A slight sense of conflict clouds my mind when I think about Mourinho and his management of United so far. It was difficult not to get sucked into dreaming of a quick return to the top as soon as the rumours of his appointment began to circulate but memories of his catastrophic ending at Chelsea were still fresh in the mind.
His first season has now drawn to an end, and with two trophies plus the Community Shield secured, his job remains perfectly secure with spirits among the fans generally pretty high. He started the season with what appeared to be a genuine belief that he could win the title at the first attempt but that ambition quickly faded and then hopes of even finishing in the top four all but disappeared too. It seems clear that the squad wasn’t as strong or well-rounded as he initially hoped, and having got rid of Schneiderlin, Memphis and Schweinsteiger during the season, there’s a serious lack of depth in midfield in particular. United have been desperately nursing their way through these past few months with the sometimes-frightful Fellaini and a geriatric Carrick providing the only real backup for Pogba and Herrera, who have had injuries and suspensions.
One position where there isn’t a lack of depth, and presumably won’t be a lack of depth next season, is in the forward line. Ibrahimovic’ knee injury against Anderlecht opened up the central slot for Rashford, who continues to impress, but little has changed for our French chum Tony Martial. He impressed up front against Burnley and played as a lone striker in United’s heavily rotated team against Arsenal but at no stage this season has he had a prolonged run of starts as a centre forward. It remains his best position despite playing more often on the left wing since Rashford’s emergence in the first team but he’s a complicated player. He needs guidance, support and regular games in succession in order to start reaching his potential.
Mourinho’s tactics offer another obstacle to Martial developing and rediscovering any significant level of confidence. United made a reasonably bright start in their 2-0 defeat at the Emirates and for those first 20-30 minutes Martial looked electric. He moved from channel to channel, he made positive runs in behind Arsenal’s defence and when he dropped off to take the ball into feet he was direct, silky and looked like causing problems every time he touched it. It was like watching the Martial who first arrived at United and thrilled us all in his first couple of appearances against Liverpool and Southampton.
What happened after the opening period of the match was much the same as United’s other recent away matches against the top six though. The wingers (Mkhitaryan and Mata on this occasion) were tasked with closely tracking Arsenal’s wing backs, so with United bringing so many bodies back to defend, they soon found themselves unable to get out of a defensive shape. Martial was left isolated up front, occasionally supported by that intolerable pig creature we call Rooney, and he drifted out of the match. Whenever United won the ball back in defence they had nowhere to go and so a clear pattern emerged: United win the ball, have nowhere to go and lose the ball. Repeat.
It’s easy to see why Mourinho likes to play with a target striker because his reactive playing style essentially requires a 9 foot tank of a man who can single-handedly dominate a swarming defence and give his knackered teammates a chance to get up in support. For a while Ibrahimovic was ideal in this role, as even at home United have rarely pressed particularly aggressively this season, but his age and the accumulation of games eventually started to catch up with him. Increasingly often he was starting to struggle in his efforts to physically dominate defenders and his hold-up play was lethargic, increasingly weak and sloppy all too often. I know the feeling well. Despite Ibra’s up and down form, he was still an ideal lone striker for Mourinho.
Martial is a different type of forward though. He’s kind of good at everything without necessarily having one overly obvious standout feature. Ibra is massive, strong and likes the ball to be played into his feet or body. Rashford is unreasonably quick and makes lightning runs in behind. Chicharito came alive in the penalty area with his anticipation and finishing ability. With Martial it’s slightly more complicated: He’s fast but he’s not a traditional “in behind” striker and he can receive the ball into his feet/body but he’s not a target man. He can dribble but he’s not a winger. He’s just good at most things but he doesn’t thrive under tactical extremes. If he has quality passers, positive movement and enough bodies in support of him, there are few better strikers to watch. He can beat players, he’s comfortable across the full width of the pitch and he can engage in intricate passing or counter-attacking moves but not when he’s on his own with nobody within 30 yards of him for long periods and not when he’s only getting opportunities here and there.
It’s a similar story when he’s required to play out wide. Firstly, he inevitably gets tasked with a significant defensive job and technical forwards don’t just hate this because “they’re lazy”. The physical demands of the role make it extremely difficult for players to retain their composure or make good decisions when they’re gasping for breath after countless 80 metre shuttle runs. Secondly, he tends to be just as isolated out wide as he is up front. While Valencia has the freedom to maraud up and down the right wing, we rarely (i.e. never) see the same from United’s left backs. Darmian is a pure defender, Blind has the pace of a smashed egg trying to climb the stairs and Shaw, when we’ve occasionally seen him, has tended to look conservative and restricted. It’s a common trait for Mourinho to have one defensive full back and to defend with a pretty deep block, but it leaves Martial or any of United’s left wingers in far too many low percentage situations in which they’ll be on their own against two or three opponents.
I don’t think anyone would like to see Martial being sold. There’s been enough evidence to suggest that he’s going to be a phenomenal player but due to his relatively restricted opportunities, the tactical restraints of Mourinho’s system and some ongoing issues in his personal life, we’re simply not seeing the best of him right now. With more signings no doubt set to come in this summer it’s hard to see how he’ll get the run of games he needs, especially as a striker, to really impose himself and fulfil his potential at United.
Hopefully there’s no reason to think he could be sold at this stage but I genuinely think there’s a strong argument to be made that he should be loaned out for a season – either to an upper-midtable Premier League club or even to a club in France such as Lyon (as a short term Lacazette replacement) where I have no doubts he’d be able to score 20-25 league goals. It’s not a situation I ever wanted to encourage but it would give him the chance to really work out who he is and what he wants to be as a player without the intense pressure of playing for Mourinho’s Manchester United, where one or two underwhelming performances will threaten to exclude him for several weeks at a time. We’d all love to see him scoring those 25 goals right here but I fear his development will continue to stall while he’s left on the fringes of the team and struggling to play with any real rhythm. We all saw the reputations that many of the Monaco players built up from one impressive season and there’s every reason to believe that our boy Tony could make a similar impression before returning with a new sense of confidence and drive.
Ultimately I hope I am proven completely wrong and he can have a supreme season right here but time will tell.