Several months ago, I was in the city of Seville when a dog tried to bite me. It had surreptitiously slipped from its owners’ attentions and pounced at my leg for no discernible reason. Only a panicked, less than flattering stumble backwards saved my calf muscle from being ripped into and torn apart. Or so I thought. A quite clearly unperturbed man in his 50’s came amiably ambling over, chuckling in a highly pococurante manner. Don’t worry about him, he advised me soothingly. He has no teeth. Upon closer inspection, I realised it was true. This canine had been defanged. He had less teeth in his head than your average mummy. His bark is literally worse than his bite, the man added, somewhat ruefully. It was a strange start to the day, and I pondered it’s meaning as I headed to the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to watch Anthony Martial play.
I’d ever there was an apt metaphor for Martial at this time, a toothless dog might just be it. Like that gummy mutt that went for me, Martial had not forgotten how to attack, exactly, he had just lost the ability to finish one off effectively. He was all bark and no bite. During his time in Spain, he would only manage one paltry goal in twelve games, and that coming in the Europa League. He never scored at all in LaLiga. In fact, he looked completely out of sorts once again, a shadow of himself during his best days at United, hauled off in this game and replaced by Youssef En-Nesyri just before the hour mark after I had sat desperately willing him on, cheering him on, hoping he would come good. Hoping that something, somewhere, would click into place and he would rediscover his old self, his old goal scoring form.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. A move to Sevilla that I hoped would reignite his fire (and, somewhat less plausibly, inspire Sevilla to rein in leaders Real Madrid to win a most Improbable title) petered out with all the spark and enthusiasm of a damp firework. As I streamed out of the stadium angrier than I had went in, it looked as though I would have to face the fact that Anthony Martial was finished. He had become a toothless dog.
I like Anthony Martial. On his day he seems unplayable. As a person, he seems a quiet, self-effacing sort of guy. A sensitive type who keeps himself to himself and causes no trouble. Notoriously, he crumbles into a heap when bigger men are around, collapses in on himself and goes into a shell. In the ultra-alpha world of professional football, that can seem like a weakness, a negative. Yet there is nothing wrong with someone needing an arm around them and needing to be loved in order to bring out their best. Martial’s compatriot, the great Eric Cantona (I know I seem to compare a lot of people to Cantona, which is ironic really because, in my eyes, nobody DOES compare to Cantona) famously needed to feel wanted before he was able to do his best work. Unlike Martial, though, Eric was combustible, exploding outwards rather than in on himself. Fundamentally, though, it comes down to the same thing; they both need to feel wanted and need to feel free in order to shine.
Put Martial into the shadow of a taller tree, Cristiano Ronaldo, say, and he withers in the shade. What you think of that is another matter, the fact is playing second fiddle is not the way to get the best out of the young Frenchman. While CR7 is (perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently) out of the picture, Martial looks reborn under ten Hag. His running, his pressing, his passing, ball control and shooting. All exemplary. He looks switched on again. The goal he created for himself against Liverpool with his heavy pressing hopefully proved its own reward, proof that the new manager’s ideas will bear fruit if followed properly.
And he isn’t the only one.
Who doesn’t love watching Martial play with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford right now? They seem to have formed a great friendship and understanding and are clearly enjoying themselves. They are young, fast and cool. That is how I want my Manchester United forward line to look. Stylish and swaggering, with neat link ups and great interplay, crisp passing and an almost intuitive sense of where the other is, bags of goals at the end of it all. Devasting attackers with smiles on their faces. All three are banging them in, and the team is winning. Perfect, right?
Well, we have been here before with Martial, but hopefully this time is different. It will have to be. Midway through this upcoming season he will turn 27. He’s at the peak of his career. Now is the time for him to step up and make it count. Consistently. If Martial feels he will thrive without Ronaldo looming over his shoulder, then now is the time to prove it.
Ronaldo got 24 goals in all competitions last season. Martial will have to get close to that or, at least, help spread the goals around and carry the overall burden with Sancho and Rashford. It isn’t implausible. Rashford only scored 5 goals last term in a total of 32 appearances. He already has two in four games this preseason (yes, I know it’s only preseason and teams will get better, but it’s preseason for United, too – they will themselves also improve). That easily puts him on pace for a 20+ goals season next time out. Jadon Sancho has two in four as well, putting him on pace for the same. Last time, he also only bagged 5 goals in a total of 38 appearances.
And then there’s Martial. Just two goals in 23 appearances for United and Sevilla, one goal for each team. Currently he has four in four games. Even the roughest estimate would put him on pace for a 25-goal season. Even with the inevitable drop off in these predicted numbers, the three of them should reasonably total over 50 goals between them next season. Combining their output last year with Ronaldo’s, that would be an increase of more than 20 goals. This is all very rough math, and very hypothetical, as all football predictions are, but it does seem to suggest that there could be more life after Ronaldo than people are willing to suggest. If that is to be the case, however, much of the weight will rest on the shoulders of Anthony Martial.
Let’s pray that he is up to it.
There is a telling story about Martial that takes place at the end of his first, very successful, season with the Reds. Asked what he did with all of his spare time, he confessed that he loved going to the cinema, even though he was still getting to grips with the English language and usually had no idea what was happening on the screen in front of him. When quizzed why he would go so often when he didn’t know what was happening on screen, he joked that it was because his girlfriend loved the popcorn. It’s another apt metaphor for Martial, who has seemingly spent much of his time at United getting things lost in translation.
Let’s hope this is the year he finally figures it out.