Manchester United’s 2023/24 season certainly hasn’t gone to plan, and little that Erik ten Hag banked on before the campaign has come to fruition.
Undoubtedly, he didn’t count on 19 different players missing matches through injury – several of them with long-term issues – with Antony and Jadon Sancho also unavailable for spells due to non-footballing reasons. Indeed, three players have picked up fresh problems in the last week alone, just as United begin to welcome Tyrell Malacia, Kobbie Mainoo and Amad back into the fold.
But of the injuries suffered to Jonny Evans, Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Hojlund, it’s the latter whose absence will be most keenly felt. The Danish striker was supposed to be eased into his maiden campaign in England, yet the ineffectiveness of his fellow attackers has led to Hojlund starting all of United’s last 12 matches across the Premier League and Champions League.
The 20-year-old has been ruled out until the end of the month, which means he’ll miss matches against Everton and Galatasaray. But injuries at Old Trafford have snowballed this season and few would be surprised to see the absence stretched out for an additional couple of weeks. That would pose a significant issue for a team that faces four matches across the first 12 days of December.
With Hojlund unavailable, at least in the meantime, Ten Hag could redeploy Marcus Rashford as a central striker. But the United boss had little luck using that approach in August and the England international has always looked more comfortable on the left flank. Indeed, it’s Anthony Martial who has played up front in the last four matches when Hojlund hasn’t been named in the starting line-up.
Ironically, of the 19 players to have suffered injuries this season, the perennially impaired Martial has remained fit. He’s one of five players who have been selected in every matchday squad this season for United, with only four players making more appearances than the ex-Monaco man. Yet, four starts all campaign shows where he sits in the pecking order under Ten Hag, and Sergio Reguilon, who has made seven appearances compared to Martial’s 15 has actually played more minutes this season.
It’s in contrast to this time last year, when the Frenchman was impressing on the pitch but saw his play time limited due to five separate injuries across the season. “I’m really happy with his performances across many games,” Ten Hag said of the no.9 in January. “He has had a really good impact. If you see his minutes and the impact he has had it’s been huge.”
Yet by the end of the campaign that on-field impact waned and Ten Hag had grown frustrated with Martial, who he claimed had to ‘work on’ his fitness levels. In the striker’s defence, he’s at least accomplished that task, but his performances have left much to be desired. One goal all campaign – against a second-string Crystal Palace side – sums it up, and his last start in the league or in Europe came on 3 September.
The 27-year-old’s stock has fallen drastically since those comments from Ten Hag, who was willing to let Marial leave last summer, and at this stage the club may even let him walk away for free at the end of the season.
But, incredibly, with Ten Hag’s position looking increasingly precarious, the United boss may have to call upon the shunned striker in a crucial period of the campaign, with trips to Goodison Park and St Park James’ Park sandwiched either side of the win-or-bust match in Turkey.
Harry Maguire and Scott McTominay were deemed dispensable by Ten Hag last summer, yet without the pair the ex-Ajax manager may currently be unemployed, another irony of this bizarre season for United. Martial could add himself to that list once club football resumes next week.
But there’s more than his manager’s survival that is at stake, and this very much feels like Martial’s last chance to resurrect his United career. He’s a player who has a favourite seat, and can order ‘the regular’ in Old Trafford’s last-chance saloon, so inadequate has his career in Manchester been over recent years.
Martial’s redemption arc could begin next Sunday against Everton, the side he’s enjoyed playing against most during his United career, with 11 wins and eight goals. But last season’s visit to the famous ground ended with him coming off inside half an hour due to injury. It’s a familiar story for Martial, a player who urgently needs to create a new narrative.