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Man Utd mismatch: Is misfiring Martial fighting a losing battle with clinical Cavani for No.9 role?

12:00 PM GMT+4 05/12/2020
Anthony Martial Edinson Cavani Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Man Utd GFX
The Frenchman is coming under intense pressure for the centre-forward position after failing to net once in the Premier League so far this season

As Anthony Martial blazed the ball over the crossbar in front of an empty Stretford End, disappointment and exasperation were written all over his face.

Fred and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have shouldered the majority of the blame for Manchester United’s defeat to Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday night but had the hosts' French forward scored from just seven yards out in the 49th minute, it’s likely the second half would have played out very differently.

Martial's miss was a moment that summed up his season so far. After posting a career-high 23 goals last season, he has struggled during the current campaign, scoring just twice in 10 starts across all competitions. He has carried that poor form with him on international duty too, failing to find the net once for his country.

“The problem with United’s forwards is that not one of them is an actual centre-forward,” Paul Scholes said in October. “Martial almost conned us into thinking he was one at the end of last season because he scored so many goals and was quite good.”

The use of 'conned' was harsh. The France international had a good season, especially after the restart, and he was predominantly played as a No.9 – a position that isn’t his favourite and one where he is still trying to hone his craft.

The issue he faces this season is that Edinson Cavani’s arrival has further exposed his shortcomings as he goes through a dry patch.

Solskjaer cited the red card against Tottenham as a potential reason as to why Martial had been struggling, claiming he had "lost too much football" because of his subsequent three-match suspension and that, in turn, has affected his rhythm and confidence.  

"For me, it's him getting the chances, that's the big thing. His conversion rate has always been good. Maybe at the moment the keepers have made a few good saves against him but that will change quickly,” Solskjaer said.

However, that "good" conversion rate has disappeared in the league this season.

He's not found the back of the net once in five Premier League appearances to date and his shooting accuracy is down to 29 per cent from 50% last season and 59% the campaign before. In total, he has mustered just two shots on target, missing two 'big chances' in the process.

Cavani, meanwhile, has managed nine shots and three goals in five substitute appearances. The Uruguayan's killer instinct, nose for goal and intelligent movement are exactly what Martial has been missing and it is clear he has plenty to learn from his new and far more experienced team-mate.

Like any striker, Martial thrives on self-belief and there has been an obvious and unsurprising change in his body language due to his recent struggles. However, Solskjaer insists the arrival of Cavani has not had a negative mental effect on the 25-year-old.

“Confidence-wise, Edinson coming in is a boost for the whole squad," the Norwegian told reporters ahead of Saturday's trip to West Ham. "Edinson speaks really good French as well, so I’ve seen them (Cavani and Martial) getting on well."

Solskjaer went on to insist he is not worried about Martial’s current goal drought but if confidence isn’t his issue at the moment, then what is? Is it that he is simply not a natural No.9 and feels more comfortable cutting in from the left-hand side?

It’s been a hotly debated topic for well over a year now, with many arguing that Martial should not be tasked with leading the line. His performances do not befit the number on the back of his shirt and that is not necessarily a criticism of his ability, more an argument that his skills are better deployed elsewhere.

Martial has scored some fantastic goals for the club but it is those classic goal-poacher finishes that he doesn’t seem to have in his locker, while he also struggles when playing with his back to goal.

“We’re very happy with his contribution," Solskjaer declared. "On Wednesday night, everyone pointed at the one chance he missed but what about the chances he set up? His overall contribution to the team, his cleverness, even his defending is improving.

"It’s just one of those things. As a striker, of course you get measured by goals. But soon, even if it’s a goal off his backside or the back of his head, he will get going again. I’m not worried about that.”

The positive for Martial is that the chances will keep on coming but, if he wants to show he should be United's first-choice centre-forward, then he’s going to have to start taking them.

Sooner, rather than later, too, with Cavani now breathing down his neck.