United vs. Southampton: Martial Matters

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On deadline day, Manchester United paid a French club tens of millions of euros for a teenager that Wayne Rooney had never heard of. In fact, the kid had yet to receive a cap for the French national team. Now, after three whole games, the world sings his praises.

His name: Anthony Martial. But why so much euphoria? And can it last?

I still remember Chicharito’s first season at United. He played the role of super sub perfectly: he had pace and made dynamic runs off the ball. There were two problems, though. First, he lacked the dribbling ability to take on and beat defenders. Second, his finishing was haphazard. One minute he would score a diving header, the next minute he would fluff a simple tap-in.

I also recall the spectacular goals scored by Federico Macheda, key strikes in United’s title run under Sir Alex. And, of course, every United fan can appreciate Danny Welbeck’s contributions. Danny displayed quick feet for a big forward, even if he also lacked the explosive first-step to dribble around defenders.

Why do I mention these names? Because as a United fan, they’ve eaten up countless hours of debate online and in person between fans. As human beings, some fans grew attached to them and saw their pros, while other fans jumped on their flaws. All of them were and are pretty good players. The quantitative-oriented, though, will point to a low strike rate. Their supporters, though, will explain away the lack of goals with a “lack of faith from the coach” or that eternal soccer curse of injuries.

In a novel, a writer crafts a character with warts and wrinkles precisely because flaws are what makes humans human. They allow us to relate. For years, some United fans defended Chicharito and Macheda and Danny to the death (or online equivalent: being blocked on Reddit & Big Soccer). The cold reality is this: all of them were pretty good players, but none of them were worldbeaters. None of them make your mouth water or your heart race every time they receive a pass.

Enter Anthony Martial. Unlike the prior forwards, Martial has the pace and dribbling to take on defenders and craft his own shot. Still, right now Martial is benefiting from game vs. weaker opposition and novelty. We haven’t seen enough of him to see his warts and wrinkles. He may be a terrible header of the ball. In fact, he may seldom win headers. In a years time, we may scream for him to run to the far post on a corner, but he will loiter in the box, lifeless.

Martial’s finishing with his feet has been wonderful: he displays a calm head and excellent technique. Anybody can wrong-foot a keeper from the penalty spot. Only a quality striker can do so from the run of play. Unlike the wonder-strikes of Macheda, his dribbling and technique both seem much more capable of repetition. The only question is: will he put in the work? Will he stay clear of injury? Will he be as good a teammate as a finisher?

Nobody knows those answers. For now, enjoy Martial’s hot start to the EPL. However, expect roadbumps. It’s all a part of growing up.

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