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Manchester United’s friendly win over Real Madrid at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday evening will not be remembered for the abysmal penalty shoot-out which followed a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes but rather the sensational piece of individual skill performed by Anthony Martial as he assisted Jesse Lingard’s opening goal.
The Frenchman weaved in and out of four Real Madrid defenders, keeping the ball almost tied between his feet before coolly passing the ball across the face of an unguarded goal to his teammate.
It was a perfect example of what Martial is brilliant at, running at defenders and taking them on within confined spaces on the pitch.
Not a natural winger
When it works it is simply sensational and provides Kodak moments that live on for months afterwards, however often in the Premier League he has become predictable in his movements, although this is in large part due to his positioning on the pitch.
Irrespective of his contributions from such an area, Martial is not a natural winger in any sense of the word. He is at his best as a forward who can drift occasionally into space just wide of the penalty area but he remains at his devastating best through the middle.
Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford saw Martial lose his guaranteed place in the starting line-up that Louis van Gaal had previous afforded him and it is of course difficult to build a rhythm when you aren’t getting sustained periods of football in match situations.
With that being said the 21-year-old struggled all season long and couldn’t really create from a wide position. His natural instinct is to cut inside and make the game playable within incredibly small spaces, when he does this successfully he is unplayable with defenders likely to give away a penalty should they be a millisecond late in their movement.
Such a skill however is absolutely worthless on the half-way line, often he found himself fouled or unable to cut inside when defenders doubled up on him.
Furthermore Martial isn’t anywhere near being an accomplished crosser of the ball so when he was situated on the left there was no variety in United’s play with everything coming short and central, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jose Mourinho.
Signing Romelu Lukaku and having your best crossers of the ball being either Ander Herrera or Paul Pogba in central-midfield totally negates one of the most effective features of the Belgian’s game. Martial will not be able to provide the service needed for Lukaku to repeat his goalscoring feats that caught the eye at Goodison Park.
This explains Mourinho’s vigorous pursuit of Ivan Perisic, a winger who is a specialist in service into the penalty area. Whilst the deal has gone cold for now it certainly explains the Portuguese coach’s thinking and it could well be resurrected later in transfer window.
Now many are perplexed as to why Perisic is being targeted at the supposed expense of Martial but that simply isn’t the case. The Frenchman is seen by Mourinho as a central option in attack and was only ever used out wide in order to simply fit him in as Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the sole central position.
More opportunities up front
The 2017/18 season will be different with Lukaku and Rashford likely to play as a pair in most matches as Mourinho looks to improve on last season’s woeful attacking return.
Martial is the next choice to play in the centre and will receive far more opportunities there as a result of the team now utilising two up front.
Now the onus falls on his shoulders, he has to find a level of consistency in order to deserve the levels of praise sent in his direction.
Simply unreliable as a winger
The worry from Sunday’s clash with Real Madrid is that whilst Martial was playing out wide, can you remember anything he did other than the spectacular assist? The answer is no and this is fine for a forward but in a Mourinho system it isn’t sustainable for a winger.
In a high-intensity competitive match Real Madrid would have repeatedly targeted United’s left side with Matteo Darmian left so isolated by a lack of support from Martial.
This isn’t a knock on the former Monaco prodigy’s efforts but it’s clear that he isn’t built for such a role. He thinks like a forward.
Supporters will never value industry over talent and that’s fine but in order to build a balanced team it is absolutely necessary. Would Perisic have hung Darmian out to dry in the way Martial unintentionally did on Sunday? Probably not and this is a key point in Mourinho’s thinking.
Fleeting moments of sheer brilliance cannot come at the expense of reliability in a wide position and Martial cannot guarantee anything more than that.
Possesses the instincts of a striker
However through the middle there are few with better natural instincts than the youngster. He is a perfect fit in the sense that everything he does can be so effective, but only when in and around the penalty area.
Manchester United value him both as a footballing talent and a commercial asset.
His wondrous debut season was followed by a difficult second one, however he is now in a position where he will be given an opportunity in his best position and for the sake of his Old Trafford career he simply has to grab it with both hands.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4
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