A look at Anthony Martial’s up and down spell at Manchester United

Anthony Martial burst onto the scene on his debut for Manchester United in September 2015. Moments after Christian Benteke scored a sensational overhead kick to get a goal back for Liverpool, Martial found himself in space on the left wing.

Turning Martin Škrtel inside out, Martial drove into the box and slotted the ball past Simon Mignolet with an unerring side-footed finish. United fans inside Old Trafford that day rose to their feet to salute the Red Devils new hero. A new star was born, one which would terrify Premier League defences for years to come.

Or so everyone thought.

Six years on from that magical debut, it’s hard to argue with the notion that Martial has never quite reached those heights again. This season, Martial has only played 11 games for the club and before his cameo against West Ham, he hasn’t featured at all since the victory over Arsenal in early December.

With just 5 goals in his last 30 Premier League appearances, Martial has fallen behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani in the pecking order. Fed up with sitting on the substitutes bench, Martial’s agent and Ralf Rangnick have confirmed the Frenchman’s desire to leave the club. With a whole host of clubs interested in the centre forwards services, let’s take a look at Martial’s spell at United to date.

Life Under Van Gaal

In the summer of 2015, Manchester United spent a reported £36 million on the 19-year old, a world-record fee for a teenager at the time. Documents leaked in the following years suggested that the deal could wind up costing United  £58 million, should certain criteria be met.

And while people scoff at the infamous ‘Ballon D’or nomination’ clause in the contract, far more attainable criteria, such as making over 25 appearances for the French National team, have since come to pass and seen the fee rise to well over £50 million.

In patches, Martial has shown the precocious talent that he possesses. Some of the goals he has scored down through the years have been simply breathtaking. His solo goal against Fulham at Craven Cottage where he ran half the pitch before scoring, his FA Cup semi-final strike against Everton and the excellent header he scored at Stamford Bridge in February 2020 are all examples of the undeniable talent that he possesses.

Talent has never been an issue for Martial, but consistency has.

Martial’s career at Manchester United has been a series of ups and downs. In his first season in 2015/16, he lit up Old Trafford. Alternating between left-wing and striker, Martial tore defences apart and as a teenager, was one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise dour second season for Louis Van Gaal.

Victory in the FA Cup did little to save United’s season from being a disappointment, with the Dutchman being replaced by José Mourinho shortly after the aforementioned FA Cup final win.

The arrival of José

Under Mourinho, Martial experienced his first real dip in form in Manchester. The 2016/17 season saw Martial deployed mainly on the left-wing, with much of his appearances coming from the bench. José never seemed to truly trust Martial, with the Frenchman producing arguably the worst football of his career to that point for Mourinho.

While Martial’s form did drop off a cliff for much of the Mourinho era, to put all of this blame solely on Martial would be extremely unfair.

In the same summer as José’s arrival, Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for the Red Devils. This was bad news for Martial. Shunted out of position for much of the season, Martial also suffered the ignominy of having his number nine shirt handed to the ageing Swede.

In fairness to Zlatan, his performances for United in that 16/17 season were very good, with United owing their league cup victory to Ibrahimovic’s late winner against Southampton at Wembley.

Despite this, and with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps United should have backed Martial rather than bringing in the veteran striker. Martial’s confidence was clearly dented from essentially being replaced, with the Frenchman’s form not really picking up until the 19/20 season.

Indeed, this was perhaps one of the first real signs of the ineptitude that exists to this day at the Manchester United board level. With regards to recruitment, this period, 2015-2018, was an all-time low for the club.

Angel Di Maria spent a season at the club before being moved on a cut-price a year later. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Daley Blind and Memphis Depay never nailed down a position in a matchday squad let alone the starting eleven. And the less said about Alexis Sanchez’s ill-fated spell at the club the better.

Martial was actually one of the few signings in this era that made any sense in terms of looking towards the future. Despite this, he was forced to play second fiddle to an ageing cast of stars around him.

Rashford’s emergence

Marcus Rashford’s rapid ascension to the United first-team also helped to curtail Martial’s development. From the moment Rashford scored twice on his debut against FC Midtjylland and followed it up with another two against Arsenal a few days later, he was destined to be a darling of the Stretford End.

Rashford and Martial are quite similar players. Both are tricky wide forwards comfortable playing on the wing or upfront. Additionally, each player has electric pace and an eye for goal. Indeed, even their numbers over the years have been strikingly similar. In the Premier League, Martial has played 174 games, with 56 goals and 25 assists. In contrast, Rashford has played 188 games, with 57 goals and 31 assists.

