There are a number of key ingredients to charming a footballing fanbase; raw talent, youth, energy, a love of the club, and — as Diego Forlan will attest to — scoring a big goal against Liverpool. Anthony Martial had all of these ingredients with the added dimension of a cynical media looking to pour scorn on the club who had thrown “fifty million down the drain” on a relatively unknown player still in his teens.
The summer transfer window of 2014 would ultimately prove unsuccessful and a number of high profile transfers failed to make the grade at Old Trafford. A year later, Ángel Dí Maria had moved to Paris Saint German and Falcao was plying his trade at Chelsea. The summer of 2015 saw a number of signings (Bastian Schweingsteiger, Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlinn) but by September, both the fanbase and media were rallying around the notion that Manchester United had sold Javier Hernandez, released Falcao and subsequently failed to sign a new striker. Anthony Martial was a late mention, a relative unknown playing for Monaco in Ligue 1 and the world was again ready to question Manchester United’s judgement.
Under Louis Van Gaal, Anthony Martial played as a striker and linked well with Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford. Martial was handed the number nine jersey and almost immediately showed his ability to score with either foot or his head. Martial quickly impressed critics with terrific control along with calmness when finishing; proving himself to be a player of dazzling skill, pace and incredible close control reminiscent of Thierry Henry.
These are the games and moments that have defined Anthony Martial as a player in the hearts and minds of Manchester United fans.
Liverpool 3-1; 12 September 2015 at Old Trafford
A number of Manchester United players have scored on their debuts (think Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Alexander Buttner) and some even scored important match winning goals. It is fair to say that Anthony Martial’s debut goal, the third in a 3-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford was made more special not only by the opponents, but also by how unprepared Liverpool appeared for the much-vaunted Frenchman. Much of the build up to the matchup was dominated by Martial’s recent transfer and the potentially exorbitant fee. Despite early rumours, Martial didn’t start the game but came on in the second half for Juan Mata. Martin Skrtel struggled to cope with the threat posed by Martial (think Ryan Giggs v Martin Keown in 1999), due to Martial’s immediate injection of pace and his terrifying close control. Luck may have played a part in Martial’s ultimate path to goal, the ball bobbling favourably off his ankle, but the plaudits were justified for Martial after he deftly put the ball in the net. Moreover, Martial celebrated the goal like few others he has scored since, with an explosion of joy, similar to that expressed by the fans celebrating a win over the old enemy.
Southampton 3-2; Sunday 20 September 2015 at St Mary’s
The euphoria of Martial’s debut goal against Liverpool had barely died down when Martial was named in the starting line-up away to Southampton at St Mary’s eight days later. Weary of jumping on the bandwagon of goal scoring debutants (think James Wilson, Frederico Macheda, Alexander Buttner), United fans were again hoping to be impressed by their new prodigy. Graziano Pelle put the Saints into an early lead before Anthony Martial showed fantastic composure to turn Virgil van Dijk and slotted the ball home. In the second half, a poor backpass from Maya Yoshida allowed Martial through on goal and he calmly put the ball past Martin Stekelenburg and the win elevated United to second in the league. It appeared to all that the Liverpool goal had been far from a fluke and Manchester United may have a promising young talent on their hands.
Everton 2-1; 23 April 2016 at Wembley
Louis Van Gaal’s second season had long since descended into chaos by the time Manchester United reached Wembley in late April 2016. On borrowed time since a poor Boxing Day showing away to Stoke, the Dutchman may have been surprised to still be in a job. Van Gaal wouldn’t be the first Manchester United manager to seek redemption through the FA Cup as United took on Everton at Wembley. United seemed to be on the verge of their nineteenth FA Cup final at half time courtesy of a Marouane Fellaini goal created from an Anthony Martial assist. The goal proved to be the catalyst Everton needed to take the game to Manchester United and they fought impressively until Chris Smalling nudged the ball into his own net in the 75th minute. The momentum had swung greatly in Everton’s favour and it was now the Merseyside fans who were clamouring for victory.
Anthony Martial picked up the ball outside the Everton box, playing a one-two first with Rashford and then Herrera before firing home in front of the United faithful to guarantee a final berth. It could be argued that this goal, this last-minute winner to guarantee an FA Cup Final appearance, was the single most exciting moment of football for Manchester United fans since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and the United players certainly celebrated like they believed this so.
