Cristiano Ronaldo’s mood has likely darkened watching Manchester United’s pre-season performances in his absence this summer. At the very least, they will have given the Portuguese forward fresh reason for thought. While Ronaldo continues to agitate for a transfer away from Old Trafford, United appear to be doing just fine without him.
The strong pre-season form of Anthony Martial is one of the reasons behind this. While the Frenchman had become something of a forgotten figure at Manchester United, it now seems he has absorbed the ideas and methods of Erik ten Hag quicker than anyone else at the club. The sample size is a small one, but Martial looks a player transformed.
Indeed, Martial appears fitter than ever before and is using this to cover more ground. He is pressing from the front and forcing opposition defenders into mistakes. On top of this, the 26-year-old has been sharp in front of goal when opportunities have fallen his way, scoring three times in three games against Liverpool, Melbourne Victory and Crystal Palace.
Martial’s potential has been clear for a long time. There have been flashes of brilliance from the Frenchman since he arrived at Old Trafford from Monaco in a €50m deal seven years ago, and yet his United career appeared over as he departed on loan to Sevilla in January. However, Ten Hag’s appointment has given Martial one last chance to find a role for himself.
Ten Hag wants his team to be strong in possession and this is certainly area where Martial offers a lot. The 26-year-old is technically excellent on the ball and is capable of beating a man in a dribble. He isn’t an orthodox number nine, but has a good understanding of space and how to use it in and around the penalty box.
Manchester United’s performances this pre-season have hinted at how they will play under ten Hag. There has been a pattern to their play in the final third and Martial has been at the centre of this. The relationship between the Frenchman, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho has shown a lot of promise with all three scoring in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Palace.
Bruno Fernandes was quick to release United’s front three in the match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with Fred and Scott McTominay effective in circulating the ball. But it was the attackers, including Martial, who gave the Old Trafford outfit purpose. Ten Hag is already putting his stamp on his squad.
United’s summer transfer market efforts have largely focused on finding players with superior technical ability than are already at the club. Lisandro Martinez will be charged with bringing the ball out from the back while Christian Eriksen will offer a lot of guile in midfield. Frenkie de Jong, should he sign from Barcelona, will give United someone who can break the lines, whether with a dribble or a pass.
Many speculated that Manchester United might have no choice but to move for a new centre forward too, particularly with Ronaldo’s future at the club in doubt. Ten Hag demands a lot of his attackers and few could see a current player within the Old Trafford dressing room who could satisfy those demands.
With good coaching, though, some players can change and Martial has certainly taken the first step on the path to becoming a different sort of forward, the sort of forward ten Hag needs to lead the line this season. By the time Ronaldo returns to United, he might find his place has been filled by a player who was at the club all along.