Tactical Analysis: How the Manchester Derby was a microcosm of Anthony Martial's season

The French forward was brilliant on Sunday but couldn't find the back of the net, which has been the story of his season so far


During the second half of the Manchester Derby on Sunday I tweeted “who is the non-Luke Shaw man of the match and why is it Anthony Martial?”

In a game where Luke Shaw stole the headlines, Martial probably had his best game of the season in what turned out to be the perfect microcosm for his current season. Martial did everything you’d want from him with the exception of putting the ball in the net. He was full of energy leading United’s press.

This was a very structured and organized press. Martial wasn’t trying to win the ball back, rather just force City to keep it moving and keep it to the outside. Then he was getting himself open in dangerous areas, and when he got the ball he was challenging City’s defenders and winning penalties.

In the second half he was dropping deeper to receive the ball and turn on it so United could get on the break.

Or, he was helping out defensively to create turnovers so United could get on the break.

The only thing he wasn’t doing, was scoring goals.

That’s a pretty big deal considering he’s a striker and strikers ultimately have to score goals.

This has been the story of Martial’s season. He got off to a slow start thanks to not having a preseason and then getting sent off against Tottenham. That three game suspension meant he was never really able to get himself going in the league. By the time he did, a couple of misses here and there, plus the arrival and quick start of Edinson Cavani did not help his confidence.

Fans have been irate over Martial’s workrate this season, which fair but a little overblown. He’s certainly pressing less, but so is the whole team. That doesn’t completely exonerate him. United presses per match have dropped from 153.79 to 125.61 this season, a 20 percent drop. Martial’s have dropped from 13 to 8.90, a 37 percent fall. That’s bad.

The game that had everyone up in arms was the home match against Sheffield United where he looked completely lifeless. Many fans have seen that game as being the microcosm of Martial’s season (IE he’s been poor!) but that was probably much more of a one-off.

Make no mistake, Martial was BAD in that game, but so was Rashford, Bruno, Pogba, Matic, Telles, and basically everyone else (he also did score that game but it was called off for a phantom foul on Maguire). This was the midweek fixture in the last week of January, a fixture that United have historically been very poor in in recent years.

Last year Martial’s worst two games came at the end of January (Burnley at home, Wolves at home). The Frenchman was basically invisible in both matches but still finished the season well. They weren’t indicative of anything. Ultimately they were just bad games which is probably what the Sheffield United match will be.

No one has ever really agreed on what Anthony Martial’s natural position is. He arrived to United as a striker, moved to the left wing when Marcus Rashford burst onto the scene, spent the Mourinho years out on the left only to be put back into the middle last season. He’s a great dribbler, making him good on the wing, he’s sort of creative, but he’s also a great finisher.

The truth is he’s really neither. He’s not a true left winger nor is he a true center forward.

Martial has great pace, his one on one finishing is exceptional, but he doesn’t typically use his pace run in behind off the wing the way Rashford does. He more ends up in those situations solely on counter attacks. If you look at his shot map from 2016 to 2019 (the Mourinho years) this doesn’t look like the kind of guy who scores goals that wingers typically score. It looks like someone who scores center forward goals.

What does stand out is his finishing when he gets into good scoring areas. Therefore you’d want to get him into those good areas as often as possible.

The way football is played in 2021 your striker needs to be able to do a lot more than just score goals. It’s been this way for some time, and was a reason that Sir Alex Ferguson started to phase out Ruud van Nistelrooy and hand things over to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, two players who were much less out and out goal scorers but more complete players. Just look at what Michael Cox wrote in his book “The Mixer.”

With all this in mind, Solskjaer moved Martial to the middle of the pitch last year to great success. He wasn’t supposed to be a ‘true’ center forward, more of a false-9 who linked play, helped in the buildup, then got in the box later to get on the end of chances. He still needs work in the latter part of that (hence why United tried to sign Erling Haaland last January and are still at it) but he finished the season with 17 league goals and 23 in all competitions.

This year he’s still been doing that but without the goals. That only became amplified when Cavani got off to such a fast start in November. If Martial wasn’t scoring and Cavani, Cavani should be starting. Seems simple right? It never is.

“Scoring goals, in itself, is no longer enough.”

This Untied outfit aren’t a side built around having a classic ‘just put it in the box’ number nine. They don’t have players who could provide the service that a forward like that needs.

