It bodes well for Erik ten Hag that he has made such a good start to life at Manchester United largely without his best striker at his disposal.
There have been some significant hiccups and humiliating defeats so far this season but clear progress has been made with individual and collective performances continuing to get better. Diogo Dalot, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes have improved significantly under the stewardship of Ten Hag while key signings Christian Eriksen, Casemiro, Antony and Lisandro Martinez are already making huge impacts.
United currently sit fifth in the Premier League, with a game in hand on those above them, having already played the rest of the top six as well as Liverpool. That’s some going and it’s been done near enough completely without Anthony Martial.
It’s been quite a heartbreaker of a season for Martial so far. It looked as though his days at the club were numbered after a disastrous loan spell at Sevilla but he really impressed in pre-season and looked primed to finally lead the forward line. Then the first of his injuries struck, a hamstring strain that ruled him out of the first two games.
He returned off the bench against Liverpool and his second-half display spurred United on to get their first win of the season as he set up the second goal and gave the side a real impetus going forward. Then the second injury struck. An Achilles problem that would see him miss the next seven matches.
Again Martial returned in style, scoring twice off the bench to take the sting out of the mauling by Manchester City. He scored again the following game after being brought on against Omonia Nicosia and then grabbed an assist for the opening goal in his first start against Everton. But he would last only 29 minutes at Goodison Park after suffering what transpired to be a back injury.
In his few minutes on the pitch, Martial has a goal contribution rate of one every 26.6 minutes which, despite being an incredibly small sample size that likely wouldn’t be maintained, is actually nearly twice as good as Erling Haaland’s rate of one of every 50.56 minutes. This isn’t to suggest Martial is anywhere near the level of the Norwegian sensation but it does show just how well he has been performing on the rare occasions he’s been fit this season.
Which is why it must be so frustrating for Ten Hag. To have a striker there who would make your team even better but have him be so unreliable. Like having a teleporter at your disposal but every now and then you end up in the middle of the ocean.
Thankfully, Martial is finally back on the training field with his teammates as of Monday and will be hoping he can make a third return to action in the final Europa League group game against Real Sociedad on Thursday. But there aren’t many games left for him to make an impact this year.
His injuries have likely cost him a place in the World Cup squad so, if he is able to return this week, he will have just four games before the break and then two more fixtures afterwards to prove his fitness to the manager before the transfer window opens. How much he plays in those games may well determine the manager’s transfer wishes.
Though John Murtough has insisted United won’t be splashing the cash in January, it would seem a foolish move not to bring a striker in during the winter window considering the lack of options. As well as the ever-injured Martial there is only the controversial and increasingly ineffective Cristiano Ronaldo and the bright Marcus Rashford. It’s clear reinforcements are needed, especially if United want to build upon the promising start and secure a return to the Champions League.
But what level of striker will depend on Martial. If the Frenchman can prove his fitness and maintain his form in the games before the window opens then that could lessen the burden on the need for a top-quality finisher, instead, the club could look for a striker on the lower end of the price scale to be his back-up. Perhaps a promising youngster who wouldn’t need to come in as an immediate starter.
But if Martial doesn’t return before then or, heaven forbid, suffers yet another set back then Ten Hag will simply not be able to rely upon him any longer. United would then need to look for a striker with a bit more experience, quality and a proven record of sticking the ball in the back of the net.
One who would be bought to replace Martial rather than be a backup, with any time the No.9 is fit seen as a bonus option rather than the norm. Which would be more expensive and harder to pull off.
It may sound dramatic, but Martial may have just six games remaining to solidify his role in Ten Hag’s team.