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How one text from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer helped transform Anthony Martial into a ‘£100m Ferrari’

Turns out it takes a striker to get the best from a striker.

The evidence grows week-by-week, game-by-game that Anthony Martial is thriving under the guidance of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Something the Manchester United manager said the other day was instructive of how Martial’s game has developed during the Norwegian’s time in charge.

‘We know he can do worldies but I like him scoring the simple goals, when he is in between the posts. He’s done that a few times,’ Solskjaer said.

So precisely the type of goals that Solskjaer built his career on. The goals that involve being in precisely the right place at the right time, feeding on a striker’s instinct.

It helps explain why this is by some distance Martial’s most prolific season as a United player and why the Frenchman genuinely looks to be enjoying his football.

Martial was handed the responsibility of leading United’s exciting forward line and is prospering.

In pre-season, Solskjaer sent Martial a message asking if he’d like his No 9 shirt back after Romelu Lukaku’s departure to Inter Milan.

When Martial replied ‘Yes’, Solskjaer said it was on the condition he showed he was worthy of it every time he stepped on the pitch. Martial has kept his side of the bargain.  

He has become a game-changer and these qualities were once more in evidence as United toiled to hack their way through a thicket of Copenhagen defenders in the Europa League on Monday night.

It was Martial’s fancy footwork more often than not that saw United breach the stubborn Danish back line. And it was Martial felled to win the match-winning penalty in extra time, converted by Bruno Fernandes.

In truth, United would have booked their passage to the semi-finals with four or five goals if not for a blinder by Copenhagen keeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

On another night, Martial himself would have scored a hat-trick. But when the moment came, the Frenchman was in the right place, won the penalty and United were through.

Martial will get another chance to show his vast improvement in the semi-final against Sevilla on Sunday night. 

His increased goal return – Martial and Marcus Rashford, on 23 and 22 respectively are involved in a friendly game of ‘anything you can do’ – and sharpness in the box has finally eradicated the criticism that has dogged Martial’s five years at Old Trafford.

For so long, he was seen as inconsistent. The kind of player who’d maybe bang in a wonder-goal one week but then not score for the next three.

Now the background noise is pure praise for the 24-year-old.

‘Everyone’s got an opinion on Martial. He’s a Ferrari. He just looked like a £100million player,’ purred Owen Hargreaves on BT Sport.

His former United team-mate Paul Scholes added: ‘He’s turning into a No 9 more and more every game I watch.’

Another Old Trafford favourite, Robin van Persie, described him as ‘a world-class player’.

At one point during the discussion, Van Persie said: ‘He was struggling under Mourinho, right?’

Scholes, noted for his dry wit, replied: ‘Who wasn’t?’

Which takes us to the heart of the matter. Martial was regularly cold-shouldered during Mourinho’s two-and-a-half seasons in charge at Old Trafford.

It was the classic Mourinho carrot and stick approach.

One moment Mourinho was giving Martial a pat on the back for tracking back to win a tackle near the touchline. The next he was being scolded for standing still or a perceived lack of effort.

Let’s not forget that Martial’s United career almost came to a sudden end in July 2018 after he had the audacity to fly to Paris from a pre-season tour of the United States to be at the birth of his second child.

‘He has the baby and after the baby is born – beautiful baby, full of health, thank God. He should be here, and he is not here,’ Mourinho said of Martial’s paternity leave.

To compound matters, Martial was fined £180,000 – two weeks’ wages – and put on the transfer list.

He obviously didn’t leave in the end but is it really any wonder Martial’s two lowest scoring seasons in United colours came under Mourinho?

While the Portuguese boss put Martial on edge with his noxious cocktail of praise and barbed criticism, Solskjaer has made him feel truly appreciated.

After every game, Solskjaer makes a beeline to Martial and warmly embraces him. The man who scored 126 goals for United can be seen imparting wisdom. 

The Norwegian also realised early on that Martial had the qualities required to play the centre-forward position.

Under Mourinho, he was shoved out to the left side to make room for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku.

And it doesn’t take a genius to realise that more time and touches inside the opposition penalty box equates to more chances and goals.

While Martial does still gravitate to the left side, he realises now that his primary focus must be to find space inside the box. ‘Between the posts’ as his manager put it.

Consequently, every measure of his attacking game has shown improvement this season.

Having averaged a goal every 315 minutes in 2016-17 and 212 minutes in 2017-18 under Mourinho, Martial now scores on average every 151 minutes under Solskjaer in all competitions.

He has already matched his best assists return as a United player with potentially two matches of the season to come and he contributes to a United goal every 109 minutes on average.

The number of shots and shots on target Martial fires off per game has also increased and he puts away one in every five.

The service into Martial would only improve if United succeed in signing Jadon Sancho this summer, though extracting the England star from Borussia Dortmund, who are steadfastly sticking to their £108m valuation, is proving fiendishly difficult.

But for the moment United don’t need to look elsewhere for a centre-forward after a season of highlights for Martial.

He has scored in the Premier League against Manchester City and Chelsea not to mention becoming the first United player to score a league hat-trick in over seven years against Sheffield United in late June.

A brilliant season can now be crowned by helping United win the Europa League this month. 

Oh, and finishing with more goals than Rashford. His manager would understand. 

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