Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is chuckling as he recalls a moment in the embers of Manchester United’s energy-sapping FA Cup quarter-final win over Norwich.
Anthony Martial, thrust onto the pitch in the second half in a bid for belated impetus, twisted to and fro between yellow shirts, before unleashing a sudden string of dizzying stepovers. Moments earlier, he had punched the air with delight after helping a bobbling ball into the path of Harry Maguire for an extra-time winner.
Brighton vs Man Utd
June 30, 2020, 7:30pm
Anthony Martial was Sky Sports’ player of the round after his hat-trick against Sheffield United
Martial helped United wrestle back authority at Carrow Road, just days after exerting his own with a hat-trick of real quality – his first treble in senior football – against Sheffield United.
The Frenchman, enjoying his richest form in front of goal since joining the club five years ago, is in the mood right now.
No wonder that flash of exuberance.
“He’s playing with a smile on his face,” Solskjaer tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview ahead of Tuesday’s Premier League trip to Brighton.
“Anthony has had a really good season, he’s been really important for us. We felt it during the couple of months he was out injured; we struggled.
“But he knows that we trust him. He knows that we’ll have patience with him and that we’ll keep working with him.”
🔴 Anthony Martial – best scoring seasons of club career (all comps):
2019-20 – 18 in 36 apps 👏
2015-16 – 17 in 49 apps
2018-19 – 12 in 38 apps
2014-15 – 12 in 48 apps#MUFC pic.twitter.com/rlf8kMRp0q
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) June 24, 2020
Some of the work to mould the Frenchman with the No 9 on his back has been focused on his physical presence. It was back in February when Solskjaer admitted Martial needed to be stronger with his body. “He’s working hard in the gym,” Solskjaer says. “He’s enjoying the physical challenge more.”
But most, overseen by a boss with the sharpest of predatory instincts, has involved the mind; the speed of thought, the readiness, the movement. Training sessions have focused on the timing of penalty box runs, patterns of play in and around the area, one and two-touch finishing.
Anthony Martial is enjoying his best goalscoring season for Man Utd
Anthony Martial’s shot map in the Premier League this season; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been working on helping the forward get in the right positions in the box
In searing heat at Old Trafford on Wednesday, albeit against uncharacteristically passive opponents, came more reward. He was aggressive at the near post for the first goal, alert again to the cross for the second and serene enough to dink a third over the goalkeeper. Three finishes inside the box.
“He’s a good finisher but it’s about being in and around the right positions,” Solskjaer says of a player now thriving in a central role. “He’s developed more and more in terms of getting into that penalty area and closer to the goal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was delighted for Anthony Martial following his midweek display
“We do a lot of work in finishing groups and sessions but it’s also down to him to be mentally sharp and ready. We’ve always known he’s a quality player and highly, highly skilful.”
Odion Ighalo, that January signing once sniffed at but a player proving his worth off, as well as on, the field, has been a mentor for the 24-year-old, too.
“Odion is a seasoned No 9. He’s played that position his whole career whereas Anthony has played more out on the wing. Odion is helping on the training pitch, in terms of his movement, hold-up play and just being himself… Anthony’s learning off an experienced centre-forward.”
Odion Ighalo has helped Anthony Martial’s development, says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
‘Not easy being a No 9 for Man Utd’
When Martial arrived in Manchester, a relative rookie from Monaco, Louis van Gaal preferred him dribbling off the wing. “I don’t think he is an out-and-out goalscorer,” the Dutchman said at the end of Martial’s first season. Jose Mourinho, whose criticism of the youngster’s application made him bristle, was also reluctant to use him as a centre-forward.
Now Martial is back wearing the number bestowed on him as a 19-year-old and there is a feeling that, finally, he is ready to fulfil his potential in a position he himself has always felt his best.
Solskjaer knows more than most that history hangs heavy at Old Trafford. The challenge, he says, is Martial’s to embrace.
“It’s the first season that he’s really playing as a No. 9; he’s had to have that burden of the shirt and be that central focus through the middle.
“Sometimes that’s not easy when you play for Manchester United but he knows that we trust him and I think he knows that we want him to keep developing.
“We’ll keep challenging him. There are always players in and around the team – and outside the club – who would want to be No. 9 for Manchester United. There’s always pressure on a centre-forward but so far he’s performed really well.”
There are always players in and around the team – and outside the club – who would want to be No 9 for Manchester United… but he knows that we trust him… we’ll keep challenging him.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Anthony Martial
Those performances have been fuelled by the players around him, too.
There has long been an intrinsic understanding with Marcus Rashford but now, with the transformative Bruno Fernandes alongside Paul Pogba in midfield, Manchester United feel a coherent creative force again.
“The forward players know they have players behind them who can create something out of nothing,” Solskjaer says.
“Bruno can create chances where there’s no space – a little flick around the corner; he’s been very good with his back to play.
“Paul creates too; they’re both creative players who can pick a pass, players with individual qualities. To be a centre-forward in front of these two is a joy. I’ve felt that myself playing with Paul Scholes, Juan Sebastian Veron, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs… it’s a nice position to be in.”
‘We can play in many different ways’
Fernandes and Pogba started for the first time together against Sheffield United, Pogba alongside Nemanja Matic in a double pivot, though there is clamour to see the pair – who combined exquisitely for Martial’s third in midweek after linking instinctively against Tottenham – in equally advanced positions.
Pogba playing deep can seem constrained, given his technical ability and athleticism, but Solskjaer insists he will be flexible in his tactical approach.
Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes have impressed together in the Manchester United midfield
“I think we can play in many different ways.
“Bruno has played in central midfield, to the right, to the left, as a No 8, a No 10, in a diamond. It’s the same with Paul. And I have Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic giving me a headache when I have to leave them out. It’s a good position to be in.”
It is indeed, because a run of 14 games unbeaten has propelled a United side that stuttered in the first half of the season to within five points of fourth-placed Chelsea, as well as to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Frank Lampard’s side.
In the aftermath of a Liverpool title that Solskjaer admits has stung, the Norweigian knows there is ample work to do to start bridging the gap to the very top; to persuade players like Pogba – and potential new recruits – that, yes, something is in the air again at Old Trafford.
“Everyone is working towards one common goal but the proof is on the pitch.
“If we keep playing well, keep developing, get into the top positions… I know we can attract good players and everyone knows that Manchester United at some point will start winning trophies again.”
Silverware might still be a while off but Martial is smiling and so are plenty around him right now.
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