There had been brief speculation that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have hit upon a new formation after seeing his Manchester United side successfully stifle Liverpool at Old Trafford last weekend.
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But it was a different formation and a very different type of performance from United in the 3-1 win at Norwich on Sunday. This was a display of pace, verve and no little quality in the final third.
The return of Anthony Martial simply transforms this team.
The Frenchman has not featured for United in the Premier League since August but his return coincided with Solskjaer’s side winning away from home in the competition for the first time since February. Against an admittedly open Norwich team, United also scored more goals than they had managed on all their previous away days this season combined.
It would have been more had both Martial and Marcus Rashford not seen first-half penalties saved by Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul. But even those spurned opportunities did not detract too much from their efforts. Rashford made up for his miss by scoring soon after, while the pair combined brilliantly for Martial’s goal after the interval.
When it was put to Solskjaer afterwards that the link-up play between the pair was reminiscent of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in their pomp, the United manager could not resist a quip in reply.
“Or Sheringham and Solskjaer,” he said with a smile.
“Of course, we have missed Anthony the last two months and it is great to have him back,” he added. “Him and Marcus, they are just going to improve and that partnership is going to grow.”
The speed of the passing interchange was far too much for this Norwich side and it is obvious just how much the two forwards enjoy playing together. They had four shots on target each. The only other duo to manage that in the same game this season are Ayoze Perez and Jamie Vardy at Southampton on Friday, when both walked away with hat-tricks.
There could have been a repeat here, given the ease with which they carved open their opponents. It might even be enough to offer a different perspective on United’s season.
This was the first time that the two players have been on the pitch together since Martial was injured late on against Crystal Palace, when United were chasing a late winner. At that stage, they had picked up four points from the first two games against Chelsea and Wolves.
“We feel Anthony is an important player for us and we have felt the effect of him not being there,” said Solskjaer. “We are pleased to have him back and scoring goals. He is vital for us. He’s a top striker and to have him back fit, smiling, enjoying his football is a big thing.”
Clearly, his return cannot be expected to solve all the problems laid bare since then but it will address some of them. Helped by the two penalties, this was the first time that United have had four clear-cut chances in the first half of a Premier League game in over two years.
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Three of the four of them were missed. As well as those penalties, Martial saw a header from close range brilliantly saved by Krul – although Scott McTominay found the breakthrough goal from the subsequent corner. By the end of the match, United had tallied up seven clear-cut chances in a game for the first time in over four years.
For the disgruntled supporters, this was a welcome reminder of what Solskjaer wants to see from his team – particularly on their travels where they have had such difficulties. Able to select his preferred forward line, that incision was apparent for the first time in a while.
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The role of Daniel James in that should be not be ignored either.
Any suggestion that Martial’s availability might leave James ripe for a rest can be dismissed given his role in this victory. The Welshman won the first penalty and then fed Rashford for his first goal with a wonderful lofted pass in behind the Norwich defence. He repeated the trick to set up Martial for a chance early in the second half. This is a genuine three-pronged attacking threat.