Most teams would kill for an Anthony Martial or a Marcus Rashford. Manchester United have both, but that isn’t always as great as it sounds.
I’m going to make a bold statement and say that, if you own an iPad that wasn’t a gift from an older relative, you’ve gone wrong somewhere in life.
Because an iPad doesn’t do anything an iPhone doesn’t do.
Not nearly enough people seem to have realised this. Apple has sold 250 million iPads, which means 250 million people own a device that does exactly what their other device also does, in a package that won’t fit in your pocket.
But while this is obviously a terrible thing, it might serve as some form of consolation to Manchester United.
Because while the Red Devils don’t go through the stereophonic hell of near-simultaneous Facebook alerts, they do have what might be the footballing equivalent: two pacy forwards — one a fraction bigger than the other — who happen to perform exactly the same function.
It’s a luxury, but a frustrating one.
The problem of duplicates
When Marcus Rashford appeared from nowhere to face Midtjylland in February 2016, it was the direct result of a warm-up injury to Anthony Martial, Louis van Gaal’s chosen starter.
You know what happened next: debutant Rashford took his chance by scoring twice; three days later against Arsenal, it was “same as Europa”.
But if Rashford was the local hero United fans desired, he wasn’t exactly the footballer they needed.
That’s because Martial, a player comparable to Rashford in terms of position and playing style, had been one of United’s outstanding performers throughout 2015-16. Midtjylland fairytale or not, that season’s squad needed an actual midfield to replace its ‘schmidfield’, an out-and-out No.9, and a new manager.
It didn’t need another Martial.
It is, of course, an exaggeration to say that Martial and Rashford are the same player: the former has a more diverse range of tricks, the latter a better engine, and so on. Yet because of their obvious similarities — both right-footed, left-sided, quick, skilful, and around six feet tall — sometimes the pair can seem remarkably alike.
Especially, it seems, to José Mourinho.
After November’s 4-1 win over Newcastle, a game in which both Martial and Rashford started, Mourinho explained why the duo rarely play together: “They both prefer to play on the left than the right, both playing with another striker through the middle…To play them together gives us things but also takes some things from us.”
Hardly a controversial statement, but one that will have left the pair scratching their heads.
In the Manchester derby in December, Mourinho clearly hoped there would be more giving than taking as he deployed Martial on the right and Rashford on the left. But while Rashford grabbed a well-taken goal from the right after switching sides with Martial, the experiment was hardly successful.
The discomfort of the situation was best illustrated when, somewhere around the 18-minute mark, Martial dribbled from the right hand side to meet Rashford on the left, giving the confused Englishman the ball and watching him overhit a cross into the hands of City’s Ederson.
Sure, worse things happened to United over the derby’s 90 minutes, but the enduring conundrum remains.
Both are evidently good enough for this United team, yet both are fighting for a single spot on the team sheet.
Solving the problem
There seems to be a handful of possible eventualities, one of which — the most dissatisfying for United fans — involves the club selling either Martial or Rashford. Call this sad hypothesis the ‘Giggs-Sharpe resolution’.
While it seems unlikely at present, it’s impossible to rule out either player being moved on to make way for a marquee signing. The Antoine Griezmann rumours aren’t going away and, well, you’d already forgotten left-sided attacker Memphis Depay, hadn’t you?
Unfortunately for fans of nutmegs and telepathy, the sensible money would be on a Martial departure. Even a United managed by Mourinho — a coach with a King Herod attitude toward youth development — would be reluctant to sell academy product Rashford, who ticks the homegrown boxes and who could feasibly become the face of the club for the next decade.
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Mercifully, there are other options.
A more palatable scenario for United, one you might call the ‘2003 Ole Gunnar Solskjær plan’, is probably what the fans most desire: for either Martial or Rashford to adjust to the right wing, allowing the two pacy forwards to play either side of Romelu Lukaku.
The derby offered little evidence to suggest this will happen, but the attackers need only look behind them at Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia to see that adaptation is possible.
Maybe, however, the best solution is simply a long-term continuation of United’s rotation policy. You know, the thing that’s known on RedCafe as the ‘Nani-Park arrangement’.
At the moment, this seems the most sensible option.
Manchester United Quizzes
After all, while constant rotation might not seem like a ‘solution’ for players wanting starts, the approach seems to be benefitting both Martial and Rashford.
At the start of the season, the stamina and work rate of Rashford helped to wear down defences, allowing Martial to tag in during the final 20 minutes. On four of those occasions, the Frenchman scored.
That tactic didn’t prove to be permanent, but Mourinho’s tinkering has squeezed a combined 10 league goals and seven league assists out of the duo.
In fact, you wonder if the ever-present Lukaku might be looking at the fresher, sharper attackers behind him with a degree of envy. The Belgian, for what it’s worth, has eight goals and four assists, having played just 218 minutes fewer than Martial and Rashford combined.
Unlike iPads and iPhones, United’s kindred gadgets are both — for the time being at least — more than justifying their coexistence.