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Anthony Martial deserves to start but shouldn't

Tuesday 22nd August 2017
For the moment, tactics rather than productivity should decide who starts between Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on Manchester United's left flank.

Anthony Martial is not one to strut about like a peacock. He's quiet and reserved, allowing his prodigious talent to speak for him. It's an intelligent, mature approach not often seen in 21-year-olds.

Not that he couldn't take some advice from a peacock. Especially a wise old one like Sir Michael Phillip Jagger. The Rolling Stones' front man has strutted across many a stage during his 74 years on the planet, belting out many a lyric. Among the most sage is "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
In the current United set-up, Martial is definitely not getting what he wants, which is to start. That honour has gone to Marcus Rashford, two years the younger, in both Red Devils' 2017-18 Premier League matches to date.

Over 80 minutes against West Ham, then 75 against Swansea, Rashford has yet to score. He's played well and tested both keepers. He also provided the assist for Romelu Lukaku's opener against the Hammers. The ball just hasn't found the net for him.

Meanwhile in the 25 minutes plus added time afforded him, Martial produced two goals, as well as a helper himself. Even assuming the pair to be equals, it would normally seem wise for Jose Mourinho to ride the hot hand. Or foot, as it were. Yet, that would be the worst thing he could do for United's early momentum.

Conventional wisdom isn't always the best thing. Ask Mauricio Pochettino.

After totally dominating Chelsea for all but the first 20 minutes of their Sunday match, he lifted Eric Dier for Heung-min Song on 68'. The idea was to give an already pinned-back Blues squad another attacking threat with which to cope. It's a time-honoured adjustment.

Only, with Dier off the pitch, the midfield opened for Chelsea. Conte's beleaguered troops began to create counterattacks that had previously been snuffed, to happily string together more than a pass or two before Spurs took the ball from their feet.

Eventually, Spurs equalised through a horrid own-goal from another dubious substitute: Michy Batshuayi. Conte had sent on the youngster for an ineffective Alvaro Morata. Then Hugo Lloris completely misplayed Marcos Alonso's near-post shot to again surrender the advantage, this time permanently. Those two incidents gave observers other points to criticise than Pochettino's ill-considered adjustment.

The point remains, however. Tactics are not always as simple, direct, and obvious as they appear. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Had Sir Isaac Newton lived three centuries later, he'd likely have made a decent gaffer. He seldom would have fallen victim to Merton's Law of Unintended Consequences.
Sir Isaac wasn't at all like you, the Manchester United fan who's clicked on an Anthony Martial article only to find yourself reading about Tottenham, Chelsea, and dead scientists.

The point is that the choice to start Martial rather than Rashford would bring about unintended, undesirable consequences of its own. I like to think Jose Mourinho knows this.

Graeme Le Saux--yes, I'm doing it again--certainly does. During NBC's broadcast of the United/West Ham season opener, the former Chelsea, Blackburn, and Southampton left-back noted the difference in styles between Rashford and Martial.

Rashford spent 80 minutes running Pablo Zabaleta ragged, playing close to the touchline, isolating the 32-year-old, forcing Slaven Bilic's centre-halves to spread apart to provide cover for the Argentine, should the 19-year-old fly past him.

The reverse rotation simply wouldn't work. After closing ranks for 75-80' to ward off Martial's incursions, defenders would be so entrenched, Rashford would have no option but to attempt long crosses or shots from the outside. His runs to the end-line would be shepherded; support would be waiting to cut out any passes into the box.

United's inability to score last season is in part related to not having a definite strategy in this regard. Wayne Rooney's presence as a number ten, along with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata's preference for narrow play, afforded even less space for Martial, who started more often in the season's early doors. As a result, Rashford had to work through a crisis of confidence that extended into a 20-game Premier League goalless drought.

This season, the plan is clear. Start Rashford to tire full backs and wingers while drawing centre backs and d-mids out. Then insert Martial to exploit the gaps. Rashford will eventually score. The ball he rung off Joe Hart's post on Match Day One promises as much. When he does, opponents will only close on him sooner, with greater urgency and numbers. Meanwhile, the tactic is working. Jose Mourinho shouldn't alter it.

Anthony Martial may not be getting what he wants but, after some trying times, we're beginning to find United has what it needs.
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