Barring something extraordinary over the next couple of weeks, the defining image of Manchester United's preseason preparations arrived shortly before kick off against Real Madrid. He led the teams out, he shook everybody's hands … he was, of course, Ronald McDonald.
You could, perhaps, interpret this as yet another dismal low in the vulgar parade of corporate indignities that is modern football. But tBB prefers to think of Ronald's appearance as a reminder that this is preseason, and things need to be kept light. It's hard to take a game too seriously when it's introduced by a clown that wants you to eat more cheeseburgers.
And so we’d planned to be extremely relaxed about the whole business — win, lose, or for some reason penalty shootout. But then Anthony Martial happened. United's no. 11 made the opening goal for Jesse Lingard with a quite sensational slalom through Madrid's scrambling defence, and in the process reminded the world that there is a pleasure in successful dribbling that nothing else in football can match. He also forced us to pay attention in preseason. Thanks, Tony.
Jesse Lingard's goal but it's all about that Anthony Martial dribble pic.twitter.com/GyJC2Tcptx— DILLINGER (@DillanMUFC) July 23, 2017
A drop of the shoulder, a flick of the boot, a quick shuffle of the feet, ball and man sliding past challenges … dribbling is entertaining. It is exhilarating. And it rouses something deep and fundamental in the footballing soul. Defenders drawn forward, then dispatched. It comes from the playground, when football was chaotic and improvisational, and it takes the mind back there. Yes, it’s a team game. But sometimes it’s fun when there’s just two people, and one of them ends up in an embarrassed heap on the floor.
However, with such individual trickery comes the capacity for great frustration. After all, dribbling is difficult even for the very best, and if it goes wrong then everything breaks down. The sin of over-elaboration is one of the most grievous that a footballer can commit: better to keep it simple, keep the ball, and keep the move alive, then try something ambitious and end up looking a fool.
Where's the fun in that, you might ask, and you'd have a point. But beyond the desire for entertainment there is also great utility in having somebody who can beat two or three defenders in quick succession. As Martial went past one Madrid defender, another came over to take his place; by the time he'd finished he was occupying the attentions of five defenders and the goalkeeper. And so Lingard was all on his own on the edge of the six-yard box, waiting for the cross. Dribbling doesn't just stir the soul. It disturbs defences, creates spaces, and can break games wide open.
After the game, Jose Mourinho said exactly what you'd expect him to say …
Obviously we want more consistency in his talent. I think today was positive for him, that is why I left him for 90 minutes on the pitch. He was enjoying it, he was trying new things, and it is important in these friendly matches to try new things, which he did. That is important for his confidence. Young players still need time to learn and time to improve. It is also his personality. I can say that he is training better than before, he is working harder than before, his ambition is to try to bring his talent in a consistent way.
… and, in so doing, neatly highlighted the tension over Martial's place in Mourinho's United. More consistency, please, from a player gifted in perhaps football's least consistent skill. And behind those comments lurks Mourinho's own muddled history with flair players: his de-mystification of Joe Cole, his frustrations with Eden Hazard's refusal to track back.
The hope with Martial comes from the fact that he's got plenty more to his game than the dribbling. He's quick, he's strong, and he's a good enough finisher to score 17 goals in a Louis van Gaal team that were essentially allergic to shooting. It's certainly possible that Martial's gifts can be marshalled to Mourinho's ends: last season's breakaway goal against Burnley demonstrated that.
Hope's inevitable counterpart is despair. That comes from the fact that Martial seems to be an extremely gifted, slightly unpredictable, instinctively attacking footballer with easily knockable confidence, and Mourinho to be precisely the wrong kind of manager for that particular combination. United's purchase of Romelu Lukaku and summer-long courtship of Ivan Perišić suggests that Mourinho isn't happy with his options in either of Martial's positions, and that he thinks the solution lies in reinforcement, not coaching.
Ultimately, there isn't anybody else in United's squad that could have done what Martial did against Madrid. And that's why we have to hope that he can find the consistency Mourinho craves, but also that Mourinho can come to appreciate the value of having a player who can drop their shoulder, jink their hips, and make some very decent defenders look like they’re wearing Ronald McDonald’s shoes. A team that attacks, and players that excite in the attacking. That's what we're all here for, and that's what Martial does.