MANCHESTER, England – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will tell you that Manchester United haven’t really been at their best this season and that one of the reasons is Anthony Martial. So it’s a good sign that on the opening day of a year that could be a first title challenge of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, the Frenchman scored the first goal when United beat Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford.
It took Solskjaer another penalty from Bruno Fernandes, three good saves from David De Gea, an impressive performance from Paul Pogba and a heroic block from Eric Bailly in the fifth minute of stoppage time to get over the line but his team are now level on points Liverpool are at the top of the table after 16 games. At least United has given itself the chance to win title 21 in 2021.
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Martial’s goal, just before half-time, was only his second in the Premier League this season, having waited until December for his first. He’s averaged every second game after Project Restart last season to help United finish third and secure a return to the Champions League. If he finds such a form by May, Solskjaer will no longer be able to answer questions about a title fee for much longer.
When a reporter asked a question at the post-game press conference entitled “You probably won’t talk about the title,” Solskjaer quickly replied simply, “You’re right.”
The Norwegian isn’t the type to set players apart in press conferences, but Martial has been the subject of a gentle nudge on more than one occasion. Solskjaer said he was “with him” because of his running stats during the games and called on Martial, especially last season, to score more “striker goals” such as those he had regularly as a player at Old Trafford.
Martial’s goal here – his fifth in all competitions this season – was in exactly that form as he ran over the front post to find space between center-backs Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa to hit Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s low cross. It was a goal that Solskjaer, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Dwight Yorke would have been proud and important of against a team that conceded more goals at Old Trafford than any other team in the league.
“I love to dive headers,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Anthony will get better and better. He had chances this season – he still gets them, but he wasn’t lucky. Tonight we saw a better version of Anthony, a more confident one.”
It was a difficult start to the season for Martial after being suspended for three games in October’s 6-1 loss to Tottenham Hotspur for a red card and sustaining a groin injury in December. He is fit again and is slowly finding his shooting boots with three goals in his last six games after scoring only twice in his last 19 appearances for club and country. If he can get close to the 17 league goals last season, United should close Liverpool.
“We talked and talked about how important it was then and how it will be today,” said Solskjaer. “Good players know that form is temporary, but he’s shown his class and just keeps getting better.”
It also helps if your key playmaker contributes every time they play. Fernandes’ second-half penalty after Bertrand Traore equalized was the Portuguese midfielder’s 19th goal in his 30 Premier League games since arriving from Sporting Lisbon. No team has earned points since Fernandes’ debut on February 1, 2020.
Since losing to Arsenal on November 1, United have remained unbeaten 10 games, won eight games and drawn two games to score 26 of the last 30 available points. The January 17th trip to Liverpool looks to be one of the most important league games United have played since Ferguson’s resignation in 2013.
“I’m very happy with the position we are in, such a big difference from 12 months ago,” said Solskjaer. “You can lose the chance of being in the title race in the first 10 games. It’s a good position but we have to get better. If you can win games like tonight it will make a big difference.”
Solskjaer is not yet ready to acknowledge that United Liverpool’s seem like an obstacle to regaining the Premier League trophy and the Anfield game in just over two weeks will go a long way in determining whether the challenge is fleeting or more solid. For now, however, United are in their highest position since Ferguson’s last season on New Year’s Day, and Solskjaer insists there is more to come – from Martial in particular.