Anthony Martial didn’t just make fools of three Arsenal defenders with his assist for Manchester United on Saturday. He made a fool of every single one of us who’ve ever convinced ourselves we could play in the Premier League.
You get fed the ball on the corner of the box. An easy ball back to your winger is on, but you attempt an ambitious flick instead. If it’s successful, you’ll put a team-mate clean through on goal and be the hero.
It isn’t successful. Of course it isn’t successful. You instantly get that pang of regret, up there with leaving a birthday present on the bus or finding out about a three-for-two deal just as you’ve left the supermarket with your two items.
“Play the way you’re facing,” comes the wail from the coach, who has somehow managed to hurl phlegm in your direction despite all other liquid looking as though it should freeze in contact with the air. Would he drag you at half-time just for that? Is he really that petty? Absolutely.
Whether you’re playing for your school or your local Sunday League team, calls to play the way you’re facing are sensible at that level. Schoolchildren and amateur footballers are, generally speaking, not as good as they think they are, so it makes sense to urge them to attempt low-risk plays and know their limits.
Coaches at professional level might urge the same sensible approach, up to a point, but here it’s less a case of players knowing their limits and more a case of them knowing they have none. Which is why, even if he might have been urged otherwise, Anthony Martial was able to do this for Manchester United against Arsenal on Saturday.
Martial with a world class assist and a nice finish from Lingard who started the move.
— Totally Man Utd™ (@TotallyMUFC) December 2, 2017
Martial’s assist puts a new twist on the concept, because his run ensures there isn’t really a ‘way you’re facing’ in the scenario.
If you were watching his run onto Romelu Lukaku’s through-ball for the first time, you’d probably anticipate him letting the ball run across him before drilling the ball low across the body of Petr Čech. Maybe high to his slightly unguarded near post at a push.
With two Arsenal centre-backs rushing back to cover any movement inside onto his left, and with Jesse Lingard looking likely to be well-watched by at least one of the pair, it just looks like the obvious move from any player that calls himself a forward.
It’s clearly what Laurent Koscielny thought too; you can see the Frenchman have a preemptive nibble at where he anticipates the ball ending up when his compatriot opens up his body for the shot.
However, rather than opening up his own body, Martial somehow manages to open up three others in a fraction of a second.
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The thing about the concept of ‘the way you’re facing’ is it’s a phrase which loses all meaning as soon as you decide to enter perpetual motion.
Sure, Martial might not send a backheel into the path of Lingard, but at the same time you can’t accuse him of playing a simple forward pass.
As soon as he begins to spin, everything changes; up is down, left is right, forwards is backwards.
Suddenly the men running back to cover are blocking off an opening that Martial has made impossible for himself to fill, while the intelligent angle-narrowing of Koscielny looks, in a flash, like idiocy. It’s not that, of course: it’s an eminently sensible tracking run, made unsensible by his opponent’s movements.
To pull this off in separate stages would be admirable, but to do so in one fluid motion feels borderline illegal.
If that sounds like I’m downplaying Lingard’s part in the move, that’s not the intention.
The goal wouldn’t be possible without the Arsenal mistake that sets up the initial chance, sure, but similarly there would be no goal without Lingard being so firmly on Martial’s wavelength that he could spy on his team-mate’s private conversations.
For Lingard to be able to finish without breaking stride requires brilliance from Martial, sure, but anticipation of that brilliance plays its part too – there can be a temptation to underestimate a team-mate’s ability to produce something you might not think to do yourself, but that wasn’t present here.
Some players will prepare for a match by watching their opponents at their best. On this evidence, it feels as though the two Man Utd forwards prepare not just by watching each other but by having footage of the other’s movements fed directly into their optic nerves as they sleep.
Some of Kevin de Bruyne’s vision this season has seemed borderline psychic, but this adds in the element of breakneck speed, like juggling knives while playing Scalextric.
Not only does Martial find Lingard, but the pair simultaneously invent that tiny bit of space, each acting as a block for the other and doing it so subtly that their opponents haven’t figured out what they did wrong until the ball hits the back of the net.
That’s if they did anything wrong at all, save for the initial giveaway. When your mistakes are manufactured by others’ brilliance, were they even really your fault?
When reflecting on their 3-1 defeat, Arsenal fans will probably point towards David de Gea’s influence, and they’d be right to.
But the Spaniard’s 14 saves would have counted for nothing if United hadn’t been lethal at the other end, and the second goal was somehow more lethal than many will have thought possible.
Up and down the country next week, we’re bound to see schoolchildren attempting to mimic Martial’s swivel and flick, and each failed attempt will be met with the same frustrated cry from the touchline.
But one or two will pull it off, and their coaches will fall silent for a week, if not for the entire season.
By Tom Victor
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