It felt like a coming of age. As Anthony Martial walked off with the match ball against Sheffield United back in June, four and a half years of promise finally seemed to have evolved into the real deal.
Three goals in a 3-0 win. The first two – instinctive strikes in the box, the type of finish he had been accused of neglecting. The third, more typically Martial-esque, a dinked chip over the outcoming Simon Moore – beautifully aesthetic, effortlessly casual. Better still, his performance didn’t come in isolation.
Maybe it was just the oddity of circumstance, the uncanniness of empty stadiums during Project Restart – but post-lockdown Anthony Martial was incredible. His six goals took him to a season total of 23, United’s top scorer. He set up a further six over the course of the season, helping the team to third and was deservedly voted as Player’s Player of the Year.
Statistics and trophies aside, however, it was the energy in Martial’s game, fronting United’s aggressive press, looking a changed man from the occasionally lacklustre forward who had frustrated many in prior seasons.
Eight months down the line and the progress made has seemingly unravelled. The red card against Spurs, the miss against PSG, the goals mostly drying up. Sadly, the Tony Martial love-in was short lived; the punditry studios are back on his case, Twitter is alive again with calls for his head.
The overwhelming sense is that these criticisms never truly went away. They may have disappeared from view during his 19/20 hot streak, but animosity towards the Frenchman remained, lying latent, ready to resurface at the first opportunity.
Paul Scholes argued back in October that Martial’s post-lockdown form was a false image, that he “conned us” into the belief he could be a top-level number nine. This seems to be the traditionalist line of thought.
Despite the number on his back, Martial’s style as a forward doesn’t fall in line with the ‘old-school’ prototype of a centre forward. Take Edinson Cavani as a comparison. Almost a quarter of his goals over the last five seasons have been scored within the six yard box, compared to Martial’s 12.5%.
Moreover, Cavani is rugged and energetic, Solskjaer was quick to point out that he “runs almost 12km” per game. His innate aggression and movement in the box typify the most obvious connotations of a true 9 – think Cole, Van Nistelrooy, Hughes.
But tradition isn’t everything. The fluidity of United’s attacking movement in games such as the Sheffield United one was an asset owing to the non-traditional structure of the front three.
Greenwood, Martial and Rashford operated as an interchangeable trio, swapping roles and dragging defenders out of position. France international Martial was central, but he dropped deep to link play and drifted wide to drive at full backs. It proved, as other teams already have – Barcelona using Messi as a false nine, Liverpool succeeding with Firmino – that an out-and-out nine is not an absolute necessity.
This is perhaps a modern take representative of a younger generation – Xg savvy and Sofascore-literate, disciples of Staman Dave and Tifo Football and streaming obscure Bundesliga 2 matches online. No doubt Graham Souness wouldn’t approve.
The debate harkens back to the dark days of Mourinho vs Paul Pogba. A “good player, not a special player” remarked Mourinho, who seemed perennially frustrated by the £89 million man’s failure to simply do more on the pitch.
Pogba was expected to be something he wasn’t – an all-action 90s-style midfield piston, hauling his team up and down the pitch single-handedly, crafting a beautiful palace from the assorted planks of wood surrounding him.
The World Cup winner’s inability to befit that model made him a punching bag for many; his languid on-pitch demeanor was translated as laziness, his ever-changing hair-cuts and Instagram presence translated as disinterest.
In essence, this felt like a battle of old versus new. The ‘generation gap’ operating between Pogba fans and their detractors seems to exist again with Martial.
Neither side is necessarily wrong. Different supporters from different eras will always have players they prefer. During Martial’s lean spell United are certainly lucky they have Cavani to take the mantle.
The truth is that no fanbase as large as United’s will ever be without factions. For the most part this is healthy, there will always be traditionalists and modernists – plus that strange sect using the LUHG banner as venner for their cultist Jose obsession – differing opinions ultimately drive debate.
Pure animosity, however, is never good. The racial abuse directed at Martial last week has given the debate a sickening undertone – hopefully, the full weight of the law will be directed at the perpetrators. And hopefully, also some form of unified front can form as Man United push on towards the end of the season.
Because if there’s any hope of sustaining a genuine title charge, both Cavani and Martial, old and new, traditional and modern – will be required.