How Anthony Martial evolved into a deadly no.9
From developing a ruthless streak to his striking consistency, here is how Martial became one of the best forwards in the Premier League last season.
What’s in a number?
Well, if you’re Anthony Martial, it seems quite a lot.
The Frenchman took the vacant No. 9 shirt when he joined Manchester United as a 19-year-old from Monaco in September 2015, going on to net 17 times in his debut season in English football.
But after the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford, Martial was stripped of 9 and given the No. 11 instead – a snub that Martial never really recovered from.
Romelu Lukaku also donned the number up until his departure for Inter Milan in the summer of 2019.
It was at this point that current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer texted Martial asking if he ‘wanted to take his shirt back’ for the upcoming season.
But his offer came only under the condition that the forward would ‘show him that he deserves it every time he’s on the pitch’.
Having accepted, here is how Manchester United’s no. 9 vindicated Solskjaer’s decision…
Martial’s first four seasons at Manchester United were curious.
Ever since his iconic debut goal against Liverpool, it was clear he could finish. But for someone who saw himself as a striker, he didn’t seem overly concerned with scoring goals.
In the 2019/20 season, however, the Frenchman developed a ruthless streak.
He took more shots than ever before – 102, compared to a previous best of 92 in 2015/16. Significantly, the increase in quantity didn’t result in a decrease in quality, with 23 per cent of all Martial’s attempts ending up in the back of the net.
The culmination of those shot statistics was a total of 23 goals in all competitions for the campaign – six better than any other season at Old Trafford.
Not only was Martial his club’s top scorer, with 13 in all competitions since the turn of the year, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has netted more in 2020.
You hear it all the time: the best strikers in the world have a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
While it’s true that they find themselves in the perfect positions to convert chances, there’s more to it than the saying would suggest.
But where the player lines up on the pitch is also significant. Simply put, a forward is more likely to score if they play between the width of the posts and not out wide.
And the 2019/20 season was the first during Martial’s time at United where he played exclusively as a central striker.
The 24-year-old started 41 games for the club in all competitions, and lined up as a centre forward in all of them.
Previous manager Jose Mourinho didn’t fancy him there, instead opting for a target man such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Romelu Lukaku and playing Martial out wide.
Indeed, of Martial’s 165 starts for the club, 85 have been as a left-sided attacking player.
You have to go all the way back to 2015/16 – his first season at the club – for the last time he started more than 10 games as a centre forward, clocking up 16.
The best strikers are able to make the most of the scraps – think ricochets, second balls and knock-downs – that fall their way in the box.
They can take advantage of these partly because their position allows them to – they are spending more time in and around the penalty area – and partly because of their superior ability to read the game and second-guess where the ball might end up.
That is something that Martial proved adept at doing during the 2019/20 season.
Four of his 23 goals in all competitions during the campaign were scored from inside the six -yard box – double the total of his previous best.
He was also able to bag another 17 from within the 18-yard box, again beating his previous best of 15 that came in 2015/16.
Ultimately, strikers are judged on scoring goals. If they go too long without hitting the back of the net, questions will be asked, especially at a club the size of United.
There were no such problems for Martial in the season just gone, who – excluding a two-month period where he was out injured – was prolific throughout.
At no stage during 2019/20 did he go more than three games without a goal in all competitions.
There were three three-game periods during the campaign in which Martial failed to score, although in only one of those he played the full 90 minutes of each match.
They were the 1-0 victory over Wolves in the FA Cup on 15 January, the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool that followed and the 2-0 defeat to Burnley.
Previously, he scored in clusters. His longest run of games without a goal in 2018/19 was seven games, while he had a 13-game barren spell in 2017/18 and one that lasted 10 matches in 2016/17.
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