disappeared in games, but neither is he being effective. He has averaged seven touches in the opposition penalty area per game in the Premier League this season. Only five players across the league are averaging more, yet Martial’s shots are down from 2.2 per game last season to just 1.4 this season. He is not scoring or setting up goals, or even troubling keepers with shots. His form has completely deserted him.

Having predominantly used Martial as a striker during his time as United manager, Solskjær moved him back out to the left wing on Wednesday night for the 4-1 win over Istanbul Basaksehir, with Cavani finally fit enough to make his full debut. The veteran striker did not get on the scoresheet but he was involved in three of the goals and has given Solskjær food for thought moving forward.

Cavani’s movement was superb. He constantly dragged defenders out of position to open up space for his teammates. It was his first full 90 minutes since March and he offered United a different look in attack. He dropped deep and brought others in to play before, crucially, spinning back towards the penalty spot.

It’s no surprise he left PSG as their record scorer on 200 goals. Martial is good at holding up the ball but he does not have the same nose for goal as Cavani. He is often guilty of admiring his work when he should be breaking his neck to get into the box. Over the last five seasons, 23.3% of Cavani’s league goals have come from within the six-yard box compared to just 12.5% of Martial’s.

“Anthony showed he made big strides last season, now it’s time again to make even bigger strides and to develop more,” said Solskjær at the start of the week. “Every season is a challenge and you cannot rest on your laurels at Man United. There are demands in every position.” It’s time for Martial to react. He responded to Odion Ighalo’s arrival in January in tremendous fashion and now he needs to do the same with Cavani.

Scholes’ comments seemed over the top at the time but, the longer his barren run continues, the harder they will be to ignore. Experimenting with Martial on the left and Cavani through the middle suggests Solskjær is beginning to think the same.