It is frequently said that much more can be learned from one’s failures than their successes. After Manchester United’s dismal penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Middlesbrough midweek, it was clear they had striker problems. It wasn’t any less clear, though, when they won 3-2 at St Mary’s Stadium, courtesy of two Anthony Martial goals. Or when the young Frenchman curled a neat finish around Simon Mignolet’s far side last month in Henry-esque fashion, giving his club a 3-1 win over old rivals Liverpool. When the world’s most expensive teenager – bought hours from the close of this summer’s transfer window – leads Manchester United’s attack, what’s obvious is that the 19-year-old is world-class, while his club, evidently, are not.
Brilliant tactician that he is, it is difficult to understand the motivation behind Louis van Gaal’s decision to offload Falcao, van Persie and Javier Hernandez without much by way of reinforcement. It is not so much that these players were in prime form – there is a case to be made for disposing of all three. They certainly haven’t set the world alight at their new clubs, but with no one up front arriving at the club, the forwards department looks very bare indeed. Football illiterates can observe it; it cannot have escaped the all-seeing eyes of the Dutch boss.
If goal-scoring options look barren now, imagine what it would be without a certain French teenager. There is much in the former Holland coach’s resume to be immensely proud of, but the acquisition of Anthony Martial cannot count amongst van Gaal’s achievements. It wasn’t a grand, carefully-hatched plan to get rid of the old and bring in new.
Make no mistake, Martial was a panic buy. If Louis van Gaal thought him absolutely essential to Manchester United this season, he would not have left it to the final day of the transfer window to prise the teenager from Monaco, to the tune of at least £36 million. A boy purchased as one for the future suddenly looks very much like a man indispensable to the club’s present. It is a happy accident, but it is just that – an accident.
And this is where part of the reason for van Gaal’s fierce persistence with Rooney lies. Long-time golden boy for England, the 30-year-old is far closer to the end of his career than the start. He is going through the driest period in his career, having scored one away goal in the league in a year, and just two overall this season. His goals to games ratio at the moment isn’t much better than Radamel Falcao’s was last season, and van Persie’s leanest patches at the club weren’t quite as lean as this.
Rooney has been a fantastic servant to club and country down the years, becoming England’s highest all-time goal-scorer – a feat he may well replicate for the Red Devils. He might even strike a purple patch, as he so frequently seems to do, and then talk of this spell would be dismissed as premature and sensationalist. But, as Gary Neville recently pointed out, the club’s captain has always been the type of player whose goals arrive in gluts, alternating with his less prolific periods.
While Manchester United’s strike force always seemed to centre around Wayne Rooney (the Ronaldo years excepted), Sir Alex Ferguson always had other capable strikers around the club, able to take over from the main man when goals for him appeared to be at a premium. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez all played alongside Rooney, all of whom had the expertise to pick up the slack when required.
But with almost no one else around capable of stepping up, van Gaal is hoping the veteran somehow plays himself into form. He has bought himself a little breathing space because Anthony Martial proved quite a bit better than everyone suspected he was, but with James Wilson looking like he’s not quite ready yet to step up to the plate, and Adnan Januzaj sent on loan, the burden on Martial’s young shoulders may begin to take its toll soon.
Martial will surely go through dry spells, as even the best strikers seem to. It is unlikely he was bought with the expectation he would feature in nearly all of United’s games, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if an injury was just round the corner, too. What then? There would be even more pressure on Rooney, and if he hasn’t been playing consistently, he may become even rustier than he looks right now. A long-term Martial absence could leave his new club horribly exposed this season.
Louis van Gaal, and Manchester United, is playing a very dangerous game at the moment. There is certainly a case for Rooney being dropped, and with suitable replacements, he would have been by now. But strikers are confidence players, and Rooney even more so. He needs to score goals to give him the belief he has his mojo back. Dropping him could drive his self-belief into the ground, and the embarrassment of that possibility just as his appointment as the club’s captain was confirmed this season would be doubly crippling. Van Gaal is intelligent enough to realise the thought of Rooney stepping up from the sidelines after weeks, and maybe months, on the bench and carrying the responsibility of a sole striker is not a pleasant one.
And what if he continues to play without finding form? Well, that’s not such a nice thought either; but amazingly, van Gaal may find it’s his best option.