Anthony Martial arrived at Manchester United lugging a fair bit of hype and conjecture. In the late summer of 2015, now a lifetime away in going rates for good footballers, an eye-watering/eyebrow-raising fee for a kid was still being squabbled over as Martial bore down on Martin Škrtel. Surging in from the left wing on his debut against Liverpool, Martial, having replaced Juan Mata midway through the second half, twisted a backpedalling Škrtel outside into the box, ghosted inside nearly undoing himself, and then – relaxed.
Having slalomed through with the ball still at his feet, Martial found himself exactly where he wanted to be: one-on-one with the goalkeeper inside the box, at an angle from the left. From there time stands still: his posture lifts and his body opens up, inviting his right foot to stroke a side-foot finish around the keeper on the floor into the far corner. Which he does with unnerving aplomb. Welcome to Old Trafford, Anthony Martial. Bedlam ensues through sheer relief, after Liverpool had pulled one back two minutes earlier. 3-1, no one can remember exactly how much the fee was. An earworm chant is born rounding up/down the figure.
Martial has scored that goal again a few times since, each instance feeling like the surest thing in the world at that very moment. The gawping wonder at the first is unlikely to be beaten unless it comes in a big final, but watching a player go through on goal and knowing exactly what he’s going to do, the goalkeeper knowing exactly what he’s going to do, and then he does exactly that is still thrilling. Arjen Robben with even more warning.
A genuinely exciting player, Martial carries himself in a serious, focused fashion. There’s a playful side to him too, which you’d expect in your early 20s but which naturally escapes the British press, and that shines through when he’s dovetailing with the other forwards. United fans love him. There’s a lot to love, not least what he could blossom into given the right conditions and application – Martial has the devastating wow factor they’ve missed since Cristiano Ronaldo.
Unfortunately, Martial hasn’t, for whatever reasons, developed any form of consistency in the last three years. Plagued by suggestions of being preoccupied and often getting frustrated with himself when things aren’t just so, the forward is currently enduring another lengthy spell sat on the bench. Fortunately for him, his teammate and mainstay up front, Romelu Lukaku, pulled up injured at home to Arsenal last weekend and an opening has presented itself.
Alexis Sánchez arriving has confused matters further in an area of pitch formerly shared by Martial and Marcus Rashford. Martial and Rashford made sense, both vying for a start, both probably going to end up as strikers, but in the meantime if one doesn’t get you – the other one will. Sánchez blew this arrangement apart and, furthermore, has been in such risible form until recently that he hasn’t even been risked on the right for fear of breaking the shiny new toy entirely. Meanwhile, and happily, United have seemingly settled on 4-3-3, but only Jesse Lingard and Mata selected to the right of Lukaku. There’s a queue three deep for the left spot with Martial at the back, and he’s too good a player – potential or otherwise – to twiddle his thumbs rather than opposing defenders’ legs.
“Martial would stretch defenders and we would get some superiority on the sides,” José Mourinho said immediately after Arsenal, perhaps a nod to the imminent fixtures without Lukaku. Rashford has tentatively been given a central role in the past with mixed results, but has received significant playing time again under Mourinho this season and can be fairly assured of his future under the manager. Martial pushes Mourinho’s buttons more – not in a good way – adding to the fear they could part ways this summer.
Mourinho has, however, had some success deploying Martial up top, notably against Burnley at Turf Moor this time last year and then again in January at Goodison Park versus Everton. United only need four points from three remaining games in the league to secure second place, and the next two fixtures come away from Old Trafford, which might suit Martial.
For a number of players the next three league games will be telling of their manager’s plans. Ideally Mourinho will want four points minimum from the next two, leaving the final day as a training exercise prior to the FA Cup final. Martial isn’t going to oust a more dynamic Sánchez and a more reliable Rashford, but maybe there are plans afoot to accommodate all three next season. Were Mourinho to simply intimate chances and then snatch them away come matchday, it will not help his cause. The mantra of no player is bigger than the club, and by virtue the manager, shouldn’t waver in this instance. Nevertheless, losing Martial would make even the most pro-Mourinho supporters question his motives, as the boss starts to tackle a third season in which, if progress stalls, many will justifiably lose patience.
Martial took a chance when Zlatan Ibrahimović did his knee. Another year on, Lukaku’s injury is much less severe but the circumstances for Martial are more acute. United fans will be rooting for an amicable outcome for a player they have great affection for, and Martial will have to be given the opportunity – if he gets it, you’d fancy him to take it.