West Ham 2-3; 10 May 2016 at Upton Park
The curtain came down on Upton Park in a manner that would satisfy every West Ham United fan. The game was delayed following crowd control issues outside the ground which saw the Manchester United bus attacked by West Ham fans. Contrary to Jesse Lingard’s ill-judged Snapchat video, the United team were focused on victory, essential to guaranteeing Champions League football the following season. West Ham dominated early and were worth their early lead until Martial equalised to make it 1-1 and minutes later, much against the run of play Martial put United 2-1 ahead with a classy finish. The West Ham fans were not about to see their Hammers lie down in their gloried ground and West Ham scored twice in four minutes to sink Manchester United. It was an important game for Anthony Martial however, because his team were poor and arguably had no right to the two goals they scored, but his individual brilliance elevated them to something greater than United could ever claim to have been on the night.
Eleven days after Manchester United lost to West Ham at Upton Park, Manchester United won the FA Cup Final against Crystal Palace and almost immediately, Louis Van Gaal was relieved of his duties as Manchester United manager to be replaced by José Mourinho. Mourinho signed Zlatan Ibrahimović to be his main striker at United – Martial even losing his number nine jersey in the process – and Martial was moved from a central striking role to that of a supporting wide player. The role added more responsibilities to Martial’s game – ones to which he was not readily suited – and he was now expected to provide cover for his full back and his licence to roam forward was curtailed.
Middlesbrough 2-1; 31 December 2016 at Old Trafford
It was arguably the worst first half of football of José Mourinho’s first season in charge, and Manchester United went in scoreless at half time with Middlesbrough. Possibly due to the awareness that rivals Man City and Liverpool were playing later that evening, the Old Trafford faithful was rarely so disillusioned as United faced losing ground on their rivals. Worse still, Grant Leadbitter put Middlesbrough ahead on 67 minutes. Anthony Martial, to his credit, had a good second half, running at the Middlesbrough defence and being rewarded in the 85th minute when he converted Zlatan Ibrahimović’s cushioned down header and United won the game 2-0.
Bournemouth 1-0; 13 December 2017 at Old Trafford.
This was perhaps the match which soured Anthony Martial’s relationship with Mourinho irreparably. Manchester United were still reeling from a home loss to Man City days earlier and Jose Mourinho made a number of changes. Martial was selected, having spent much of the season rotating his wide left attacking role with Marcus Rashford. Romelu Lukaku scored early on, but David De Gea was kept busy and Bournemouth were unlucky not to score. Lukaku’s attempt for a second was parried by Asmir Begović into the path of Anthony Martial. Martial did not make the most of his chance and ballooned his shot over the bar of a nearly empty net. The game kicked off a frightful spell for United, losing to Bristol and drawing with Leicester, Burnley and Southampton. It is unclear how defining this game was for Anthony Martial but within weeks, United were in negotiations to sign Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal and from that point onwards, Martial’s place in the team became far from assured.
Everton 2-0; 1 January 2018 at Goodison Park
Similar to the Middlesbrough game 366 days earlier, fans might very well point to the first half at Goodison Park as the worst Manchester United had played all season. It was a dour affair with Everton threatening little and United failing to capitalise. The second half produced an increase in tempo and work ethic entirely different from the first half. Paul Pogba and Martial combined well for Martial’s goal – a superb curling effort from 20 yards - which broke the deadlock on 57 minutes. Pogba and Martial showed a great understanding and link play at a time when both players were struggling for form and this performance gave hope to the United fanbase that this pair might be about to find their stride.
Brighton 0-1; 4 May 2018 at the Amex Stadium
A fanbase instinctively roots for youth and during both of José Mourinho’s seasons, fans clamoured to see Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in the same staring eleven. Earlier in the season the pair had rotated but following the arrival of Alexis Sánchez in January, Martial and Rashford were both limited to supporting roles. Due to the unavailability of Lukaku and Sánchez in early May, Rashford and Martial were paired up front away to Brighton with Rashford playing centrally. Despite dominating possession, United failed to find any attacking flow and Brighton always looked more likely to score. Following the game, Mourinho was derisive of his team, and implicitly Martial and Rashford: “For 10 months I get asked ‘why always Lukaku? Why always Lukaku, why always Lukaku? Why always this player? That guy doesn’t have a chance to start, the other one is on the bench.’ You know why now.” This seemed a very pointed jab from Mourinho in the direction of his young forwards and it began to appear that Anthony Martial’s days at Manchester United may be numbered.
Anthony Martial last scored for Manchester United on 20 January 2018 at Turfmoor in a 1-0 victory over Burnley. It was a decisive goal and Manchester United fans will be hopeful that it will not be the final goal in Anthony Martial’s impressive Manchester United career. Supporters of the young Frenchman would defend his record, saying that while he has not scored since January, he has also only played 90 minutes on five occasions since that victory. Martial is a mercurial talent, the rare kind of player that galvanises a fan base behind the young prodigy. Manchester United fans are desperate for Anthony Martial to succeed at their club because they know that Martial has the potential to one day be one of the world’s greatest players but the growing fear is that while this may well be true, it might not happen at Old Trafford.