Manchester United have a proper No9 again.
Anthony Martial goes into Monday’s Europa League quarter-final against Copenhagen on the back of his most prolific campaign and looking like the world class forward Louis van Gaal thought he was signing five years ago.
Witnessing the Frenchman’s development – particularly in the second half of the season – it raises the question of what might have been had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer been successful in his pursuit of Erling Haaland in January.
The Norway international, who ultimately rejected Man United in favour of Borussia Dortmund, was the clinical centre forward Solskjaer wanted more than any other.
He is still weighing up alternatives to Haaland – though any move for another striker is expected to be delayed until January at the earliest or next summer.
But Martial’s dramatic improvement at the point of United’s attack, with 23 goals, has lessened to need to address that area of the squad, while also giving Solskjaer the luxury of seeing if Mason Greenwood can establish himself as a viable back up in the 18-year-old’s second full season in the first team.
That winger Jadon Sancho is the priority target underlines how satisfied Solskjaer is with Martial – leaving him content to operate with Odion Ighalo as cover in the short-term.
That is because Martial is establishing himself as a complete No9 after taking on board Solskjaer’s advice to work on both his poaching instincts and physicality.
Romelu Lukaku had both of those qualities to his game – but simply didn't fit in with Solskjaer’s picture of a fluid front three, all capable of interchanging in the manner of United’s Champions League winning trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez in 2008.
Martial is still to prove if he can be as prolific as Lukaku in the long-term – a scorer of all types of goals – but he is naturally blessed with so many dimensions to his game.
Solskjaer recognised that early on – but would also have been aware of one of Martial’s biggest fans within the club, Joel Glazer.
And the US businessman must be enthralled with the progress made this season – not only because of his personal fondness of the player, but also the inflation in his value after being deemed surplus to requirements by Jose Mourinho, who wanted to sell him in his final transfer window at Old Trafford.
Of all his dimensions it is the improvement in his predatory instincts that have taken him to another level this season.
Solskjaer wanted a good old-fashioned poacher. And while Martial still wouldn’t be described as a ‘fox in the box’, he is developing into a prolific goal-scorer.
That’s why he cut such a sullen figure when substituted against Aston Villa after lockdown – having failed to find the back of the net – and it’s why Solskjaer had absolutely no problem with what others might have considered a show of dissent as he sulkily left the pitch.
The Norwegian wants that hunger from his forwards and Martial now has an appetite rarely seen in his time at United.
He now looks like a player determined to fulfil his potential and ensure he keeps hold of his place at the point of this thrilling attack.
He’s scoring the wonder goals he was always capable of – not least THAT debut strike against Liverpool – but showing a desire to get on the end of United’s ever more fluid attacks.
Meanwhile his link-up play with Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Greenwood is an integral part of United’s build up.
His determination to come off the bench against LASK last week – assuring Solskjaer he’d score, which he duly did – is precisely the hunger for goals his manager wanted to see.
His certainty that he’d spotted areas to exploit pointed a football intelligence Solskjaer was famed for during his own playing days.
It is no secret that United’s forwards get more one-on-one with their manager than the rest of the squad.
Therefore, it can be no coincidence that Martial and Rashford have enjoyed career-best goal-scoring campaigns, while Greenwood has emerged as one of the most exciting prospects in world football under Solskjaer’s tutelage.
Yet it is not only the faith shown in him by his manager – Solskjaer pulled off a psychological masterstroke by handing him the No9 shirt that he was stripped of by Mourinho – that has been so key to Martial's sharp rise in performance level.
His conditioning has been fundamental as well.
Part of Solskjaer’s cultural reset at United has been to try to get his players to be more physically and mentally robust.
He has drummed into them the importance of being able to play game after game without suffering niggling injuries.
Martial missed the best part of two months with a hamstring injury after starting the season with two goals in his first three games.
But since then he has largely led United’s line – playing 46 games in all competitions so far.
“He’s in the gym a lot working on his fitness and strength,” said Solskjaer. “They have done a fantastic job with him (the conditioning coaches).
“Physically at his best level in his career and I’m just looking forward to seeing him improve. There’s more to come from him.
“Anto has made huge strides this season in many aspects of his game. I like him scoring, him being in-between the posts, the simple goals. We know he can do worldies, like he’s done a few times.
Importantly Solskjaer can see the effect his three forwards are having on each other.
Rashford has 22 goals while Greenwood is on 17 and could yet break the 20-mark himself with potentially three more games in the Europa League.
“Scoring goals is always good for strikers,” said Solskjaer. “Seeing others score goals it gives you a little bit of an edge. You don’t want to be behind them.
“But you also play for the team and the three of them have been backing each other up. I hope they will continue their development because it could be exciting times for United in the next few years.”