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Anthony Martial takes Manchester United’s attacking burden from Rooney

Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United hugs Anthony Martial after their 3-2 win at Southampton. Photograph: Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United hugs Anthony Martial after their 3-2 win at Southampton. Photograph: Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images

It is only two league games and only three goals but Manchester United’spurchase of Anthony Martial is looking less and less startling. Neither of his goals at Southampton were perhaps quite of the quality of the strike with which he marked his debut against Liverpool last week but both were finished with a remarkable – and, for United, reassuring – sense of certainty.

Less reassuring, perhaps, is the extent to which United needed a 19-year-old to play up to a price tag that, three weeks ago, seemed almost incomprehensible.

For all Louis van Gaal’s talk of philosophy and process this was a game won in a very old-fashioned way, by the excellence of two individuals: Martial and David de Gea. One way or another, United’s transfer dealing in the final 24 hours of the window is looking better and better.

De Gea’s ability is well established; there was never much doubt that once he was settled again, he would reproduce the form of last season. Martial is a different matter but with every minute he plays he dispels the doubts further.

Chances had been sparse in a first half in which United were, as so often under Van Gaal, patient to the point of sterility, endlessly working the ball down one flank, checking back, playing it along the back four and then starting again on the other wing. When an opportunity did arise, however, Martial took it superbly.

It is true that Juan Mata was offside in the buildup but that does not detract from the ruthless way the forward drew Virgil van Dijk, sidestepped him and cuffed a finish into the bottom corner. It was Martial’s second goal in his second Premier League appearance, although that perhaps is not the positive omen appears: in the Premier League era, only two players have matched that for United: Louis Saha and Federico Macheda.

That may not be the most encouraging company but Martial soon elevated himself above it. As he ran on to Maya Yoshida’s weak backpass five minutes into the second half, there was a profound sense of inevitability, something in his body language that announced long before the ball had crossed the line that it was going to. With body shape and perhaps a little glance, he dumped Maarten Stekelenburg on to his backside as he fell to the right and the ball went past him to his left; rolled, not smashed, into the net.

In that sense of certainty there was something perhaps of the early Wayne Rooney and his second goal against Croatia at Euro 2004 in particular – not in the sort of goal it was or the style of the finish but in the sense of a young player unburdened by doubt who knew he was going to score and somehow projected that clarity of self-belief to all around him.

In 75 minutes of playing time, Martial had made himself United’s leading Premier League goalscorer this season and the question had become less why United had shelled out £36m, plus add-ons for a player who had started only 29 league games in his career, than why on earth Monaco and Lyon had not used him more.

Van Gaal may have bought Martial for his successor, a gift of remarkable largesse on the part of the Dutchman, but whatever the planning for the future, it appears he will have a large part to play in the present. In time, perhaps, his importance will be judged not merely in terms of his finishing, pace and movement but in that he allows Rooney to play deeper, as the central member of the creative trident.

That, surely, is where he has to play. Rooney has, of course, played successfully in the position of out-and-out striker, as he did most notably in 2009-10 when he racked up 26 league goals, but that was a different, more lithe, more explosive Rooney. He will be 30 next month and 13 years of consistent football have taken their toll on a body that is, anyway, probably not as built for longevity as, say, a Ryan Giggs or a Paolo Maldini. Rooney seems the embodiment of Van Gaal’s image of a No10, capable not only of creating but also of scrapping.

No other forward in English football history, perhaps, has ever looked as though he grew up dreaming of being a left-back as Rooney.

For all the theory is good, however, Rooney was desperately poor at St Mary’s on Sunday, his touch heavy, his involvement in the contest intermittent. He managed neither a shot nor a key pass in the game, completed only one dribble and won only one header. For the most part, the game simply passed him by.

It is not uncommon for Rooney to struggle for a couple of weeks as he returns from injury – and bad Rooney looks very, very bad – but, fortunately for him, on a day when he and the process were out of sorts, the attacking burden was carried by his strike partner. – the guardian –

 

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Juan Mata, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial celebrate Manchester United’s fourth goal. Photograph: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images
Juan Mata, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial celebrate Manchester United’s fourth goal. Photograph: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images Before

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