Martial, Rashford and Greenwood were United's future, then it all went horribly wrong
One of the saddest aspects of Manchester United’s current demise are the feelings of hope and anticipation fans felt two years ago when it appeared the club were on the right path.
Spearheading Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ultimately flawed vision of the future were three exciting young strikers, who between them outscored Liverpool’s front three that season.
Anthony Martial (23 goals), Marcus Rashford (22 goals) and Mason Greenwood (17 goals) combined to score 62 in the 2019/20 season.
This was more than Mohamed Salah (23), Sadio Mane (22) and Roberto Firmino (12) delivered, with 57 in total.
The future looked bright for United, especially with the hope of Jadon Sancho to come and add versatility, creativity and competition to the side.
Now as Liverpool’s trio look stronger than ever, United’s trio have faded. They did not line up once from the start together this season, nor any combination of them with Jadon Sancho, and the chances of them ever starting for United again are pretty much nil.
This season they struck just 12 goals combined (Greenwood 6, Rashford 5, Martial 1). So what exactly went wrong and what can be learned from their demise?
Part of the tragedy about Martial’s 23 goal season is that had he not missed a penalty against Norwich in the December, he would have been taking spot kicks, and he could have pushed his tally towards 30, with 22 of his 23 coming from open play.
But Martial’s season proved to be the exception to the rule. He is a wildly inconsistent player, with this the first time in five season he had broken the 20 goal mark. It was a pace he could not maintain.
A poor start to 2020/21, not helped by just a three week summer break, saw Martial flail and fail to score in United’s opening three games. It was already recognised that United needed help, and Edinson Cavani was brought in.
Cavani’s arrival highlighted every one of Martial’s flaws. His frequent look of disinterest, his lack of movement, his lack of striker’s instinct and bravery, and most of all, a failure to respond to competition.
Amid criticism, Martial regressed, and started picking up injuries. This past season he never really got a proper chance, coming into it half-fit, and by October he was fifth choice forward.
Out on loan at Sevilla, he has one goal so far and has missed the last three games with injury. He may get another chance at United in the summer simply because Sevilla may not be able to afford him, but he has to want it. If he is not interested in hanging around, then he needs to move on.
Marcus Rashford has been on a decline over the past year which started off steady and has become quite alarming.
He actually followed up the 2019/20 season quite well, netting 21 goals to follow 22 a year earlier. But behind his figures in 2020/21 was another story, a player whose form was getting progressively worse, hampered by injury.
Rashford’s confidence was no doubt shattered by a woeful performance in the Europa League final, and a penalty miss in the Euro 2020 final for England.
He had been pushing his body to the limit over the past two seasons, to his detriment, and required a shoulder operation, and to rest up a foot injury which had both contributed to his slide in form at the end of last season.
United sensibly did not rush him back, waiting until October to re-introduce him. He was supposed to come back stronger than ever, and instead we have seen the opposite.
Rashford appears unable to do the basics right, his decision making has got worse, he is afraid to shoot, and lacks the confidence to trick opponents either.
Theories behind his form have been wide ranging, but it seems a mental issue. Rashford has been accused of caring too much and trying too hard, to not caring enough, displaying a poor work ethic and body language.
Contract uncertainty won’t be helping either, his deal runs until 2023, although there is a 12 month option to extend, he will want security. But in order for United to give him the offer he feels he deserves, he has to earn it.
Rashford no longer deserves to start for United, young Anthony Elanga has been showing him up. There is still a talented player there, and the club’s next manager has a big task to try and unlock it.
The most tragic case of the three, Mason Greenwood could never play for the club again. Off field reasons have seen him ostracised from the squad.
Part of the optimism in 2019/20 was that it seemed like Greenwood was just scratching the surface of what he was capable of.
His tally of 17 goals was the highest as a United teenager since Wayne Rooney, and at just 18, it looked like he could be the 30-goal a season forward the club have long been waiting to develop, a player with a higher ceiling than both Martial and Rashford.
The next season was a rocky one, Greenwood had only two goals before the new year, and although he ended it with a flourish, his final figures of 12 were a little underwhelming, still, something to build from.
This season began well, but a failure to establish a partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo was worrying for both players. Ultimately even if they had been linking up, it wouldn’t have mattered, as the off pitch accusations seemingly pulled the plug on Greenwood’s United stint. His career at the club could be over.
Why it all went wrong
Playing for Manchester United is not easy. Players can make it look that way at times, but eventually the pressure builds and it becomes too much. Had United won silverware in 2019/20, it could have been different. Instead the team lost three semi-finals, and in the Europa League defeat to Sevilla, all three of Martial, Rashford and Greenwood came up short.
Starting afresh from scratch in 2020/21 was tricky, and a slow start left Greenwood and Martial behind the curve. In Rashford’s case the pressure evolved, as he put his body under strain to keep up even when injured, and Solskjaer did not rest him as much as he should have.
The demands at United are relentless, the scrutiny is unbearable, and eventually players get worn down. The mental demands as much as physical are a factor in the trio being unable to push on.
The problem here has been two-fold. Short term deals for Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo were supposed to help, although in particular in Martial’s case, the return of Ronaldo seemed to effectively push him out of the door.
United’s blueprint for the future was ripped up, even though these deals, particularly the Cavani one, felt essential at the time, with Martial’s form flagging.
The bigger problem was the woeful transfer window in 2020. Had Sancho arrived then, it would have helped. The long wait didn’t help anybody.
But all three would have benefitted a lot more from United fixing the central midfield. A proper defensive midfielder would have strengthened the entire team unit, helped the Red Devils control games, and given all three more opportunities to score and continue to set personal bests.
Instead the position was ignored, and £35 million also wasted on Donny van de Beek in midfield, leading to pressure growing on all three players to try and drag United out of the mire on a weekly basis. Eventually the magic dries up.
You can theorise all we want about the issues these players faced on the pitch, but even if Mason Greenwood had been scoring 30 goals per season, the same off field situation could have transpired.
From a football perspective, there can be no reasoning for this, and we likely would have been in this situation anyway. His scenario is beyond United’s control – the situations of Martial and Rashford can still be resolved by a new manager, even though it is an uphill battle.