Manchester United have found a new leader after Partizan Belgrade win
The leading man
As Manchester United’s form imploded towards the end of last season and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested some players lacked the requisite attitude to be part of his Old Trafford rebuild, Anthony Martial’s future looked bleak.
Solskjaer was openly critical of some of his squad during the disaster that was April and May and it was Martial who many believed was the intended recipient of his judgements. He didn’t start a game after the 4-0 defeat at Everton and a year after Jose Mourinho had pushed for his sale it seemed his United career might well be over.
Not only did that not transpire, but he was given increased responsibility, inheriting Romelu Lukaku’s No. 9 shirt and being asked to lead the United attack. He’s responded to Solskjaer’s management and is now the most important player in this squad, probably more decisive than even Paul Pogba.
He now has five goals in seven starts this season, as well as a couple of assists. He is the ideal central striker in Solskjaer’s system. For proof of just how valuable he is, consider this. United have scored 13 goals in those seven games. In the 10 games United have been without him from the start they’ve scored just eight times.
His magnificent individual goal against Partizan was reminiscent of his first United goal, that brilliant effort here against Liverpool. He showed wonderfully quick feet and an assured touch to take out three defenders before a smart finish.
There are still inconsistencies at times, let’s not forget Martial started the defeats to Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, but his presence just seems to make United tick, it gives the other attackers a focal point to play off and around.
From being the subject of suspicion in a United slump, Martial is now the main man in Solskjaer’s squad.
There was surprise amongst some United fans when Solskjaer named such a strong starting XI against the Serbian visitors, but that decision probably lay in what he was trying to avoid.
United wrapped up qualification with this victory, which means they travel to Kazakhstan in three weeks with nothing really on the line. United can afford to lose there and will still top the group if they beat AZ Alkmaar at Old Trafford in December.
The clash with Astana involves a five-hour time difference, with direct flights over six hours. To make that journey on a Wednesday, play the game in temperatures likely to be colder than -10 degrees and then return on the Friday isn’t ideal preparation for a Sunday game with Aston Villa.
So it made sense for Solskjaer to go strong tonight, with United at home ahead of Sunday’s game with Brighton, so he can keep some of his key men behind when the journey to the eastern fringes of Europe comes along.
While Harry Maguire has been a solid presence at the heart of the United defence since his £80million move from Leicester City, his central defensive partners are yet to convince alongside him.
Victor Lindelof, when fit, would be Maguire’s regular partner but they haven’t looked the formidable duo many expected yet. Against Partizan it was Marcos Rojo who partnered Maguire and again there was a lack of chemistry.
Maguire spent parts of the game telling Rojo where to be and the passing between them wasn’t always accurate. Maguire was as guilty as the Argentinean when it come to loose passes, with his loose ball to Fred leading to Partizan’s early disallowed goal.
This was a miserable November night to be out watching football, particularly when that football was a Europa League group stage tie with a workmanlike Eastern European side.
But the power of Manchester United never ceases to amaze and while there were empty seats dotted around Old Trafford this was still a huge crowd of more than 62,000 considering the level of fixture and the weather.
It was a fine atmosphere as well, with the Stretford End going through the songbook. This was a rare occasion when it’s been a joy to watch United this season. It wasn’t to be wasted.
The double header against Partizan Belgrade has yielded the first assists for full-backs in the United squad this season. In Belgrade the excellent Brandon Williams won the penalty from which Martial scored with a driving run, while last night Ashley Young created the third goal with a fine, first-touch pass to Marcus Rashford, who rifled home a finish.
United have been short of creativity all over the pitch this season but in the modern game getting width and attacking options from full-back is essential. All that’s missing is more of an outlet down the right, although this was a much more productive display going forward from Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who showed the confidence to take his man on more often.
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