Rashford, however, certainly seems to get far more leeway from United fans than Martial does. Being a local, Rashford has a natural affinity with the club. This, combined with United’s culture of bringing through young, local talent, ensured that United fans want to see Rashford, and indeed Jesse Lingard who also broke into the first team that season, succeed.

Additionally, as these players came from the academy, they didn’t have an expensive transfer fee to live up to.

Martial on the other hand had none of these luxuries. With a big price tag comes big expectations. And while the Frenchman met these expectations in his first season, the next three seasons that followed were underwhelming in the extreme.

Resurgence under Ole

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Martial experienced a remarkable uptick in form. Shortly after Ole’s arrival, Martial was handed a lucrative 5-year contract. When Romelu Lukaku departed for Inter Milan, the number 9 shirt was returned to Martial, three years after he had been deemed unworthy of the honour.

Martial was entrusted by the Norwegian to be United’s main man. The 2019/20 season was by far the best of Anthony Martial’s Manchester United career. With 23 goals and 9 assists in all competitions, Martial formed a formidable partnership with Marcus Rashford as United’s counter-attacking prowess propelled them to finish in third place in the Premier League. Finally feeling the trust of his manager, Martial seemed destined to finally fulfil his potential and become a world-class striker.

Slump

Unfortunately, the 2019/20 season has proven to be the zenith of Martial’s career to this point. A favourite of Solskjær’s, Martial was given plenty of opportunities last season to further cement his place as United’s number one striker.

The signing of Edinson Cavani was meant to provide an opportunity for United to rest Martial at certain times during the season, while Martial would also get the opportunity to pick the brain and learn from one of the best strikers of his generation.

Instead, when Cavani was finally given the chance in the second half of the season to stake his claim for a regular starting role, he grabbed it with both hands usurping Martial.

Work rate issues

Martial can point to the similarities between Ronaldo and Cavani’s arrivals with Ibrahimovic’s all those years ago and bemoan the fact that he has been passed over for older strikers.

However, the fact of the matter is that this situation and the Zlatan situation are completely different. While Ibrahimovic was signed for his name power, Cavani was a last-minute signing by a United side desperate for another attacking player. Furthermore, Martial was given plenty of opportunities to prove himself better than Cavani, none of which he took.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Martial is his work rate compared to Cavani’s. The 34-year-old is an image of perpetual motion, constantly buzzing around defenders looking to pick up scraps. In the box, Cavani is as deadly as they come, with the kind of instinctive movement that only comes from years of honing his craft.

In contrast, an accusation often labelled at Martial is that he doesn’t work hard enough, both in an offensive and defensive sense. Off the ball, Martial rarely tackles defenders or even gets close enough to put any kind of pressure on the opposition.

On average, Martial makes 9.54 pressures, 0.19 tackles and 0.31 interceptions per game. Cavani on the other hand makes an average of 14.56 pressures per game, 1.17 tackles and 0.78 interceptions per game.

To put this into context, Martial’s stats in these three criteria are lower than Olivier Giroud, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Edin Džeko.

Things don’t change much when United are in possession, with  Martial often looking disinterested and quite frankly bored. When he came on against Watford a few weeks ago, in what proved to be Solskjær’s final game, he was unable to control almost every ball that was played into him.

It was Martial’s poor control that gave Watford back possession for João Pedro’s goal to make it 3-1 to the Hornets. The irony of Martial inadvertently putting the final nail in the coffin of the only United manager to show faith in him was plain for all to see.

The end of the road

Martial has made it clear that he wants to leave, his days at the club are numbered. At only 25, there is plenty of time left for Martial to fulfil his potential. There is no doubting the Frenchman’s talent, but questions remain over his attitude and work rate.

A loan move to Sevilla seems to have broken down, with the clubs unable to agree on a loan fee. Juventus are rumoured to be interested, while Newcastle’s newfound wealth means they are sure to be keeping tabs on the striker. Perhaps Martial will get back to his scintillating best. Whether this will be at United, however, is unlikely.

He put in a good cameo performance against West Ham on Saturday, and he had a heavy involvement on Rashford’s 93rd-minute winner, however, it just feels a little too late for him to revitalise his career at Old Trafford.

(Stats from Fbref.com)

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