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Arrested Development: What happened to Anthony Martial?

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The 23-year-old Frenchman hasn’t improved much since signing for United, and a mix of poor management and his attitude are to blame.

Original artwork via https://www.behance.net/fvalladarec025

Tony Martial, he came from France. The English press said he had no chance. 50 million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again.

The Old Trafford faithful have sung this song at the top of their lungs for four consecutive seasons now, but its use has become increasingly scarce.

With reports that newly appointed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has become “exasperated” over Martial’s attitude since signing his new contract, it seems that the young Frenchman has hit a crossroads in his Manchester United career.

Martial has been unable to recreate the production from his first United campaign, where he scored 17 goals and notched 9 assists. This lack of production has cast doubt over the worthiness of his recent contract extension.

The 23-year-old has all the tools to be a top player in modern football. Physically, he’s strong and extremely quick, able to run past most fullbacks in world football. He also has the technical capability to beat defenders with quick thinking and aggressive dribbling.

This season, Martial has scored 12 goals and has only mustered up three assists in 37 appearances in all competitions. There were some encouraging signs early on, as he managed 10 of his 12 goals in a 10-game stretch between October and December.

Within those two months, Martial looked like he had figured it out. He was mercilessly attacking defenders and creating chances for United on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, United weren’t managing positive results throughout that span, which led to José Mourinho being replaced by Solskjaer.

Even with Solskjaer at the helm, Martial has continued to be inconsistent, scoring only three goals since the turn of the year. He’s now found himself back to where he was in the early Mourinho days, as he was an unused substitute in the 2-2 draw against Chelsea and wasn’t even in the squad for the 1-1 draw against Huddersfield.

So where did his development go wrong?

Going into Mourinho’s inaugural season as United manager, Martial was coming off a brilliant campaign where he showed that he was one of the best young attacking talents in the world. Yet, he wasn’t nearly as involved in the team’s offense as he should have been throughout Mourinho’s tenure.

Throughout Mourinho’s two full seasons in charge, the team’s offense was based on having a physically dominant striker up front that would carry the load, first in Zlatan Ibrahimović and then Romelu Lukaku. Additionally, Mourinho had to find time for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Memphis Depay, and Marcus Rashford, all of whom played a similar position in the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

Nonetheless, Mourinho himself noted that Martial’s inability to adjust to the team’s new style of play was the cause of his poor form in that first season together.

“First of all, the teams are very different. The way the team played last season – I’m not saying better or worse, just different – was probably more adaptive to Anthony. He was probably more comfortable playing that way, at that intensity, at that [rate] of ball possession and ball circulation,” said Mourinho per The Guardian.

While Martial was prone to being dispossessed in the final third, over-dribbling, and not getting back to defend when losing the ball, those are all issues that many young players grow out of with time. In essence, Mourinho could have been more patient with 20-year-old Martial’s missteps.

Mourinho also admitted that Martial likely needed more time to adjust, but seldom allowed the player opportunities to prove himself. Instead of forcing Martial into a system that was hardly even functional, the manager should have done more to maximize Martial’s skillset. The Portuguese tactician had an extraordinary talent with raw potential at his disposal, but Martial was casted aside and squandered in favor of a tactical plan that wasn’t all that great.

Manchester United played 130 total games in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons and while Martial made 87 appearances in all competitions in that span, he played 45 minutes or less in 34 matches. That means he was only allowed proper playing time in 43 matches throughout two seasons.

While Martial receiving spot minutes may very well have been warranted at times, it’s difficult for any player to gain a semblance of confidence when they’re not allowed to get on the pitch for a considerable amount of time.

Nonetheless, Mourinho isn’t the only person involved with Martial’s lack of development, as the winger’s attitude on the pitch may have been a contributing factor in the constant setbacks.

The Attitude Issue

When it comes to the development of a player, a strong mentality is necessary for reaching their full potential. The way players react to the unavoidable adversity that comes with being a professional footballer is important to their overall development.

Several reports have consistently noted the Frenchman’s poor attitude, as similar claims have surfaced from Didier Deschamps’ French national team and at United with Mourinho and Solskjaer as the managers.

In 2016, 90min.com wrote that Martial’s attitude was “one of a sulker” after being subbed off at halftime in a Euro 2016 group game against Albania. Because of this, Martial was also benched for France’s subsequent four matches.

Mourinho also kept Martial from playing because of similar concerns. On several occasions, Mourinho lamented Martial’s poor attitude, which was warranted when one considers the winger’s perceived lack of interest when things aren’t going his way on the field at times.

Under Solskjaer, this same issue has already started to leak in the press. According to the Daily Mail (take the report as you will), Solskjaer “vented his anger at Martial in front of the other players in the dressing-room after leaving the Frenchman on the bench at Old Trafford.”

With such similar reports, all spanning between 2016 and 2019, it looks like there may be some truth to it all. While his ability is unquestionable, Martial’s attitude has seemingly played a part in his lack of development in the last three years.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Martial is still only 23 years old and under contract until 2024. If he’s still around past this season, we could see a different Anthony Martial in years to come, if and when he makes the necessary adjustments to his mentality.

He may not be the world-beating talent that many thought he could be, but he can still be a good player for United, especially as they look to get back to winning ways.