How have Raheem Sterling and Anthony Martial fared so far this season?
Anthony Martial and Raheem Sterling both completed big money moves to Manchester last summer, but were given very different receptions. The way in which Sterling and his representatives engineered a move away from Liverpool in a very public manner left a sour taste in the mouths of English football’s punditocracy. It is fair to say that a healthy proportion of the football-watching population wanted to see Sterling fail, and revelled in the difficult first season he endured at Eastlands. Martial on the other hand, burst onto the scene with a splendid solo goal on his debut against Liverpool at Old Trafford. Such a start earned him plenty of goodwill, despite some eyebrows being raised about the fee United paid Monaco to secure his services.
However, the start of this season has seen a reversal of fortunes for both players, though caution needs to be exerted when drawing conclusions this early in the campaign. Sterling and Martial are working under new managers, but it seems that the Englishman is benefitting most from this change. Manuel Pellegrini was brought in by Manchester City to cool the atmosphere at the club after the Roberto Mancini’s combustible reign. As such, his task was to relax his players and free them up to go an express themselves. David Silva, to take one example, flourishes in this set-up because he has the intuitive tactical knowledge and appreciation of space to do the right things on the pitch. Sterling though, looked like a boy lost at times, unsure of his role in the team; was he supposed to dribble at full backs or look inside to play one-twos with Silva and the like?
This interesting article for The Independent by Jack Pitt-Brooke, though primarily about Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, makes the good point that young players often need direct instructions. Pep Guardiola’s teams are defined by their free-flowing, attacking football, but behind that veneer lies a matrix of planning and prescriptive instruction. The former Barcelona manager has a clear set of objectives for each individual player, from starting positions and off the ball movements, to how he wants possession to be circulated. He can often be seen ‘micro-managing’ players from the touchline. If Sterling’s mind as a little scrambled last season, it seems a lot clearer now. Guardiola is telling him what he wants him to do, and for the most part he is doing it. Two league goals and an assist, is a solid start to the season.
Martial on the other hand, looks like a player who needs to be let off the leash with less instruction and tactical responsibility. His 11 Premier League goals last season was a commendable debut season in English football, but he often looked like he was playing with ‘a handbrake on’, to coin a phrase of Arsene Wenger’s. He was not alone under Louis van Gaal, who wanted his players to play as if they were fixed onto rail tracks, shuttling up and down the pitch in straight lines.
The Frenchman is yet to score a goal under Jose Mourinho this term, and is finding himself on the margins of the team, literally as well as metaphorically. Martial is more of a striker than Sterling is, and his future could well be as a centre forward. The former Monaco man has ice in his veins when he gets in front of goal, and his off the ball movement is better than Sterling’s. Mourinho however, prefers to play with a fixed focal point up front which is why Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been drafted in. It could also be argued that Marcus Rashford has moved ahead of him in the list of players who could lead the line for United.
Mourinho had a difficult relationship with Eden Hazard during his second spell at Chelsea. The former Porto manager publicly criticised Hazard for his lack of work rate in his first season. The Belgian responded by winning PFA Player of the Year the next season as Chelsea comfortably won the title. However, last season their relationship fell apart and Hazard essentially went A.W.O.L. Like Hazard, Martial is a player who wants to conserve his energies for when he gets the ball in the last third. He does not always look like he enjoys tracking back, something Mourinho usually demands of his players. Against, Bournemouth, Southampton and Hull, perhaps United’s new manager felt he could ‘get away with’ fielding offensive teams.
However, it will be fascinating to see if he sticks with this formula in the Manchester Derby. Mourinho’s teams are typically built upon strong foundations, especially in the middle of the pitch, but he seems keen to incorporate Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba into the same side. Ibrahimovic is also a certain starter through the spine of the team, which raises questions as to how attacking United’s wide men can be. In United’s first few games, they have gone with Martial and Juan Mata. It would be no surprise however if one of these players were sacrificed in favour of the diligent Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia. With Rooney, Pogba and Ibrahimovic certain starters, Martial could be squeezed out.
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