What’s Ailing Anthony Martial? Here’s What the Numbers Tell Us

Anthony Martial is a prodigious talent, mesmerizing and hypnotizing in equal measure. He can get you off your seat with a swivel of his right boot and leave a defender on the seat of his pants – all in the blink of an eye.

Who can ever forget his memorable debut against Liverpool when he left Martin Skrtel looking like a lame duck and curled one into the bottom corner to raise the roof at an elated Old Trafford? It’s indelibly etched into every Manchester United fan’s memory – a moment of comfort in a tumultuous period for the club.

Things have stabilized a bit since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over and the Red Devils look a bit more like their pre-2013 selves (at least in the attacking sense). Of course a certain guy named Bruno Fernandes has played a major role in the renaissance but there have been contributions from others.

And yet here we are – 5 months into the season – and Anthony Martial is pulling off his now infamous disappearing act. He was prolific last season, especially after the hiatus, when it looked like he’d finally unlocked his potential. A hat-trick against Sheffield United was followed by a goal-scoring run unlike any Martial had been on.

Unfortunately, Martial has hit a roadblock this season and seems completely out of his element. When things don’t go his way, his shoulders slump, his body language resembles a headless chicken and he looks like a golfer in the middle of a cricket pitch – he can see the green but can’t quite understand why the pitch is circular.

So, what’s ailing Anthony Martial? Let’s do what we do best – break down his performance by looking at the underlying numbers and see if we can make sense of his remarkable drop in form.

What do Martial’s Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA) Tell Us?

Let’s start with the basic numbers (at least from an analytical point of view!). If you’re new to xG, I suggest checking out this guide first. It’ll help you understand where I’m coming from when I talk about xG.

Here, we’ll be looking at Martial’s xG/90 and xA/90, or his expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes. Why per 90? Since we are only halfway through this season, looking at the per 90 stats help us put his numbers on the same scale when we compare it to his previous full seasons.

As always, I have taken his xG and xA numbers from fbref.com (powered by StatsBomb):

Wow! Those are some concerning numbers. When you are consistently outperforming your xG (which Martial did for 3 seasons), that means one of two things:

  1. You are an above average finisher and are much more clinical than expected in front of goal
  2. Luck is playing a major role and your numbers are bound to drop at some point

Which one is it for Martial? I guess we’ll find out towards the end of the season but this is an eye-opener. He is scoring WELL below what he is expected to (scoring at 0.27/90 minutes and is expected to score at 0.40/90 minutes). These are numbers you’d expect a striker at a relegation club to have (sorry Christian Benteke, you’re still worse).

As for Anthony Martial’s assists, he’s hovering around his carer average. He’s never had the “eye of the needle” vision and that has not changed this season. He’s not really creating a lot and he isn’t finishing well either. You don’t need me to tell you that’s a bad sign for a striker at a top club.

And no, Martial is not taking less shots this season as compared to his previous numbers. He’s shooting at the same rate as his career mark (~2.6 shots per 90 minutes).

Where are Anthony Martial’s Shots Coming From?

This is an interesting angle to look at because it might tell us where exactly Martial is taking his shots from. Perhaps he’s upped his shooting difficulty and hence is finding it tricky to locate the back of the net?

Let’s look at his goals first. This is from the current 2020-21 season:

And these are his goal locations from 2019-20:

Sometimes pictures really do tell the whole story, don’t they? Martial was scoring from all angles last season, especially cutting in from the left wing and banging them in. That’s been something of his specialty but those goals have dried up this season.

Apart from his woeful finishing, this is in large parts down to Marcus Rashford playing on the left when Martial plays up front. Rashford, like Martial, likes to cut in and shoot and that clogs Martial’s preferred space.

Here’s further proof of how cramped Martial is this season. These are his shots taken (that did not result in a goal) this season:

And here’s the same graphic from last season:

Can you spot the difference? Martial was pinging them in from all over the place last term but has found the going far too hot to handle this season. He is restricted to taking shots from areas where he has traditionally struggled and is not even finding himself in his preferred left wing -> cut inside -> shoot situations.

The emergence of Edinson Cavani as a true number 9 hasn’t helped his confidence which is as fragile as a glass right now.

What do the Advanced Numbers Tell us About Martial?

I suggest you look away if you’re a Manchester United fan. If you thought the above analysis made for hard reading, this is going to send you into a depressive spiral.

We are going to talk about two advanced metrics here – Goal Scoring Actions (GCA) and Shot Creating Actions (SCA):

  • GCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a goal, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
  • SCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a shot, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls

These two metrics have only recently been open-sourced to the public. Both GCA and SCA tell us how creative a player is in terms of all his actions on the pitch. We aren’t just looking at assists anymore – this is an amalgamation of all the things a player does that lead to a shot or a goal.

That….is not good. Both his SCA and GCA per minutes are at career lows and they are plummeting with each minute Martial is spending loitering around looking like a lost pilgrim.

We knew before looking at the numbers that he wasn’t as involved in United’s attacks but this makes for damned reading. Not only is Martial’s goalscoring prowess down, his overall involvement in United’s attacks is at an all-time low.

And do you know what’s the most concerning thing about this trend? That this is Manchester United’s MOST prolific campaign in terms of goals scored in over a decade. Yes, Bruno Fernandes has elevated the level but Martial is seemingly doing his bes to bring that back down all by himself.

Among forwards who has played over 900 minutes this season in the Premier League, Anthony Martial is the bottom 20 percentile when it comes to SCA and GCA. He has a lot of ground to make up to even get up to his career average, let alone league average.

The good news for Martial is that games are coming thick and fast this season so he has time to improve his numbers but history tells us that scenario is quite unlikely.

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