Anthony Martial scores hat-trick as Manchester United again offer glimpse of a bright future

Manchester United 3-0 Sheffield United: The Frenchman was outstanding as United eased past the Blades at Old Trafford

Mark Critchley
Old Trafford
Wednesday 24 June 2020 19:55
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Dimitar Berbatov explains how playing in empty stadiums will affect different players in different ways

Anthony Martial’s first senior hat-trick may have been the first scored by a Manchester United player in the Premier League during the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but this 3-0 victory over a depleted Sheffield United side offered a glimpse of a bright future rather than a reminder of recent shortcomings.

A total of 21 different clubs have had a player score three times in a top-flight match since Robin van Persie’s goals clinched Ferguson’s final title against Aston Villa in April 2013. That statistic is a measure of how lean times have been at Old Trafford over the last seven years but those unwanted records are finally tumbling.

Inspired by Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, starting together for the first time in midfield, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side lifted their hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League by comfortably beating one of their main competitors for a top-five finish. Chris Wilder’s hopes of joining Europe’s elite are diminishing, however, after this third game since the restart without a win.

It cannot be ignored that Sheffield United were without three members of the six-man backline which boasted this season’s second-best defensive record. Dean Henderson’s absence was most keenly felt. The on-loan United goalkeeper was unable to play against his parent club and with him, the visitors’ resolve may have lasted longer than seven minutes.

Then again, maybe not. United began with the type of fluency that has too often eluded them this season and their breakthrough was a goal of real quality. After collecting Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s throw under pressure, Marcus Rashford cut to the byline and dragged a pass to the back of the six-yard box. Simon Moore, Henderson’s replacement, dived the wrong way as Martial converted at the near post.

Solskjaer has repeatedly said Martial must add exactly this type of poacher’s goal to his repertoire. This was his fourth goal in six Premier League games and evidence that he is making progress when it comes to the ‘scrappy’ finishes his manager wants, but he could still be a little more clinical and decisive on occasion.

Minutes later, at the end of one rapid United break, Martial drew Moore out of his goal but elected to pass to Rashford rather than take the opportunity on himself. That decision appeared to surprise Rashford who, despite having the goal gaping in front of him, tripped over his feet and diverted the ball wide.

Rashford has not made a wrong move off-the-pitch since lockdown began but had another moment to forget shortly after. A flowing United move, incorporating Pogba, Fernandes and Nemanja Matic ended with a delicate Pogba chip over Sheffield United’s defensive line. Rashford shaped to volley but found only thin air and the danger was quickly cleared.

United were dominating, but needed to make it count. Harry Maguire’s concerns were clear when, towards the end of the first half, he politely instructed Luke Shaw to “f***ing switch on, eh”. Maguire’s boyhood club were targeting his team-mate, attempting to overload down Shaw’s side of the pitch and having some modest success.

The second goal would eventually arrive a minute before the interval. Wan-Bissaka’s attacking play from right-back has come on leaps and bounds in recent months and his third league assist of the season was well-earned, stretching to send a low cross past Enda Stevens and into the feet of Martial. A first-time shot was out of Moore’s reach. Wilder’s head fell into his hands.

It was Martial’s 18th of the season in all competitions, surpassing his previous best tally during his debut United campaign. It is an impressive record considering that he missed half of the autumn through injury and testament to Solskjaer’s faith in the forward. Talks over signing a new centre-forward have gone quiet and Martial’s encouraging form since Christmas has played no small part in that.

Martial scored the first hat-trick of the post-Alex Ferguson era 

Martial’s compatriot was also beginning to enjoy himself. Despite operating from a deeper position alongside Matic, Pogba was the game’s dominant influence, no more so than when he beat three Sheffield United players to dribble his way into the penalty area, nutmegging Sander Berge in the process. Only a finish was required to crown his first start since September with a goal, but Martial stole the ball off his feet and blazed high over the crossbar.

Clearly, Martial wanted his hat-trick and he would eventually get it. The first scored by a United player in the league since Robin van Persie clinched the title against Aston Villa in April 2013 came at the end of another fluent, flowing move. Pogba and Fernandes combined before a one-two between Rashford and Martial allowed the latter to nip in behind and lift the ball delicately over Moore’s dive.

In the closing stages, Solskjaer felt comfortable enough to make English football’s first-ever quintuple substitution. Of the five to leave the pitch, Martial and Pogba would surely have received standing ovations had Old Trafford been filled with fans rather than their avatars, uploaded from 193 countries around the world. And the only disappointment from United’s perspective was that those supporters could not be here to see one of their most complete performances of the season.

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