Remember Robin van Persie’s romping hat-trick against Aston Villa? That 33-minute tempest of attacking menace which gifted Manchester United their 20th league title with four games to spare running away with the latest Premier League lines – Of course you do. Who doesn’t?
Well, that happened a mere two and a half years ago. But with Louis van Gaal now at the helm, and his side unattractively languishing in 4th spot after 12 games, that glorious Monday night feels as if it were light years ago.
Sir Alex Ferguson oversaw his side stroll to the title in his final season as manager. It had a wonderful feeling of inevitability; United had the best manager and the best striker in the league – how could anyone compete with that? It was a procession. Sir Alex’s side hardly broke a sweat. And the most amazing thing was that this wasn’t even the swashbuckling, effervescent United side from yesteryear that walked the league title.
Instead they were, under the tutelage of the great Scot, always in control, mentally robust, and hell-bent on picking the perfect moment to slowly but surely rip the heart out of their opponent. It wasn’t a demonstration of wonderfully dazzling football; it was an exhibition of lethal goal-scoring potency.
That game against Villa typified that approach: fire it into van Persie, take a convincing lead, and see the game out. Job done.
The onus wasn’t on possession, nor was it on looking good. It was on feeding the danger-man whenever possible, building a starting XI around the prime goalscoring threat – a simple but ruthlessly effective method, and it ensured that the great man went out in a blaze of glory.
And now, with Wayne Rooney’s constant presence at No.9 sending United into a growingly despondent inertia, van Gaal needs – for the sake of his job – to pursue that exact policy right away by playing his biggest goal-scoring threat up-front.
Challenging for a league title – let alone winning it – requires a variety of ingredients: you need considerable squad depth, a diverse midfield, an indomitable defence, a reliable pair of hands between the sticks, and, of course, plenty of luck.
But the prime element is to be found occupying the front pages, embroidering the back of replica shirts, constantly on the lips of those in the terraces, etched on the betting slips of punters, pervasive in the neurotic mind of every United fan on match-day. It is, of course, the main man up-front. The go-to guy, the spark, the danger, the focal point of United’s title charge.
And as the Premier League’s opening weekend dawned on the footballing world back in August, I – and presumably many more United fans – pondered over one nagging question: who is that main man? Who will lead United’s assault on the title?
It could be Memphis Depay, the man who outgrew Dutch football and came to England in pursuit of greater heights; it could be Wayne Rooney, United’s captain and most experienced player; it could be the crafty and much-adored Juan Mata. Who could stand up and lead United into the unknown depths of a title charge without Sir Alex?
It was, astonishingly, none of those candidates. Indeed, with the season now fully underway, gradually producing a semblance of identity as it usually does by November time, the man who represents the focal point of United’s attack never crossed my mind back in early August. I doubt it crossed yours either.
United’s attacking spark arrived on deadline day, and was met with a barrage of uncertain clamour.
Anthony Martial, the largely unknown French teenager, scalped from Monaco, vehemently questioned and sometimes derided by the shamefully narrow-minded media, was – in the wake of United’s miserable defeat to Swansea – thrust into the world’s spotlight by van Gaal, charged with the responsibility in being that spark for United.
It didn’t take long for the 19-year-old to deliver; United had gone 2-0 up against a woeful Liverpool side before seeing the deficit reduced to 2-1. They were running out of ideas. They needed something. Anything.
Cue Monsieur Martial, who, as the footballing world watched on inquisitively, picked up the ball, breezily danced through a crowd of Liverpool players, invoking a collective hush of astonishment – as if to say: ‘oh my goodness, how has he done that?’ – before calmly stroking the ball past Simon Mignolet with his first shot in a United shirt, sending Old Trafford into its biggest rapture since that unforgettable night against Aston Villa back in 2013.
Van Gaal had found someone who could produce unforgettable moments on the greatest of stages. More notably, however, he had found someone who could lead United’s title charge this season.
The following weekend, against Southampton, with United playing poorly, he stepped up again – calmly and assuredly scoring a brace to ensure a vital away win. It was perhaps the greatest personification of Martial’s value; even with his side offering absolutely nothing, the youngster, reluctant to descend into the pit of mediocrity that surrounds him, won the game for his side.
It was the stuff of title contenders, holding uncanny resemblance with van Persie’s tendency to salvage victory from the jaws of failure for his side under Fergie.
High praise for a man with just 10 United appearances to his name, I know. But, three months into the season, he is – and will continue to be – the prime goalscoring threat. It isn’t a purple patch; he is the real deal.
On his biggest test in a United shirt, in a fiery but attritional Manchester derby, Martial once again produced despite being painfully handicapped by the manager’s widely critiqued decision to play him out wide.
Against the supposed ‘benchmark’ side of this season, Martial ran riot. No Manchester City player could get near him.
His impact, however, would have been far greater down the middle; the Frenchman, through being played on the left to accommodate the woefully out-of-form Wayne Rooney, had to beat five or six players every time he picked up the ball. Played centrally at the axis of United’s attack, only needing to beat one or two players before a chance could be created, he would’ve caused havoc.
Consciousness of Rooney’s terminal decline of form has, unsurprisingly, grown alongside United’s painful decline in attacking panache. Utilising someone so hopelessly out of form in the No.9 role, the vital attacking position in United’s current system, at the expense of Martial is the equivalent of bringing a cheese-grater to a gunfight when you have an AK-47 at home.
There were whispers in August, there were murmurs in September, there was chatter in October, and now there’s a wall of noise. United fans are creeping towards a rare unanimous verdict. Rooney can no longer be United’s first choice No.9.
Martial, United’s new beacon of unstoppable attacking menace, the effervescent goalscoring threat, and, most importantly, the leading figure of their title challenge needs to, from now on, be known as van Gaal’s first choice striker, and thus the axis of United’s title challenge.