Football Features

The mystery of Anthony Martial’s missing shots on target

By Ben Green

Published: 17:00, 11 November 2020

Anthony Martial returned to Manchester United’s starting XI over the weekend against Everton and immediately demonstrated his importance to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s system.

The Frenchman had missed the previous three Premier League matches prior to the 3-1 win at Goodison Park, owing to a suspension picked up for his red card in the 6-1 defeat against Tottenham last month.

During that time the Red Devils lacked a commanding presence in the final third, a conduit linking midfield to attack, with blanks fired in consecutive matches against Chelsea and notably during Arsenal’s first league win at Old Trafford since 2006.

However, coming up against Carlo Ancelotti’s Toffees on Saturday, Man Utd looked a far more fluid unit when progressing up the pitch, with Martial’s hold-up play a notable improvement upon last week’s stale showing against the Gunners.

But while Martial impressed with his general link up play and movement on his return to Premier League action, there remained (and remains) one glaring blot upon his domestic output for this season: a lack of goals or, at a more granular level, a lack of shots.

Quite strikingly, of the 390 outfield players to have played at least one minute in the Premier League this season, 218 of them have produced at least one shot on target, and Martial is not among them.

Martial xG stats map

For context, Tottenham’s summer signing Carlos Vinicius has played just 12 minutes for the club and has one shot on target, while Martial’s Man Utd teammate, Edinson Cavani, has likewise produced one shot on target (and one goal). Nemanja Matic has also tested the opposition goalkeeper twice.

Indeed Cavani came on to replace Martial at Goodison Park and did in 13 minutes what the Frenchman has failed to do 289: register a shot on target. That he scored to open his account for Man Utd only compounded further concern on Martial’s tally for this season.

So, what exactly is going on with Martial? And should Solskjaer be concerned? It should, of course, be noted first and foremost that Martial has played just four games this season, during one of which he was on the field for only 28 minutes (against Spurs before his red card).

Meanwhile, he has been prolific in Europe, scoring twice (and assisting twice) in the Champions League against RB Leipzig and Istanbul Basaksehir, but this is still a long cry from the Martial who reinvented himself as an out-and-out No. 9 last season and made 10 direct contributions in just nine games post-shutdown, including six goals.

There were huge question marks as to who Solskjaer would use to fill Romelu Lukaku’s void following the Belgian’s move to Inter Milan last summer. Martial was entrusted with a central role and thrived through the middle, netting 23 goals in all competitions last season, his best return.

Yet, the narrative has shifted slightly this term, with Martial still to find the scoresheet. To make matters worse, he is the only striker in the Premier League this season to have failed to produce both a shot on target and failed to create a single chance for his teammates (among all strikers with 90+ minutes played).

But, is this a striker out of form, or is his poor league tally a by-product of a shift in his role for Man Utd? Well, it is certainly not the case that Martial is failing to get himself into dangerous areas of the pitch. In fact, he is registering more touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes this season (7.47) compared to 2019/20 (6.24).

The graphic below also shows a player who looks to play on the front foot. Looking at Martial’s 2019/20 movement network in conjunction with this season’s, we can see the Frenchman is making more forward strides and looking to penetrate through the middle when the ball finds his feet, as opposed to more lateral and backwards movements from last term.

Interestingly we can also see he’s now receiving fewer passes from Marcus Rashford, and is subsequently collecting the ball more centrally from the midfield area, particularly from Bruno Fernandes. It seems Martial is now dropping deeper to receive the ball and function as a facilitator, rather than playing across the line.

But, of course, those forward strides have seen Martial become a more frequent customer in the opposition box.

So, the problem may not necessarily be that Martial is not getting into threatening areas and finding himself in goalscoring opportunities, but rather a problem of what he is doing in those areas.

The graphic below illustrates Martial’s activity in the opposition penalty area, showing that his first port of call is, not necessarily to shoot on sight, but instead fashion a better scoring opportunity for himself or try to set up his teammates, with 10 passes and two take-ons, to the above mentioned two (off target) shots.

The sample size is, of course, naturally low for this season, but for Martial not to have registered a single shot on target as of yet certainly raises questions about the Frenchman’s function in Solskjaer’s team. For some time, modern football has trended toward a situation where often the biggest goalscoring threats a team possess seem to come from other starting areas (notably out wide) on the pitch; in Man Utd’s case Rashford and Fernandes.

Certainly against Everton Martial transformed the complexion of his side’s frontline without being the main goalscoring threat. So, could we now be seeing a player who shone so brightly as a traditional No. 9 last season be moving towards a Roberto Firmino-esque (heavy emphasis on the ‘esque‘) role? Or will Martial show his lack of shots on target is a freak blip and soon rediscover his scoring touch?