Manchester United’s future may lie in their forward line’s past. They have long thought as much. It is just that they had picked the wrong part of their past. There was the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nostalgia project and the attempt to turn back time with Cristiano Ronaldo. Suffice to say that neither ended well. But, in the post-Ronaldo era, their attack is now based around two men who debuted five managers ago under Louis van Gaal.
At 25 and 27, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are young to be described as part of United’s history. If some had their way after last season was the poorest of each’s career, they could have been consigned to the ranks of the Old Trafford old boys. Instead, Erik ten Hag has instead made each central; literally in the case of Martial who, while injuries had restricted his appearances, had seemed his first-choice striker since the summer, and figuratively for Rashford, who now feels the dominant figure in the attack.
Each scored in the 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest. It will take more than a home victory over relegation candidates to anoint them a double act who will remain automatic choices for years; not when Martial’s frame can be fragile, when Ten Hag wants another forward, when United are bound to enter into a footballing arms race for an attacker at some stage.
Martial, in particular, is no stranger to false dawns but this was an occasion to suggest United have found a new look in a duo who first took the field together almost seven years ago, in Rashford’s third senior appearance in March 2016, and who have teamed up 168 times.
They have been twinned in the team and on the bench, swapped in position, rivals for one spot. They spent just eight minutes on the pitch together last season: were there a permanent parting of the ways then, the eventual verdict may have been that, if opposites attract, they were too similar to be a perfect match.
Theirs has been the interrupted alliance, disrupted whenever United signed bigger-name forwards, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Romelu Lukaku to Alexis Sanchez to Ronaldo; many were the conventional No. 9s that neither Martial nor Rashford is. Each can cut in at speed from the left flank; neither prefers to operate with his back to goal. Neither is really a target man nor a penalty-box poacher.
Ten Hag has borrowed from Solskjaer’s thinking; at least before Ronaldo’s return complicated it.
The Norwegian began with Rashford as his striker and Martial his left winger, before switching them. The Frenchman averages a goal every 86 minutes this season from the middle; the Englishman can be more lethal from the left. “More often than not I would like to play on the left but if there is a weakness in the middle or a style of player that I can exploit I like to have the freedom to try and move and do that,” Rashford explained.
He is playing with a sense of freedom now, whether in surging 50 yards to score against Burnley or trying to chip Wayne Hennessey against Forest. There is a sense of liberation, of taking advantage of a roving brief to get involved. It renders him a roaming menace.
Ten Hag has voiced his view Rashford can get 20 league goals in a season; as he is on six so far, it is unlikely this will be that campaign. The Mancunian has set his sights on a career-best tally in all competitions. “I think every forward has a number you want to reach,” he said. “For me, it’s to score more than I have ever done in a season so 23, 22; something like that.”
His recent goals have shown a range: a free kick against Wales, an electric solo run versus Burnley, a rasping shot from a well-worked set-piece against Forest. He scores in different ways; just not always those of the professional predator.
The same may be said of Martial, whose best of 23 is similar to Rashford’s. Ibrahimovic, Lukaku and Ronaldo, in his second spell, have all bettered that at United in recent seasons. So, indeed, has Bruno Fernandes. For Rashford and Martial, there is a question of where the appropriate blend of selfishness and selflessness lies, but the Englishman eschewed the chance to shoot when setting up the Frenchman for his goal against Forest. Altruism can work.
For Ten Hag, and perhaps Solskjaer before him, the trade-off of a shared responsibility for scoring is preferable. “For the progress of the team we need to be more clinical, our players can score, you can see that,” he said. “Martial is a goalscorer, Rashford is a goalscorer, Bruno will score goals.”
Whether Antony can prove as prolific is another matter, but Ten Hag has his first-choice quartet, and has rarely had the chance to select all. “When we can play those front four often together and get more routines in we have more of a goalscoring threat,” he added.
If Ronaldo wanted all the chances to come his way, now there is a broader willingness for them to fall to more players; to the forwards who scored 45 times for United in 2019-20, but just six times last season, to the pair who have been in and out of the side since 2016. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were long touted as the future. Almost seven years on, the future may finally be arriving.