Two weeks ago marked the sixth year anniversary of Anthony Martial at Manchester United.
The poetic Martin Tyler commentary and a 3-1 win over Liverpool welcomed the Frenchman to the Theatre of Dreams in one of the most iconic fashions in the club’s history.
Scoring on his debut, the 18-year-old threw down the gauntlet on his early doubters, setting down an early, stable foundation that saw him register seventeen goals in his debut season. A raw, yet articulated player on the ball, the teenager bamboozled defenders and quickly became the main source of creativity and goals, in a rather stagnant Louis van Gaal side.
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Ending 2015 with a Golden Boy award in his hands, had you had told the Old Trafford faithful back then that in over half a decade, this would be his second best goal-scoring campaign, they would have laughed in your face. The sky is the limit for this boy they would have replied. It’s unthinkable that a talent like this wouldn’t skyrocket on an upwards trajectory path. Anything other than such progress would simply be categorised as a tragedy.
Unfortunately, this is the narrative that is not only developing, but slowly setting in stone.
There are various factors that have contributed towards Martial’s regression in red. Jose Mourinho’s mishandling of the player kickstarted the downwards trend, and the club’s chaotic spell during the post Sir Alex Ferguson era has objectively made it troublesome for certain names to settle. Many others have failed more drastically than the Frenchman.
Context is always required when criticism is pushed on a player, but after continuous years, the jury is no longer out. Their decision is made, Martial is no longer deemed the starting option up-top.
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Last night’s disappointment has fueled this article, but a spell of 12 months of poor performances is the reasoning behind this conclusion. It’s why the club have invested big money wages into a 34-year-old Edinson Cavani and a 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s time for this side to deliver, now. And Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows it.
In what was a poor performance all-round against West Ham, the Frenchman still managed to stand out as one of the worst performers. With 37 touches of the ball, he registered the least ball involvements of any starting outfield player (excluding the injured Ryan Fredricks). Such a stat is almost hard to believe, given United’s lion share of 64% possession. Bruno Fernandes managed just 10 less, despite being on the field for just 18 minutes. Martial played the entire 90.
Do their playing positions make this a fair comparison? Given the contrasting minutes played, yes. The Portuguese international has always shown a willingness to get on the ball, but to also fire up his slacking teammates. It’s why he was included on the bench to the ‘B team’ last night, for emergency purposes. It’s why he has featured in 82 of the 87 games since joining the club. His attacking output and numbers are off the charts, but it is this desire and passion that has seen him emerge as a fan favorite amongst the fan-base. The cheeky attempt to steal the Hammers’ drop ball in the 93rd minute tells you everything you need to know about the player. Willing to win at any cost.
It’s a struggle to apply the same to Martial. Much of the criticism diverted towards the forward stem from his energy in the final third, and the lack of movement required to make space for his attacking members around him. This United squad is filled with ball-carriers, from the likes of Fernandes himself, but also Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. Even the wide-players of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho enjoy holding onto possession, or running with the ball at their feet. Such players need a focal point to work-around, which wasn’t there last night.
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Mirroring this judgement to Martial’s last start (v Southampton), the alarming figures arise again. He managed 13 touches and 1 shot before being hooked on the hour-mark, with Mason Greenwood moving central and grabbing the equaliser. The Englishman converted inside the area, making it 2 in 2 games at the time.
Ronaldo has since come in and made an immediate impact. 63 touches on his second club debut against Newcastle United, with a brace to go with it. Another two goals added to his tally since, the superstar will be expecting close to 35+ league starts.
Cavani is yet to comeback from injury, begging the question as to where this leaves Martial.
Will the 25-year-old be pushed back out to the left? It would be another reoccurring theme of trying to shoehorn players in, after two years of him playing through the middle. It does pain some fans to see the forward in this situation – once put on a pedal-stool dubbed the golden boy of Manchester, hopes of the Parisian reaching his once-sought potential, have all but perished.