“€50 million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again”. Whilst being one of the more popular chants sung by Manchester United fans in recent years, it’s hard to ignore the irony in the words chanted by the Old Trafford faithful. Too often, Anthony Martial isn’t scoring, nor performing, posing the question if he is the man to spearhead the Red Devils attack.
The Frenchman, now in his fifth season in Manchester, has generally flattered to deceive during his time in England. He got off to the most perfect of starts with a debut goal against arch-rivals Liverpool, which convinced many that a star was born. The comparisons were soon made between Martial and the legendary Thierry Henry due to the striking similarities in terms of playing style.
Cutting in from the left, opening the body up and curling a right-footed effort, with what seemed like minimal effort, into the bottom corner. Henry did this year on year, for both club and country. However, it is something which Martial has, yet, been unable to do on a consistent basis.
The media and fans are quick to talk up young players and Martial wasn’t allowed to play his game without ultimate scrutiny. Out of his control, he became the most expensive teenager in football and joined the biggest football club in the world. Everything he did was analysed and that remains the case to this day. It is part and parcel of playing for a club with the stature of Manchester United. He joined a side managed by Louis van Gaal, a side which has often been regarded by fans as one of the most frustrating to watch. A possession-based, cautious and at times dull approach to football, was not what Martial needed to be a part of to show his true capability. Yet he still managed 17 goals in all competitions, which isn’t a bad return for a 19/20 year old playing his first season in the Premier League.
A new season and a new manager for Martial to impress, as José Mourinho took charge at United. Martial was forced out to the left wing to accommodate Zlatan Ibrahimović who arrived on a free transfer following his release from Paris Saint-Germain. Ibrahimović had come to the club as an established out-and-out centre forward, whereas Martial was still trying to find his best position. Furthermore, even Mourinho himself wasn’t able to grasp where Martial needed to be on the field in order for him to reach his full potential. There was also a change in squad number as Ibrahimović took over the number 9 shirt, whilst Martial changed to the number 1, something that quite obviously affected Martial.
It took until October for Martial to open his account for the season after scoring in the 1-1 home draw with Stoke City. The majority of the goals were coming from United’s new Swede, who was on penalties and free-kick duties, and also able to compete on a much more physical level to Martial. That season Martial had spells on the bench as Mourinho often switched between him and Marcus Rashford to operate on the left-hand side. Martial managed just eight goals for United in 2016/17.
Again, like van Gaal, you can argue that the playing style didn’t suit the pace and directness of Martial but eight goals is not good enough for a player with his talent. It led to speculation over the player’s long term future at the club with Chelsea winger Willian tipped to reunite with Mourinho in Manchester, with Martial potentially going the other way. It was a rumour which really riled certain sections of the United fanbase and seemed to show a lack of patience, ambition and obliviousness to the potential world-class player they had in their ranks.
At that point, it seemed as if Mourinho was here for the long term and it looked like the club was going to back the manager over one of their most expensive acquisitions. Mourinho demanded effort, all across the pitch and rightfully so and in the eyes of Mourinho at least, it seemed Martial was a luxury player who didn’t offer anywhere near the defensive effort that was required.
Martial started the 18/19 season in good form, scoring on a more consistent basis. However, it was the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjær which saw an upturn in his overall play. Solskjær gave his attacking line more freedom to rotate and to use their flair to create chances. The partnership with Rashford was beginning to blossom, and the pair were also working well with Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. However, the question mark remained over who should play where. Ole eventually dropped Lukaku and began deploying Rashford as the main ‘number 9’ with Martial firmly established on the left-wing. Performances picked up, as did results, until a monumental collapse following the triumph in Paris.
Solskjaer’s desire to play quick, attacking football gave the supporters hope that in his first full season in charge that the club’s on-field fortunes would change for the better. After a solid pre-season, Anthony Martial was the first-choice striker. He was rewarded with his preferred number nine shirt too. He started well, scoring in the opening 4-0 win against Chelsea and again in the stalemate at Wolves. He had a spell on the sidelines through injury in September and bounced back with a winning goal against Partizan Belgrade in the Europa League. His ever-improving partnership with Rashford was evident in the win at Carrow Road, despite the pair missing a penalty apiece. There was never any doubt over Martial’s ability. He can score goals, and already has the same amount of goals (12) this season as he managed throughout the previous campaign.
The issue many have with Martial is he seems to carry a carefree mindset when it comes to his performances on the pitch. He waits for the ball to come to him and often he receives possession in areas of the pitch in which he cannot cause immediate danger. As a striker, especially with the pace he possesses, he needs to be making intelligent runs in behind when the likes of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and now Bruno Fernandes look upfield. He needs to be throwing himself into the goalmouth to get on the end of a cross from either wing.
Admittedly yes, overall the delivery from wide positions has not been good enough but there are good crossers of the ball in Daniel James and Mason Greenwood. It is clear that Martial feels more comfortable picking the ball up, particularly on the left-wing, and running at the opposition backline. However, he is being chosen by the manager to play as the main central and it’s the position he had so desired to be used in. Rashford has made the left-wing role his own this season and has established himself as the main man at Old Trafford. That main man could and perhaps should have been Anthony Martial.
Both van Gaal and Mourinho have been outlasted by Martial and it is looking increasingly likely that he will be here long after Solskjær. The Norwegian is under immense pressure and with Mauricio Pochettino available, the question marks over the manager’s position will not disappear between now and the end of the season. Also, Martial only recently signed a new long term contract and perhaps more worryingly is reportedly a ‘favourite’ of Joel Glazer which means a move away from Old Trafford seems incredibly unlikely.
However, now in his fifth season, and still failing to be the top striker United desperately need him to be, this season should be his last in Manchester. Of course, this depends on the club’s ability to source a replacement, but it’s likely Solskjaer and the abundance of scouts at his disposal are in the process of shortlisting new centre forwards. The short-term fix is here now with Odion Ighalo, however, there is no guarantee he will be a success. With Rashford out for the long-term, the 24-year-old’s only hope of salvaging his United career would be to be deployed on the left-wing and to help steer the club to the Champions League places.
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