It’s hard to think of any other player who’s had such an impact on a side as Anthony Martial has on Manchester United. In August, United were timorous, restricted and lacking in panache, a side that seemed always to be second-guessing itself.
The arrival of Martial has given them an attacking edge, a player of pace and power—quite apart from his finishing ability—who brings the best out of others.
There is an energy about United now, a sense of purpose; they look a proper team again. Martial didn’t score against Wolfsburg on Wednesday, but that didn’t prevent him being a key figure.
It’s remarkable how perceptions have changed. At the start of September, there was widespread—and readily understandable—disbelief at United’s willingness to pay £36 million, potentially rising to £58 million, for a player who had started only 29 league games.
Now, that seems reasonable, perhaps a bargain, the question less why United paid that much for him (although however justified it’s beginning to look as though it may be, it remains an extraordinary sum for one so inexperienced) than why Monaco had used him so sparingly over the past 18 months, why there wasn’t a queue of clubs beating down their door for Martial.
The goals, obviously, are part of it, not just that Martial has scored them, but the manner in which he has. He has, well, what? It’s not swagger exactly, but he projects a powerful sense of self-belief; his goals have been followed almost with a shrug; this is what he does, he seems to be saying. There is no sense of wide-eyed disbelief.
Scoring against Liverpool on his debut, of course, was a huge bonus, bolstering his confidence—although that has never seemed in short supply—and meaning there was never any chance for the narrative of multimillion-pound striker waiting for his first goal to gain any purchase. His two goals against Southampton were both scored with a splendid sense of certainty, and that must both encourage his own side and terrify opponents.
Juan Mata was a fairly obvious man of the match against Wolfsburg (although perhaps not for Louis van Gaal, who seemed perplexed by the praise he received), converting the penalty to equalise and then setting up the winner for Chris Smalling with a superb backheel flick.
He was a constant menace, finding space and picking holes in the Wolfsburg rearguard again and again. Part of the reason for that is Martial, drawing defenders away, creating holes for his team-mates and offering a target for through balls.
He’s also strong and capable of holding the ball up and winning headers. Stats from WhoScored.com show he’s won an average of 3.3 aerial duels per game. That might not have him in Christian Benteke territory, but its more than any other United player.
He is, in short, quicker and more mobile than Wayne Rooney, making darts behind opponents and opening passageways for others. In the six games since Martial arrived, United have scored 15 goals; in the six before he arrived, they had scored 10—and seven of those had come in the Champions League play-offs against an injury-ravaged and largely unimpressive Club Brugge.
There is a certain irony that the team of a manager so obsessed by the collective should have been so elevated by the introduction of an individual. History has suggested that with Van Gaal teams, there is a moment at which everything clicks, when the players have assimilated his “process” and are able to regard the parameters he sets as a useful basis for improvisation rather than as something restrictive.
At Bayern, it came with the 4-1 away win to Juventus in December 2009. There had been weeks of inconsistent, scratchy football and, quite suddenly, everything fell into place.
There has been no such eureka moment for United (one that seemed to have come when they beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 toward the end of last season, then secured wins over Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City, only for a Michael Carrick injury in the derby to undo the magic), but there is a mounting sense that this team could challenge for honours this season.
Van Gaal was in characteristically combative mood after the win over Wolfsburg. He was happy with the character that had seen them come from behind to take and hold the lead but seemed underwhelmed by what was arguably United’s most consistently dangerous attacking performance of the season so far.
Of more concern to him was the way United had given the ball away after Chris Smalling’s goal.
“After that, it was not good anymore and that is remarkable because, keeping the ball in our possession, we have done that the last five to six matches very good," he said, per the Guardian. He continued:
We have given a lot in the first half to come back in the game and also the accumulation of the matches in the last weeks…but I cannot understand that we give so easily the ball away but I think also the team spirit keeps us also in the match. We didn’t give away many chances.
That focus, in itself, is telling. At the beginning of the season, United were holding the ball well, but there was something pedestrian in their approach—not helped by the indifferent form of Wayne Rooney, which has improved little since he dropped back into the line of three attacking midfielders from being the lone striker.
Over the past couple of games, thanks to the jolt of energy Martial has given them, there has been greater cutting edge and fluency, but for Van Gaal, control must come first.
At the moment, with five games won out of six since transfer deadline day, he is in a position of strength, but he must look at the fixture list and see October as a potentially defining month.
This is not a time for dazzle or attacking flair; it’s a time for maintaining control and assuming that if United dominate the ball enough, they will score at some point. With Martial, that’s a far safer assumption than it was with an out-of-sorts Rooney leading the line.