EPL

The Martial-Cavani conundrum: Who is the more reliable choice for title hopefuls Man Utd?

By Sports Desk February 05, 2021

Anthony Martial's Manchester United debut is one of the club's most memorable in the modern era of the Premier League. His jinking run left Liverpool's defence in knots before he coolly slotted into the bottom-right corner to help secure a 3-1 win over his new team's bitter rivals.

It was a stunning start and one that promised much for the future, producing the ultimate response to the many pundits who had questioned his signing and reported £36million transfer fee.

Yet, five and a half years on, it's difficult to say Martial's debut resembles a microcosm of his United career, with those spectacular moments remaining fleeting rather than developing into sustained excellence.

Of course, 2019-20 was surely the closest he's come to finding consistency as he scored 17 times in the Premier League. Finally, the penny had seemingly dropped and Martial was developing the decisiveness he had previously teased in flashes.

But 2020-21 has been largely disappointing for the Frenchman and has fans wondering if he is their best option. Was last season just another false dawn?

 

THE REGRESSION

United fans will hope Martial's lively appearance off the bench in Tuesday's remarkable 9-0 demolition of Southampton is a sign of things to come – he got two goals and also won a penalty, albeit a questionable one.

There was certainly plenty to like about his performance, with both goals coming from the central zone of the penalty area, and the first saw him use his strength to see off a defender prior to finding the net. For a player whose suitability as a number nine has been questioned, it was a promising development.

But while there were undoubtedly reasons for optimism, we cannot disregard his previous struggles this season on the basis of that 9-0 win. Saints became subjugated essentially as soon as Alexandre Jankewitz was sent off after 82 seconds, and Martial's second came when Ralph Hasenhuttl's side were down to nine men.

Before Tuesday, Martial's shot conversion rate this season (5.9 per cent) had been lower than any of his previous campaigns with United. Even when you take into consideration his two latest goals, which lifts it to 13.3 per cent, he's still well down on 2019-20 (21.3 per cent) and 2018-19 (25.6 per cent).

His issues don't appear to come down to a lack of clear opportunities either, as prior to Tuesday he was actually averaging roughly the same amount of big chances per 90 minutes this season as in 2019-20 (0.7). However, he had been proving more wasteful from such situations, with Martial's big chance conversion rate of 0.15 per game down from 0.3.

Martial particularly excelled with regards to expected goals in 2019-20, with his xG rating of 11.3 meaning he netted six more than he would have been expected to – by comparison, ahead of the Southampton win, he had two goals from an xG of 4.5.

Positionally, Martial has generally occupied the same spaces as he did in 2019-20 but given his emphatic out-performing of xG was seemingly unsustainable, perhaps this is part of the problem.

A NEW THREAT

Edinson Cavani's signing, while initially criticised as a knee-jerk or 'panic' acquisition, was always likely to be a positive move for United as it offered them a new dynamic in attack. Martial may like to play at being a number nine, he may wear that shirt, but his characteristics are much different to those of Cavani.

Even though Martial has been regularly deployed as the focal point of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's attack over the past 18 months, his positional maps still prove a predilection to operate from the left.

 

Being involved more towards the left than the right flank is understandable in one sense, given United carry greater threat there with Luke Shaw than they do on the opposite side with Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

But Cavani takes up central positions with greater regularity than Martial. As such, the Uruguayan's far greater goal frequency this term (one every 133 minutes, compared to one every 312.5 minutes for Martial) cannot be a surprise, even if Martial actually averages more touches of the ball in the area (7.6 per 90 mins, to 5.3).

There is also a school of thought that Martial's mentality becomes affected when he feels threatened. It's not a secret that he had long seen his future as a central striker, but Louis van Gaal felt he was better suited to playing on the flank and Jose Mourinho openly questioned his suitability to the number nine role.

The latter's arrival in 2016 coincided with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who essentially killed Martial's chances of playing as a striker, and his form subsequently suffered almost across the board after a positive first season.

Although he showed signs of improvement in 2017-18 despite Romelu Lukaku's arrival, Martial was no more productive than when he first joined.

And now there's Cavani, who is out-scoring Martial five to four despite playing less than half the number of minutes in the Premier League this season. It seems he's treading on Martial's toes rather than keeping him on them.

CAVANI THE MORE DEPENDABLE OPTION?

For what it's worth, Martial's dip in form hasn't impacted United massively – after all, they've a better xG differential this term (5.7) than they did in 2019-20 (3.2) and are challenging at the top of the table, something they haven't really managed since Alex Ferguson's retirement.

 

Tuesday's mauling of Southampton might have been just what the doctor ordered for Martial, who had previously gone a month without a goal in all competitions, though few would have any complaints if Cavani was just starting out on a run as United's first choice in attack.

He may not possess the pace of Martial or indeed his ability on the ball, but he has proven more clinical as evidenced by his greater conversion rate of big chances (45.4 per cent, over 33.3), such as his nonchalant header against Southampton.

The experienced Uruguay international is also being presented with more big chances (1.5 per 90 minutes) than Martial (0.9), suggesting Cavani boasts a greater ability to create openings with his movement.

It is, of course, always handy to have players with varying skillsets and it offers Solskjaer the ability to choose individuals based on his set-up or the opposition on a given day.

But on current form, the more consistent talents of Cavani might just offer United the greater reliability they need if they're to sustain a title challenge.

At the very least, he would seem a smart choice on Saturday if fit having already netted three times in two games for United against Everton.

Related items

  • Rangers roll out expensive new era with mega deals for stars Seager and Semien Rangers roll out expensive new era with mega deals for stars Seager and Semien

    The Texas Rangers rolled out an expensive but exciting new era with mega deals for star duo Corey Seager and Marcus Semien on Wednesday.

