Is time running out for Martial at Man Utd?

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Anthony Martial Manchester United 2020-21
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The France international has scored just four league goals this season, leaving the Red Devils to consider whether to sign a striker this summer

Rewind just over a year, and doubts over Anthony Martial's suitability to be Manchester United's first-choice central striker were beginning to grow louder.

Against Wolves in late January, exasperated United coach Mike Phelan could be heard on the Old Trafford touchline airing his frustrations towards Martial as he was regularly outmuscled by the visiting defenders. Two weeks later, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer publicly called for the France international to work on his strength.

Those admonishments seemed to have worked in the final weeks of the 2019-20 season, with Martial enjoying an encouraging conclusion to a campaign that saw him finish with 23 goals in all competitions, including 17 in the Premier League.

But as the nights again start to become a little lighter, those same question marks that hung over Martial's head last late winter have again emerged, in turn causing concern that the former Monaco man may never reach the levels expected of him as a teenager.

Familiar instructions can be heard coming from Solskjaer and his coaching staff whenever the 25-year-old is named in the Red Devils' line-up, as Martial is routinely urged to improve his movement, spend more time in the penalty aread and press high when out of possession.

His record in front of goal cannot even paper over those failings, either. He has just four league goals to his name in 2020-21, with his shot conversion rate at a woeful 10 per cent.

Though he has had worse campaigns - in 2016-17 he scored four league goals with a conversion rate of 9.5% amid rumours he was set to leave the club - such shocking returns are now beginning to cast real-life doubts on his United future.

Playing as a central striker is meant to be Martial's favoured position, and over the past two years since Romelu Lukaku's departure he has finally been given a consistent run to prove his worth in the role.

Anthony Martial Manchester United GFX

The fact that Martial has not been able to truly prove himself, coupled with Edinson Cavani's advancing years, may force Solskjaer into the transfer market in search of a proven No.9.

And there is one name on everyone's lips when it comes to that position right now: Erling Haaland.

United, of course, were in the running to sign the Norway international before he joined Borussia Dortmund last January, with Solskjaer having coached the 20-year-old during his time in charge of Molde.

"I think when you’ve had kids and players through as a coach, you follow them. I keep in touch with Erling and it’s great to see him become the player he has become," Solskjaer said of Haaland on Wednesday when asked about potential interest in signing him once more.

"I know he’ll work to improve all the time. He’s a Dortmund player and we just wish him well there and let’s see what life will bring later on."

GFX Haaland Solskjaer

A clause in Haaland’s contract would allow him to leave Dortmund for €75 million (£65m/$91m) in the summer of 2022, though failure to qualify for the Champions League next season could mean he is made available for transfer in the coming months.

Whether United could afford a player with 27 goals in 25 appearances this season when clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid are also reportedly interested remains to be seen, particularly since signing a centre-back remains their priority.

The financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic means that signing an established, world-class player in more than one position is highly unlikely, and that does not even factor in their desire to further upgrade their options when it comes to right wingers.

That may mean Martial earns a stay of execution, and Thursday's Europa League clash with Real Sociedad offers the perfect opporunity for him to properly kickstart his campaign.

Injury continues to rule Cavani out while United's 4-0 lead from the first leg in Turin means that Marcus Rashford will be given a rest, leaving Martial as the automatic choice to start centrally against the Liga outfit.

The high line that La Real played with at the Allianz Stadium should play perfectly into Martial's hands as he aims to get in behind the defenders and boost his dwindling confidence, with his body language having told its own story since the turn of the year.

"I don’t think it means enough to him to put that ball into the back of the net," Alan Shearer, the Premier League's all-time top scorer, said of Martial on BBC's 'Match of the Day' . "He’s only ever scored more than 20 goals in a season once. And that’s not just league goals.

Anthony Martial Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United GFX

"When you consider Manchester United are top scorers in the Premier League with 53 and he’s got four, I don’t think that’s anywhere near enough."

By contrast Cavani has shown a cutting edge in front of goal while also bringing the best out of Rashford and Mason Greenwood alongside him, with the 34-year-old's form likely to mean he remains with United for next season too.

Right now it would be difficult to make a case for Martial to start ahead of Cavani if you were picking a line-up for the opening day of next season now, though Solskjaer is not writing off the former quite yet.

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"I know Anthony is working hard to get back to where he was," Solskjaer said following the recent 1-1 draw with West Brom of a player who has a league goal every 347 minutes this term.

"His attitude is very good. Form is sometimes temporary but class is permanent and the kid has got class."

Time, though, is running out for Martial to prove he still has that class. He likely has a maximum of 18 months to show he has what it takes to be United's leading man.

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