Anthony Martial looks happier at Manchester United on the back of his first senior hat-trick, says Mark Hughes, but the Frenchman is still not considered to be a natural No 9.
The highly-rated 24-year-old inherited that prestigious jersey from Romelu Lukaku at the start of the 2019-20 campaign. His efforts so far have lived up his billing as United’s main man in the final third of the field, with a personal-best return of 19 goals recorded.
That haul includes a treble against Sheffield United, with Martial inspiring Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to their latest triumph.
He looked like a predatory marksman in that contest, but questions continue to be asked of whether he can be converted from a speedy winger into a fearsome frontman, like fellow countryman Thierry Henry.
Hughes believes the potential is there for Martial to nail down a role as the go-to man at Old Trafford, but the United legend also concedes that a forward who can look disinterested at times is far from being the finished article.
“He’s always had that potential,” Hughes, who scored 163 goals for the Red Devils across two spells, told talkSPORT.
“He’s a young guy trying to find his potential in a Manchester United shirt. I think he’s maybe looking to take on responsibility, and he needs to do that.
“His first two goals [against Sheffield United] were great finishes, striker’s finishes, which you always like to see from the guy playing down the middle.
“I think he is enjoying playing with the two guys either side of him – [Marcus] Rashford and [Mason] Greenwood – there is a lot of interchanging of positions, and that is the way he likes to play that role.
“He doesn’t like to be stuck in the middle of the park. At times, he looks like that movement to get involved doesn’t come naturally to him when he’s got his back to the goal, he’s happier when he links the play in a deeper position and then drives into the box and gets on the end of things.
“He looked like he was enjoying his game more than maybe he usually does – he gives this impression that it’s all a little bit too much like hard work for him, but he worked his socks off and got the reward with the goals.”
Pressed further on whether Martial can be regarded as a long-term option down the middle for United, Hughes added: “I think everyone accepts that around 26/27/28 years of age, that’s when you are at your peak as a top-line player. So he has got a number of years to go before he gets to that point.
“He is never going to be an out-and-out scorer who will score you 20-30 goals a season.
“I don’t think he’s scored anywhere near 20 goals in a Premier League season yet, but if he nails down that position in the middle rather than being put out onto the wing, then that will affect his ability to get on the end of things.
“If he says to himself ‘I’m going to be the main striker here, I’m going to be playing down the middle’, then I think he’ll get more goals.”
Martial is up to 14 Premier League goals for the current campaign and still has seven games left to take in, as United look to chase down a top-four finish.