United Review long read: Focus on the firing line
Fresh from watching United’s Boxing Day romp over Newcastle, the verdict was unanimous: on song, there’s no living with the Reds’ attack.
“The front three are frightening, you would not like to play against that,” said Scholes. “I think they can be special. I think they can beat a lot of teams, they can score a lot of goals with those three.”
That was echoed by Owen, who said: “I think that front three can take them places, they can change games. They’ve got a lot of pace, a lot of goals in them as well and I think that’s what they’re going to rely on going forward.”
Following the weekend’s 4-0 victory over Norwich City, Rashford (19 goals), Martial (11), Greenwood (9) and Daniel James (3) are our attackers with most goals for the Reds so far this season in all competitions – with the four providing all-bar 11 of United’s 53 goals so far this term.
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Old Trafford rebuild continues, it is in that interchangeable, unpredictable quartet of youngsters vying for three attacking slots that the surest signs of progress have been visible…
THE FIGUREHEAD: MARCUS RASHFORD
2019/20 appearances: 30 (27 starts/3 sub)
Changing places: For years, Marcus has flitted between United’s left side and a central berth, but this term he has settled on a compromise – a narrower spot on the left side of attack – with devastating results. “This is my favourite position I think,” he recently admitted, “because it’s not really left wing and it’s not no.9.”
The story so far: Last season’s haul of 13 goals in 47 appearances represented the most prolific campaign of his fledgling career to date, but that total was matched in early December by Marcus’s nerveless penalty conversion against Manchester City. The tone for Rashford’s season was set by an opening-day brace against Chelsea and, though he only notched once more before October’s opener against Liverpool, that clinical study in the art of finishing opened the floodgates. All sorts of goals have followed, from straightforward penalties and close-range efforts to thunderbolts fired in from all angles. His run was even punctuated by a soaring header against Newcastle at Old Trafford, underlining the growing physicality of a player who broke into United’s attack as a boy, but this season has very much established himself as the Reds’ main man.
Highlight: The reaction to Rashford’s unbelievable Carabao Cup free-kick at Stamford Bridge said it all. An otherworldly effort which few players would even consider attempting, never mind executing.
Solskjaer says: “Marcus is a kid that you want to help. He’s got everything physically, he’s got the right mentality and attitude, and he’s one of our own. He’s just going to be better and better, he’s still only 22 so he’ll grow and he’s got the best years ahead of him. This season he’s been a leader, he’s really shown his maturity.”
2019/20 appearances: 27 (23/4)
Changing places: At the start of the campaign, the Welsh international initially operated on the left wing, but in recent weeks has specialised more on the right-hand side. Goals and assists have followed him all over the pitch.
The story so far: The most unfamiliar of United’s trio of summer signings quickly made his talent known with a series of searing displays. Three goals in his first four games as a Red – including crackers against Crystal Palace and Southampton – demonstrated James’s prowess in front of goal, and his ensuing displays have provided a fruitful supply line to his fellow attackers. Much is made of the Welshman’s raw pace, but his intelligent usage of that acceleration is mirrored in his shrewd assessment of options when he has the ball. Opponents have frequently sought to nullify James with rough treatment, but he remains undeterred. “It takes a lot of character to do what he does on a regular basis and he’s been class for us,” stressed Rashford. “He’s been a threat for us every time he’s been on the pitch.”
Highlight: Coming off the bench to make your Premier League debut, then scoring seven minutes later, at the Stretford End, in a huge win over Chelsea… as introductions go, not too shabby.
Solskjaer says: “A fantastic signing. In his first [training] session, Dan ran 50 yards back, chased it, won the ball off Anthony, then went forward and scored 10 seconds later. His attitude and his work-rate are fantastic. He’s not changed at all, he’s still the same kid, but his performances are getting better and better. He’s getting used to this level and he’s one of them that never seems fazed by anything. I’m very pleased with him.”
2019/20 appearances: 22 (19/3)
Changing places: After spending much of recent seasons cutting in from the left, the French speedster has been restored to his preferred central position this term, with eye-catching results.
The story so far: Back in the no.9 shirt he initially relinquished to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2016, Martial has cut a happier, more productive figure in 2019/20, despite missing almost two months through injury. His return of a goal every other game is the most prolific of his Reds career to date, while the variety of those finishes is the surest indication yet that Anthony has evolved into the central predator United’s attack has been crying out for. “He’s brilliant when he’s one-on-one with the keeper,” said Rashford. “As a no.9 you thrive off those opportunities and we know that when he is in front of goal, when he’s calm and confident like he is right now, it’s only going one way.” While his fleet feet and brain make Martial devastating in front of goal, his work without the ball has improved markedly this term, with a greater propensity to press and sharper focus making him an altogether different attacker to previous years.
Highlight: Martial’s impish finish against Norwich at Carrow Road, following sublime link-play with Rashford, was perhaps the best illustration of the Frenchman’s evolution.
Solskjaer says: “The key is to give him the ball. He’s not going to be the one who runs down the channels all day long. I think the boys have said that many times themselves: ‘How are we going to score a goal? Just feed Anthony more.’ We need to play forward more into the front men and it’s important for Anthony to touch the ball a lot.”
Appearances: 26 (11/15)
Changing places: Either cutting in from the right or operating through the centre, the versatile teenager has provided a potent goal threat in a variety of situations.
The story so far: When Greenwood was just seven years old, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saw him training with United’s youngsters and was so impressed by what he saw, he immediately identified him as a star of the future. Fast forward and in 2019/20, Greenwood’s sophomore season as a senior squad member has been a revelation. From the start or off the bench, Mason has remained unfazed and stunningly capable. Ice-cool in front of goal, he can score from seemingly any position with either foot, and his versatility has already led to a raft of defenders and goalkeepers being sent one way while the ball travels the other, usually ending up in the net. Reds legend Rio Ferdinand recently said: “Greenwood hits the back of the net with a coldness that he has been there before,” while current no.8 Juan simply remarked: “He is a killer in the box.”
Highlight: The remorseless finishing has manifested itself in precise finishes for much of the season, but there can hardly have been a sweeter moment for him than when he thrashed the Reds into the lead against Newcastle on Boxing Day.
Solskjaer says: “He’s grown a lot. He’s physically and mentally more robust, which, of course, you expect from an 18-year-old. He has had more or less 12 months with us now and he’s grown fantastically. His confidence and performances in the top games, even in the Premier League, he’s done well. We’ll just keep continuing to give him more and more until he is a regular, because that will happen.”
This article first appeared in Saturday’s edition of United Review, the club's historic match programme at Old Trafford, which is still available to order online.