Who Should Start: Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford?

The 2015-2016 season did not go to plan for Manchester United. Although it ended with an FA Cup trophy, missing out on a Champions League spot was unacceptable. However, with Louis van Gaal in charge of the sinking ship, two immense talents were able to rise above the wreckage. Both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford thrived under the Dutchman, establishing residency on the tip of every United supporters tongue.

Unfortunately for them, the arrival of big name forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku has pushed Rashford out wide and left (no pun intended) the two rising stars to battle it out for minutes in Jose Mourinho’s revamped United side.

Early returns have been mixed. Martial has thrived coming off the bench, while Rashford has burned hot and cold. Sparking debate among supporters, pundits and egomaniacs alike. So, basically Gary Neville. While I take most of what the United legend says with a grain of salt, his fervent defense of Rashford has me thinking; who should start?

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Anthony Martial:

Martin Tyler wasn’t the only person in awe of Martial on his debut against Liverpool. Since he first burst onto United supporter’s screens, he has been a fan favorite. The young Frenchman is blessed with immense ability and plays with a direct style that catches the eye. His greatest strength is undoubtedly his dribbling. A skill that was apparent since he first stepped foot on the Old Trafford pitch. His close control makes him a nightmare for defenders to deal with and during his debut season, he routinely turned opposition full-backs inside out. In fact, much of United’s attack that year offered little more than “get Martial the ball and get out of his way.” A monumental task for a 19-year-old, but such was his skill.

While his dribbling is incredible, what makes Martial so dangerous is that he combines his dribbling ability with pace and precision. He is an expert at setting up opposition defenders, using his close control to lull them into a sense of confidence, before turning on the jets. Once he has beaten the defenders, Martial has enough quality to either pick out a teammate or finish with composure. Since coming to United, he has racked up 27 goals and 17 assists in all competitions.

Unfortunately, it can’t all be good.

Much of Martial’s shortcomings were exposed in his first season under Mourinho. Picked in the starting eleven to begin the campaign, he failed to adapt to a new system. Under Van Gaal, United played a slow possession based style, allowing him to stay higher up the field. With Mourinho in charge, Martial was expected to play faster, wider and track back on defense. All of which he struggled to do, although he did improve as the season went on.

The Frenchman also relies too heavily on his dribbling. Instead of using his pace to get behind the defense, he prefers dropping off and receiving the ball deeper. This allows him to take on defenders one on one, but it also slows up the United attack.  Playing alongside a player like Ibrahimovic, who also likes to drop deep in midfield, United were unable to break quickly like Mourinho prefers.

The Strengths and weaknesses of Marcus Rashford:

It is fitting that Rashford got his chance only after a Martial injury in the pre-game warm up against FC Midtjylland. The young academy product did not disappoint. In a must win for United, he scored two goals in a 5-1 demolition of the Danish champions. Ever since the Englishman has continued to demonstrate his unending potential. Like Martial’s dribbling, Rashford’s pace is a cut above the rest and he uses it to devastating effect. Against West Ham, he was recorded as the fourth fastest player in the Premier League and at 19, he will only get faster. Unlike Martial, Rashford loves to make runs behind the opposition defense. As he has continued to grow, his runs have gotten better and better. Particularly his ability to bend runs and deceive the defense.

The teenager has also developed as a set piece taker, a skill highlighted by his huge free kick against Celta Vigo in the Europa League semi-finals. He can whip in a cross and has even taken corners for Mourinho’s side. However, it is what Rashford does without the ball that has caught Mourinho’s eye. Always a willing runner, Rashford has a great work rate and will always put in a shift. He has no problem tracking back on defense and does so while remaining a key outlet to start the counter attack.

Like the Frenchman, it can’t all be good.

For all of the great work Rashford does from box to box, a lack of composure and poor decision-making ability can limit his impact in the final third. A shortcoming made abundantly clear when a one on one in the first half against Swansea ended with Rashford chipping the ball right into the goalkeeper’s hands. He also tends to get frustrated and take unnecessary shots from distance. His eight shots without a goal this season pale in comparison to Martials two goals from three shots. While he has recorded 20 goals and 7 assists since debuting for United, he can offer much more.

Another area of weaknesses is the lack of diversity in his attacking game. Rashford’s pace is impressive, however, he too often relies on it as his only method of beating a defense. Instead of slowing down at times, he prefers to knock the ball past the opposition and run onto it. An important skill, but one of little value against teams that are bunkered in.

Who Should Start? It depends.

I know that is not the sexiest answer and it certainly won’t catch the attention of the producers at Talk Sport. However, I believe it is the right one.

Football is not always a zero-sum game. Martial’s solid start to the season is not inherently a negative for Rashford. The fact is that both players have incredible ability and those skills will be better suited for certain games. Martial’s ability to break down a stingy defense with his dribbling will be valuable against some teams, while Rashford’s ability to run in behind is better against teams who give space for him to run into. Against bigger teams, Rashford’s work rate will be important, while Martial’s composure in front of goal may be key to picking up an important point against a lesser opponent.

The fact is that both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are fantastic players with a world of potential. While it is possible for one to break out and establish themselves as the clear starter, don’t forget to enjoy the ride along the way.

Written by Ben Soleim