In a Manchester derby defined by both manager’s risk-averse approach and an overall lack of clear goal-scoring chances, Martial’s darting runs from the left wing were a welcome breath of fresh air. In his first derby, the young Frenchman was by far the most exciting player on the pitch, the only one who seemed likely to break the tightly contested deadlock. Even though the circumstances hardly allowed for it, Anthony Martial put in another stellar performance. It was, once again, one of great maturity.
Louis Van Gaal’s tactical approach, and Manuel Pellegrini’s response, did not provide Martial with any advantageous situations to continue to showcase his talent. This meant that if the Frenchman were to create any advantages, it would mostly be through his own abilities, not anything that resulted from the entire system or the actual play.
In some ways, it could be argued that Van Gaal’s gameplan simplified Martial’s performance. It only left him with one option; to cut inward constantly and make diagonal runs towards goal. With only one striker, few crosses were made or were successful, whereas a difficulty to turn a comfortable build-up into meaningful penetration meant there was little associative and combinational play once the ball reached Martial’s feet. All of this left Martial with few opportunities.
And even considering all of this, he did brilliantly. As a result of the match’s general pattern, Martial produced the most take-ons in the first half (4), more than Yaya Toure, in the No. 10 role, and De Bruyne combined (2 total), according to Squawka. In fact, he ended the match with 13 take-ons in total, far more than any other player. In comparison, he only attempted three crosses and made a mere twenty six passes all game, further proof that he was constantly being asked to reduce his game to taking defenders on directly.
Against CSKA midweek, Martial’s positioning on the left resulted in him both conceding a penalty and also scoring a goal. This raised some questions as to where his best position might be. After several games starting as a conventional striker in the nine role, it is still unclear whether he is better suited as a left winger or an actual forward. Or in fact, whether a hybrid of the two positions can be created, a free role which would not be that dissimilar from the one that the player he is often compared to, Thierry Henry, often enjoyed at Arsenal.
In this sense, it was somewhat surprising that he didn’t move into more central positions after seeing how the first half unfolded at Old Trafford. Instead, Van Gaal opted to bring on Fellaini, which Pellegrini quickly countered with Demichelis at defensive midfield. So, in all, this option remained unused this time, though the demand for it intensified given the erratic performance by Rooney in which he was easily nullified by a confident Kompany and an excellent Otamendi. It certainly seemed possible that Martial’s powerful and technical dribbling would have created advantages and more chances in the middle than on the left.
That said, during the comfortable win against Everton last weekend, and during his Monaco days, Martial is certainly no stranger to the left wing. This derby’s result points to the fact that some reshuffling could continue to take place, with the possibility of moving Rooney further back. Yet, it certainly makes sense that Van Gaal wanted to prioritize defensive solidity after the 3-0 defeat vs Arsenal, even if playing at home this time around.
Overall, Martial, his trickery and his pace, got Fernandinho and Kompany booked, but was unable to produce a more complete performance, given the context, to provide the necessary breakthrough to change the outcome of a somewhat disappointing derby. His growth depends on whether he can continue to adapt to such scenarios that provide him with few advantages and forces him to create them singlehandedly. Where Van Gaal decides to finally play him will reveal a lot about his future and potential, whether that be on the left, up top, or somewhere in between.