Anthony Martial highlighting Wayne Rooney's fading powers at Manchester United
“He is still 19 years old. He has to adapt to a new culture, to the high rhythm of the Premier League. You cannot expect that players this age have consistency.”
They were the words of Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal after his £36m deadline day signing Anthony Martial announced his arrival to a worldwide audience with a stunning debut goal against Liverpool, yet the patience that was called for has not been forthcoming in the weeks since.
At the tender age of 19, it was assumed that Van Gaal would ease Martial into his first team with brief cameo appearances that would be backed up by the occasional starting berth, but Martial has been asked to start in every Premier League game since his arrival, with the demand to deliver weighing heavy on the French youngster.
On a night when Van Gaal was expected to shake-up his team and hold back some of his star names ahead of next Sunday’s crucial Premier League derby game against Manchester City, Martial could have been one of the names asked to warm the ice-cold bench for the Champions League Group B clash against CSKA Moscow in the Russian capital.
Instead, Van Gaal sent Martial back into battle once more, as he again deployed him in the wide role he suggested prior to kick-off may be his best, despite an increasingly vocal collection of observers arguing Martial is far better suited to the central striking role that saw him make an instant impact at United.
Van Gaal must recall the occasions when Martial was dancing through the Liverpool defence to score his iconic opening goal, while his two-goal display in the win at Southampton a week later appeared to confirm that he was the future of a United side that may be moving on without a jaded Wayne Rooney as their central striker.
Yet inexplicably, Van Gaal has restored Rooney to his lead striking role for United’s last two matches and while the 3-0 win at Everton on Saturday suggested it was a policy that had worked, the folly of the decision was exposed in Moscow’s Arena Khimki.
Rooney was not alone in looking off the pace in a first half that was dominated by United according to the possession statistics that confirmed they were in control of the ball for 70 per-cent of the game, yet it was CSKA that carried all of the threat with their thrilling counter attacking brilliance that eventually produced a goal.
Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia gave United’s defence plenty of concern with their direct attacking play and when Martial handled in the box after 15 minutes, Doumbia was on hand to convert from close range after David De Gea had kept out Roman Eremenko’s penalty.
With Martial looking out-of-sorts out on the left flank and Memphis Depay again consigned to a role on the bench, Rooney looked horribly isolated in the lone striking role that is exposing his definiteness as he closes in on his 30th birthday this weekend.
How long can this United great hang on to his place in Van Gaal's team? It is a question that will be a recurring theme throughout this season until he is inevitably withdrawn by his manager.
Rooney claimed prior to this game that he expected to be United’s lead forward for many years to come, yet such a prospect was not greeted with universal approval from supporters of a club that have long since concluded that life without their soon to be club record scorer may prove to be more profitable.
Being 30 is hardly a death sentence in this game, but Rooney's lengthy time at the very top of the game has taken its toll on his frame and when compared to the likes of Martial and Depay in the United forward line, he looks close to pensionable age.
As the abuse flowed in Rooney’s direction on Twitter once again during the course of his latest Champions League performance, the idea that Van Gaal has invested too much public faith in his skipper to consider dropping him or replacing him in such a high profile fixture is no longer an option.
Van Gaal would doubtless dispute a theory that anyone is untouchable in his team, but it was telling that Rooney missed when handed a chance to draw United level with a 60th minute header and yet Martial was the man who scored the crucial equalizer when served up a similar chance a few minutes later.
With the momentum in this match flipped, it seemed as if United could push on and score a winning goal that their vastly improved second half display may have merited and yet this was another night when Van Gaal’s philosophy of safe, possession football failed to deliver reward.
It was only when United stepped on the accelerator pedal and started to play with a little more pace that they troubled CSKA and sadly, pace is not a quality Rooney possesses at this late stage of his career.
You can never fault Rooney’s effort and his desire to fight for every ball was in evident again in Moscow, but the future of the Manchester United forward line is Martial and his youthful brigade.
Should Rooney start for United in Sunday’s Manchester derby? Probably not, but Van Gaal seems determined to give his talisman every chance to banish the notion that his sell-by date is fast approaching.
Van Gaal is noted for his ruthlessness when making decisions involving high profile players and there will come a point in this season when he needs to take Rooney out of his firing line and crown Martial as United's new first choice striker.
That moment must be edging ever closer.