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Martial could be missing piece of Chelsea’s attacking puzzle

 • by Matt Gault
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Anthony Martial has arrived at a crossroads. Since his arrival at Manchester United in 2015, the Frenchman has gone from expensive gamble to Old Trafford hotshot to luxury benchwarmer.

There have been flashes of brilliance this season, of course, but it’s been a trying campaign for the 22-year-old, one that has prompted supporters to harbour resentment towards José Mourinho who, in their eyes, has hindered the forward’s progress.

It has also been a season that has pushed Martial towards the exit door. If reports are to be believed, there is significant interest in the player and, having lost his place in the team to Alexis Sánchez, it’s becoming increasingly probable that he will be playing his football elsewhere next season.

The decisions he makes in the next few months will shape the rest of his career.

The usual European heavyweights have been touted as potential suitors. Bayern Munich are keen but so too are Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur. This week, however, The Telegraph ran a story claiming Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was monitoring Martial’s situation at United closely.

Martial, like any gifted attacking player, has been left disgruntled by his diminished presence in the team this term, particularly since Sánchez arrived in January.

Mourinho, like any logical thinking manager, is keen to keep Martial. That won’t be enough to quash speculation surrounding the winger, though, as until the France international signs a new contract, question marks regarding his future will continue to hang over Old Trafford.

How did it come to this?

It’s important to remember why United fans have such deep adoration for Martial. Besides being a ‘baller,’ he was responsible for bringing fans to the edge of their seats during the dismal Louis van Gaal reign.

Whereas the Dutchman became synonymous with the pedestrian, ponderous brand of football disguised as a ‘philosophy,’ supporters married Martial with excitement, with a blistering tempo wholly at odds with the unhurried style of the time. After two years of post-Fergie hurt, Martial offered renewed hope as the future of United’s attack.

Seventeen goals in his solitary campaign under van Gaal was an impressive return for a much-hyped recruit adapting to life in England. At the time, Martial was the most expensive teenager in history, but his hefty price-tag didn’t seem to faze him.

Then Mourinho. With two of his managerial mishaps – allowing Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah to slip through his fingers at Chelsea – setting the Premier League alight this year, it has seemed amusingly cyclical that the Portuguese coach faces such a similar dilemma with Martial.

The overwhelming sentiment from United fans is fear. They feel that letting Martial leave would be a mistake of potentially catastrophic proportions. Their trepidation is not misplaced. It could be a disaster. It would also be painful to watch Martial turn out in the blue of Chelsea, or the white of Spurs.

Then again, it’s understandable that a player of Martial’s age and natural talent would consider more regular starting opportunities elsewhere, even if it meant moving to another Premier League club.

United and Chelsea are intense rivals, yes, but they are not beyond doing business together, as proven by the Red Devils’ capture of Nemanja Matić last summer.

So how would Chelsea line-up with Martial? Would they be interested in deploying him in the central role he supposedly favours? We’ve taken a look to see if the former Lyon starlet would be the right fit at Stamford Bridge.

Position

Although Martial has occupied a central role at United in the past, Romelu Lukaku’s arrival has largely shifted him to the left, although when Sánchez was bought he had a brief and ineffective stint on the right flank.

Martial is right-footed but his game is built on isolating a defender and cutting inside. He is an example of the modern tactical development of ‘inverted wingers.’

Recently, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has played a 3-5-2, a 3-4-2-1 and a 3-5-1-1. The Italian has largely favoured the 3-4-2-1 that transformed the Blues into a winning machine last season as they clinched their fourth Premier League crown.

There have been examples of straying away from that formula, like the 3-5-1-1 against Liverpool in November and the false nine experiment against Manchester City in March.

Martial

In Chelsea’s current 3-4-2-1 system, Conte has favoured playing Willian and Eden Hazard behind Álvaro Morata and, more recently, Olivier Giroud. There is a possibility that Morata will leave following a difficult debut season with the Blues, meaning Martial would compete with his compatriot for the coveted central role.

That would be an intriguing battle. They are two very different players who offer different things. In the league this season, Giroud boasts the better goals per game ratio, with 0.69 to 0.54.

Martial, however, edges out the former Arsenal striker in several key categories. The United star’s xG (expected goals) is 7.1 compared to Giroud’s 5.48 while his post-shot xG of 9.03 towers above his fellow countryman’s 4.63. Martial also has an xA (expected goals assisted) of 5.92, comfortably superior to Giroud’s 1.89. There is barely a comparison in the expected goal contribution with 13.02 to 7.38.

Martial also boasts more accurate shooting and passing. It’s clear from the former Monaco winger’s stats why a clutch of top European clubs are circling and why United fans are desperate to keep him.

Should he join Chelsea, Martial would offer the Blues a dynamic, explosive presence in attack and one, that combined with the exquisite talents of Hazard and Willian, could be the Stamford Bridge answer to Liverpool’s red-hot triumvirate of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané.

Hazard remains Chelsea’s MVP and, while Martial taking the left-sided role away from the Belgian is unlikely, the Frenchman averages more touches in the opposition box and more scoring attempts.

Martial

Hazard, however, is more unpredictable in his movement. He can cut inside, like Martial, but is also willing to drive past defenders towards the byline. Indeed, Hazard has averaged six successful take-ons per 90 minutes this season, easily surpassing the 2.41 managed by Martial. Willian’s 3.24 is also higher.

Chelsea, through their scouting reports, will have noted how poorly Martial fared on the right wing, so it doesn’t seem likely that he could act as direct competition for Willian.

No, if Martial were to leave, he will almost certainly demand assurances that he will receive opportunities to impress through the middle, to which Chelsea may agree.

With Mourinho reportedly prioritising central midfield reinforcements for United in the summer, the chances of Martial being pushed further down the Old Trafford pecking order are slim.

Nevertheless, following a season that has seen him used sparingly, the United manager faces losing one of the club’s most talented and popular figures – and potentially to the club that sacked him a little over two years ago.

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