They are the unstoppable, the unfit and the unconvincing. Erik ten Hag’s first-choice forward line consists of a trio of very different parts, of one at the peak of form and fitness, another who plays too infrequently and a third who does not play well often enough; for outsiders’ liking, if not necessarily Ten Hag’s, anyway.
His preferred attack, even before Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo parted ways, is formed of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Antony. The first semi-final of the new regime will occur without the oft-sidelined Frenchman, who will miss a third successive game since the Manchester derby, who has not played 90 minutes in a competitive match under Ten Hag and yet who, since some auspicious displays in pre-season, has convinced the Dutchman he has qualities he wants to lead the line.
“We play our best football when he is available,” said Ten Hag. “He has to be aware of that. If we want to be successful, we need him.” Martial’s enduring unavailability represents something of a mystery; his problems seem more physical than psychological and he begged to start against Manchester City, only to come off at half-time.
And yet Ten Hag is struggling to explain why Martial’s mercurialness extends to the question of if he is even fit. “He has to be more available,” he said. “He can’t do nothing about it and sometimes also [he has] bad luck but sometimes you don’t know what the reason behind it is.”
The significance of Martial is in part illustrated by the alternatives. Ten Hag’s second-string front three at the moment consists of the rookie Alejandro Garnacho, who has only started two league games in his career, the loanee Wout Weghorst, who was relegated with Burnley last season, and the absent Jadon Sancho, who is back in training but, for a 15th consecutive game, will not even be on the bench on Wednesday.
Instead, the right flank is likely to be manned by Ten Hag’s biggest buy. Antony’s £86 million price tag could be a millstone; ignore the question of cost, however, and the outstanding right winger at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday was Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka. Bruno Fernandes played off the right against City, earning Ten Hag’s vote for man of the match.
Antony can be overshadowed. Ten Hag cited the healthy scoring statistics of his former Ajax charge. The criticism lies less in Antony’s tally of five goals than his general performance level. “He is not losing games, he is playing and the team is winning and that already gives a message how well he is performing,” Ten Hag argued. “I see space for improvement and we want him to be more direct. He has an impact but with his capabilities, with his talents, he can do even more.”
Yet United’s revival is being fired by a solitary forward. Rashford has nine goals in his last nine games, and 17 for the season. Their other attackers, even including the departed Ronaldo, only have 18 between them. It has been a colossal one-man effort, even as Ten Hag stressed his tactics are suiting the rejuvenated Rashford.
“This team can help him be in the right position to score goals,” he said. “This team is constructed so that his qualities come to the fore.” Those qualities have been very apparent of late, but Rashford has long had admirers. Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said in December his club would be interested in signing the England international on a free transfer in the summer. United then triggered a one-year contract extension and are in talks about a longer deal. But while Rashford has taken on Ronaldo’s mantle as the main man in United’s attack, it is instructive that PSG see him as a potential successor if the trio of Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar are broken up.
Ten Hag feels a Mancunian is best served remaining in Manchester. “I hope that all our players can get interest from clubs because that means you do a good job,” he said. “But I think he understands Manchester United is his club first and in this environment, in this team, he is playing his best football.”
The rest of his answer was illustrative of his own considerable ambitions. United have not won a trophy for six years and finished sixth last season. He explained: “I would say this is the best place to be because we want to construct the best team first in England, then in Europe, then in the world.”
It is something Sir Alex Ferguson did, often with a phalanx of feared forwards. Now Ten Hag may have a trio who can’t stop scoring, can’t get on the pitch and can’t live up to a huge price tag respectively. But if every goal Rashford scores may make him more appealing to Paris Saint-Germain, it also contributes to the sense Ten Hag is taking them towards being the best. If the eventual target is the world, first comes the Carabao Cup.