United don’t have creative wingers. Their top two wingers (Rashford and Greenwood) are much more ‘wide forwards’ than wingers. Juan Mata who has played on the right wing is more a creative midfielder. Dan James doesn’t create anything from the left and only when he plays on the right can he be classified as a winger.

To make it worse, without Paul Pogba none of United’s other midfielders are known for their passing, so there’s no deep creativity. There’s no getting that striker the ball in a dangerous area quickly.

United are built on all 10 outfield players contributing to their buildup play. If their striker is just playing off the shoulder of the centerback that’s not going to help the team. So while it’s clear Cavani is scoring more than Marital (0.58 G/90 to 0.24), which one makes United better?

The two have played a very similar amount of minutes as the center forward in a 4-2-3-1 system. Their samples are also pretty similar in terms of playing against top sides or bottom of the table clubs etc. What do the numbers show us?

There’s not too much of a difference here. United score more with Martial in there but have created a bit more with Cavani.

A deeper dive into the numbers quickly shows us exactly what the problem for Martial has been this season, and why everything thinks he’s been so bad.

He’s had to play a lot more on the left wing this year. He’s been really bad on the left wing.

United don’t have a right winger and have had to get a bit creative this year to hide that. The addition of Cavani and Martial’s versatility has allowed them to play Rashford there from time to time. If you’ve been following me for a few months you’d know that Rashford has been most productive this season when coming off the right.

This has come at the detriment of Martial, because he has really not taken to going back to the left wing. That makes sense. He wants to play down the middle, last season he got his wish. He was ok there but got much better at it during project restart. Most importantly, he worked on bulking up to become a more physical striker. The result of that is he’s lost just that little bit of quickness that made him effective on the wing. He can’t do that anymore.

The numbers show that. Martial’s 0.20 xG Buildup per 90 this season is about the same as the 0.21 he had last season, showing that he’s been just as involved in United’s buildup play. But his creativity has gone down. His shot-creating actions this season have dropped from 3.26 per 90 last season to 2.61. All of this is above Cavani, who has a 0.19 xG Buildup but just 1.94 shot-creating actions per 90.

If we look deeper we can see exactly how Martial is creating shots. When playing as a center forward Martial has created seven shots from being fouled this season, a whopping four of which have been penalties (he’s won six(!!) penalties in all competitions). On the left wing, that number is zero.

Martial only plays on the left wing when Cavani plays (except against Liverpool) and thus we see that the two don’t exactly mesh. As we can see, those goal scoring numbers when Cavani is on the pitch all seem to come when Martial isn’t.

Essentially United have two strikers. If one is playing the other one shouldn’t be. It’s no surprise that Martial’s worst moments this year (Fulham, West Brom, the sequence leading to Sheffield United’s winner) all came when he’s been on the left wing.

Those are pretty solid numbers (albeit a bit influenced by those 45 minutes against 10 man Southampton) so for another look at what kind of impact the two have on United as a hold, let’s take a look at how Marcus Rashford plays with each of them.

This is pretty telling. When Martial is on the pitch, Rashford scores more, shoots more, and is a far more creative player. His one goal one assist when playing on the right of a Martial-Cavani-Rashford front three tell us most of his production from the right side either comes without Martial or as part of a split striker pair. (That’s in the league, he did score from the right in that front three against PSG as well as his third goal vs RB Leipzig. His first two goals vs RB Leipzig came as a split pair with Martial as did his winner in Paris).

Historically, Martial has been a very good finisher. For some reason this year he’s been awful and it hasn’t evened out. It’s particularly worse because his shot quality has actually gotten better. His 0.15 xG per shot tops the 0.13 he had last year.

Sunday was the microcosm of the season he’s having. He started down the middle. He had four shot-creating actions, he won a penalty, he lead the press well. He did everything but score! And not for lack of chances - his xG per shot was 0.26 and he had a 1v1 opportunity, his bread and butter! - but he played an integral role in making everyone else better as United put out one of their best performances of the season.

For weeks we said that Martial’s finishing would probably come back around to his regular averages. At this point barring a hot streak that’s probably not going to happen. But if we separate Martial the center forward from Martial the left winger we can see there’s two different players here.

If United play Martial down the middle for the rest of the season, he’ll probably play well and the team will benefit. If they continue to play him on the left wing, it’s not hard to see both him and the team struggling through the run in.

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