It is no secret that Louis van Gaal is a man under pressure. After a lengthy winless run, Manchester United narrowly defeated Swansea, before an entirely unconvincing performance saw them stumble past Sheffield United in the F.A Cup.
The Old Trafford faithful- accustomed to the swagger and attacking intent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides- are growing increasingly restless. Indeed, on Saturday afternoon, when substitute Memphis Depay flashed a shot just wide of the visitor’s goal, the crowd erupted in ironic applause towards the solitary ambitious attempt.
Van Gaal has made many errors of judgement so far this season. The Dutchman continues to deploy two holding midfielders against opposition who are happy to sit back and absorb pressure, while he has also failed to identify a first choice right back and inexplicably sent bright young striker James Wilson on loan, leaving the senior squad with a woefully inadequate total of two strikers over the festive period.
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Yet, his biggest failing to date has been the handling of Anthony Martial. The 20-year-old Parisian arrived in Manchester on deadline day for a fee of £36 million plus add-ons; simultaneously provoking both suspicion and excitement among United supporters.
However, any worries the French international was an overrated panic-buy were assuaged by his fantastic solo goal on debut against Liverpool at Old Trafford. It was a spark of brilliance that has been all too rare among the red shirts this season.
When the debut goal was backed up with a brace away at Southampton, it appeared that Martial’s pace and directness would provide an exciting focal point for the team to play around for the rest of the season. It was clear that while the Frenchman had often been employed in a wide position at his former club Monaco, he was best suited to a central role befitting of his squad number (nine).
Unfortunately for both the club and its supporters, Van Gaal does not appear to share this most obvious of conclusions. During Saturday’s snore-fest against the Blades, Martial again spent the majority of the game marooned out on the left wing.
Van Gaal continued with his two holding midfielders and refused to send out the traditional two strikers in a blatantly risk-averse set up. This would have been an understandable stance to adopt if taking on Barcelona at the Nou Camp, but not when hosting a mid-table League One outfit.
Martial has only just turned 20 and is very much still learning his trade. Yet, it is deeply concerning that United’s manager feels captain, Wayne Rooney, who spent more time arguing with the referee than worrying the Blades defenders, is a better central option than Martial.
Since arriving in Manchester, Martial has scored eight goals in 24 appearances. This is an unspectacular, but reasonable return for a young player adapting to a new culture and playing speed. However, one feels that if he was deployed in the correct manner and given more freedom from his manager, those statistics would read much more impressively.
Given a rare chance in a central berth away to Wolfsburg in early December, Martial harried opposition defenders, looked lively throughout and opened the scoring with a composed finish. That performance sits in stark contrast to those where he has been confined to the touchline and starved of regular opportunities.
Now that United have failed to score in the first half of their last ten home games, answers are being sought in the transfer market. However, the answer is staring the manager in the face on a daily basis. He already has a dynamic and clinical number nine in his squad.
Loosen up the absurdly rigid team structure and give Martial an extended run in a central role. Soon, this self-inflicted pressure will ease as performances and results begin to improve.