United in trouble if Martial law fails against Wolfsburg
Martial needs support against Wolfsburg or he'll sink too
WOLFSBURG v MAN UNITED
(Tomorrow, 3.40am, StarHub TV Ch 212 & Singtel TV Ch 112)
Never mind the tedious state of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal runs the risk of ruining Anthony Martial's tender career.
The Frenchman turned 20 on Saturday and his manager's gift was a straitjacket.
Martial is the latest nascent star to be neutered, rendered impotent by his manager.
Van Gaal turns mavericks into misfits, leaving them underutilised and ultimately unwanted.
He sends out forwards in chains. They are bonded to an uncompromising, restrictive set-up.
So Martial now finds himself in an unenviable position.
He must score against Wolfsburg in the Champions League tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and he must not get injured.
Goals are in short supply. Strikers are an endangered species and only a victory can guarantee United's safe passage to the knockout stages.
With breathtaking irony, the more Martial is needed, the less he receives the ball. Van Gaal's doomed strategy is self-defeating.
Before the latest 0-0 draw against West Ham, United's tentative approach play made them the most over-passed team in the English Premier League.
After 14 games, they had taken 54 passes per shot, by far the highest in the standings. In second place, Stoke needed 41 shots for an effort on goal.
In stark contrast, Leicester City, at the top of the leaderboard, requiring just 24 passes before zeroing in on goal.
That last stat might be the most damning of van Gaal's reign.
PASS, PASS, PASS
United take more than double the passes of Leicester to create a shooting opportunity.
The Red Devils are twice as ponderous and twice as cautious as the high-flying Foxes.
Honestly, if United's deluded boardroom were not so intoxicated by the enigmatic Dutchman, those figures would be grounds for dismissal. Particularly when they are put into context.
When United indulge in the clash of the crustaceans, playing sideways crab football, Martial can't get the ball.
In the early games, he could. When van Gaal was still pruning the front four with the gentle touch of Edward Scissorhands, Martial was largely left alone, a rare free spirit allowed to knock in four goals in his first four games.
And then, van Gaal threw down his infamous template, which was less a coaching tactic than it was a torture chamber from the Spanish Inquisition, effectively stretching his artists across a rack until they screamed.
Some couldn't take the pain. Angel di Maria freed himself and now sings at Paris Saint-Germain like a canary who's slipped through the hole in his cage.
Adnan Januzaj wouldn't succumb either, so he was packed off to Borussia Dortmund. Even James Wilson was loaned to Brighton, another short-sighted decision from van Gaal.
And every insipid display, every 0-0 draw, every sideways pass and aborted run, sees a little piece of Juan Mata's artistic soul slip away.
The Spaniard is neither fast nor a natural winger, but he was cast as a wide man against West Ham, watching the game unfold around him like an out-of-body experience.
Mata is blessed with a football brain beyond compare, but van Gaal is using him in a way that a neurosurgeon might call upon Justin Bieber to perform a lobotomy. He'll have a go, always the loyal professional, but it's hardly the most productive use of his skill set.
That left Wayne Rooney, the prince of Old Trafford, or the artist formerly known as a striker until he got himself injured, presumably laughing all the way to the treatment room.
And then there was one.
Like Mata, di Maria and Januzaj before him, Martial is effectively playing with his laces tied together, struggling to be the only runner in a static side filled with statues.
In nine Premier League appearances before the West Ham game, the striker had managed only 11 attempts on goal. The slow, mechanical nature of United's play weighs heavily on slender shoulders.
Martial cultivated another two chances against West Ham, the first was blocked and the other flew past the post, but competent efforts on goal are suddenly not good enough.
Opportunities are so few and far between at United that they must be seized upon with the urgency of vultures feasting on road kill scraps.
Martial simply cannot miss against Wolfsburg. There's no back-up, no understudy, no one waiting in reserve.
In a matter of weeks, the Frenchman has gone from an exciting prospect to the only hope. He's expected to keep United's Champions League dream alive by scoring more goals with fewer chances.
Martial is a potential hero with a permanent handicap; a confusing contradiction of van Gaal's making.
It would be a real shame if the last of United's mavericks became van Gaal's latest misfit.
"We have players who have the abilities but we need it in every game. I have great confidence that we shall score at Wolfsburg."
- Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger says Man United must rediscover their killer instinct in front of goal.