    Texas mean business heading into the 2022 MLB season after splashing out $500million to lure championship winner and World Series MVP Seager, and All-Star Semien to the franchise.

    The Rangers gave free agent Seager – a two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger with the Los Angeles Dodgers – a 10-year contract worth $325million.

    After finishing third in the American League (AL) MVP race following his exploits for the Toronto Blue Jays, Semien signed a seven-year, $175m deal in Texas.

    "How can you not be excited about that?" Seager said. "Not only the elite player, but he's an elite person who carries himself well. He's a great team-mate. There's not a bad word that you can say about Marcus.

    "To be able to learn from somebody who's that talented and to take little things that he does in this game that I might not and be able to bounce off each other and to be up the middle here for a long time, it’s all very exciting."

    Seager led the Dodgers to World Series glory in 2020 with a slash line of .328/.425/.746, while he was .297/.367/.504 as the Los Angeles franchise reached the National League Championship Series (NLCS) before losing to eventual winners the Atlanta Braves in 2021.

    The 27-year-old shortstop finished the season with 16 homers and 54 runs on 108 hits, and 57 RBIs.

    Semien enjoyed a stunning campaign for the Blue Jays, where he played all 162 games and slashed .265/.334/.538 en route to his first All-Star appearance, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.

    The 31-year-old hit 45 homers – a single-season record for a primary second baseman, to go with 102 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in Toronto.

    Semien finished third in AL MVP voting, behind winner Shohei Ohtani and former Blue Jays team-mate Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

    "Marcus' reputation around the game is impeccable. He's a leader in every clubhouse he steps into, respected for the way he goes about his work and how he treats others," said Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels.

    "There are few players in the game who garner the level of respect that he does from team-mates and opponents alike. We're thrilled to add a player of his calibre to the organisation."

    "We feel that Marcus is an excellent fit for the Rangers organisation from a talent, culture, and leadership standpoint," said Rangers executive vice president and general manager Chris Young. "Beyond his ability as a player, Marcus is an outstanding person who leads by example both on and off the field."

  • Messi pleases PSG boss Pochettino despite drawing blank after Ballon d'Or celebration Messi pleases PSG boss Pochettino despite drawing blank after Ballon d'Or celebration

    Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino defended Lionel Messi after the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner fired a blank in Wednesday's 0-0 Ligue 1 draw at home to Nice.

    Messi was honoured pre-game in front of the Parc des Princes crowd following his record-extending Ballon d'Or title, but the superstar was unable to fire PSG to glory in the French capital midweek.

    Entering the contest having found the net three times in as many home games for runaway Ligue 1 leaders PSG, Messi attempted six shots, though only one was on target against Nice.

    It was Messi's highest tally without scoring in the league since April 2021 – seven with Barcelona against Real Madrid in LaLiga prior to his blockbuster Paris switch.

    "It must be my fault because with my football eye I always see Leo well, for something he has won seven Ballons d'Or, there is nothing more to say," Pochettino told reporters.

    "It is a pleasure and an honour to have him on our team."

    PSG registered 22 shots on goal – their highest tally without scoring in Ligue 1 since March 2016, with Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe going closest to finding the back of the net, but were unable to break down their stubborn opponents.

    French powerhouse PSG conceded their first 0-0 home draw in Ligue 1 since February 2017 (against Toulouse). This was their first home draw in the top flight since November 2020 (2-2 against Bordeaux), ending a run of 20 games at home without sharing points (W16 L4).

    PSG, however, remain 12 points clear atop the table, though second-placed Marseille have played one game less.

    "When goals are not scored, what is lacking is to hit the mark, you shoot many times and the ball does not go in and other times it does," added Pochettino, who has been heavily linked with Premier League side Manchester United.

    "We have not been able to take advantage of the opportunities we had, but these things happen once or twice a season when you play well and the goalkeeper or the stick or it goes an inch out. You have to accept this kind of thing."

  • Blue Jays recruit Gausman targeting championship in Toronto Blue Jays recruit Gausman targeting championship in Toronto

    Kevin Gausman joined the Toronto Blue Jays to get his hands on a World Series championship, saying "I want to go somewhere and win" following his blockbuster arrival.

    The World Series-chasing Blue Jays lost American League (AL) Cy Young winner Robbie Ray in free agency but replaced him with All-Star ace Gausman.

    Gausman and the Blue Jays – who heartbreakingly missed out on last season's playoffs despite recording 91 wins – finalised a five-year, $110million contract on Wednesday.

    The 30-year-old Gausman spent two seasons with the San Francisco Giants, where he played a key role in their franchise-best 107-win campaign in 2021.

    "It just made sense the closer it got to decision time. This is the team I think I'm going to win the most with," Gausman said on Wednesday.

    Gausman ended the regular season with a career-high 2.81 ERA as the Giants claimed the best record in baseball after fending off the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League (NL) West title.

    It was San Francisco's first division crown since 2012, with Gausman boasting a career-high 227 strikeouts prior to the playoffs.

    Gausman finished the year behind only NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes in Stats Perform's Strike+ metric, which measures which pitchers rack up both whiffs and called strikes.

    "I feel more confident in myself now than I ever have in my career," Gausman added.

    "It's just about being really good at what you're great at. My command has gotten better, and I just have a better overall feel for who I am and what I need to do to have success."

    Gausman has also spent time with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds in MLB.

    "The impact that pitchers like Kevin can have in an organisation beyond the scope of winning is massive," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said midweek.

    "His experiences, first and foremost his character, his reputation [are] as strong as they come in baseball. So, all that we would ever ask is for him to be himself."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.