Anthony Martial’s exit signifies the end of a certain era at Manchester United

Anthony Martial leaving Manchester United — in a way — very much signifies the end of a certain era of this football club.

Granted, it is only a six-month loan to La Liga‘s Sevilla with the Spanish side not having an option to buy the Frenchman. But for the longest time, all signs have been pointing towards United’s No. 9 being set on departing and trying something new.

Some will ridicule the notion that someone who has never lifted the Premier League or the Champions League trophies at United leaving could be thought of as the end of anything but a period of failure. But the truth is that following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United as a club found themselves in a slightly new reality — fueled more by hope than guaranteed success.

After the nightmare that was David Moyes‘ stint at Old Trafford, a lot more days of darkness followed. Having been spoilt by the sheer and utter greatness of the most elite manager of all time and his teams for decades, this new reality was tough to get used to. Nobody wants to get used to failure. Not even the biggest optimists find comfort. And what Martial brought was hope.

At just 19 years of age, the tricky Parisian very quickly became somewhat of a shining light at the end of a very dark tunnel. At times, he was the victim of his own brilliance. The expectations that he set for himself by bagging 18 goals in all competitions as a teenager — in his debut season — may have been the beginning of his downfall. But the circumstances didn’t help the trajectory of his development either.

Martial was the author of many magic moments at the Theater of Dreams and elsewhere. When United signed him on the first day of September in 2015 — for a back then mind-boggling amount of money —nobody really knew how to feel. Yes, United desperately needed a striker. But wouldn’t spending 50 million on an unproven French teenager essentially be pouring it down the drain?

With the curtain about to drop on Martial’s time at Old Trafford, it is pretty safe to say that the moments ‘Tony’ produced over the years were worth every penny. Though the French forward always divided the fanbase’s opinions about him, he will always be remembered as the one who often single-handedly kept the ship above water.

When the calm, seemingly unphased, boy strutted out onto the hallowed Old Trafford turf for his debut against Liverpool, hearts quickly went into over 70 thousand mouths. His first touches showed potential brilliance. He was smooth, silky, quick, strong. Very rarely does someone look that comfortable on their United bow. The Theater of Dreams tends to swallow up the biggest personalities. But for the longest time, Martial was cold. Emotionless.

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When Ashley Young sent the ball in the 19-year-old’s direction, down the left channel, there was a collective gasp. The way Martial took the ball into his stride and dribbled at the Liverpool backline, it was immediately reminiscent of many past legends. The swagger, the confidence, the close control of the ball. It was as if he had it on a string. What happened next will forever remain etched in United folklore.

Nothing will ever come close to Wayne Rooney‘s antics on his United debut. But as far as moments go — and considering the rivalry — Martial’s premiere United strike against Liverpool that left multiple defenders questioning life on the floor has to be up there as the best debut moment in history. Old Trafford absolutely erupted. It was chaos. Limbs. Pandemonium. Everything. All of the above. What a way to announce yourself.

Cutting in from the left and dazzling defenders with quick feet sounded awfully familiar to United fans. Many were quick to hail Martial as the next Cristiano Ronaldo and such. Some Thierry Henry comparisons were thrown around.

As utterly sensational as his debut was — silencing the doubters and price tag critics — it was also a curse. Because nobody really knew what Martial was or what he could be. Was he a winger? Did United buy him to play as a striker? Scoring three goals in your first three appearances in all competitions is like never taking your foot off the gas in a car. Thrilling but dangerous.

Looking back on Martial’s time at the club now, he never really got the time to be nurtured. He was thrown right into the deep end and credit to him, he took to it like a duck to water. As with every young player, there were ups and downs and dry spells in front of goal, but overall, the Frenchman was handling everything thrown his way with poise. But as far as the development aspect goes, that got lost in the process somewhere. Martial was a diamond in a dysfunctional environment.

Sometimes Martial was the striker, sometimes he was the winger. Sometimes a lone striker, other times in a two, then back out wide. It was confusing for fans, let alone for the player himself. Linear progress is difficult to achieve in such circumstances, all while consistency is demanded at the level United aspire to be at.

Yet in spite of all that, Martial managed to reward all of his managers for their — sometimes limited — trust in him. He produced many many clutch moments for the man that signed him. The FA Cup semi-final winner at Wembley against Everton — at the death — was probably top of the bunch. United went on to win the competition.

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With Jose Mourinho, it always felt like Martial was never his favorite. The now 26-year-old is far from a ‘Mourinho type’ player. That was emphasized when “The Special One” took Martial’s No. 9 off him and gave it to Zlatan Ibrahimovic upon the Swede’s arrival. Martial reluctantly inherited the legendary No. 11 shirt and was visibly uncomfortable at first.

To those outside looking in, it may seem like nothing. It’s just a number, right? But to players, it can be everything. Especially mentally. You’ve been establishing yourself at this club for years. Putting the team on your back time and time again and this is the respect you receive? Martial’s confidence being shot was nothing short of inevitable. But he responded, cooly.

By the halfway point of that season, Martial was hitting form and he nailed down the left-wing spot on a regular basis. He confirmed his good form with a cracking strike against Burnley at Turf Moor — days before Alexis Sanchez put pen to paper on a United contract.

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The Sanchez signing was looked at as the final piece of the puzzle. With Martial flying down the left, it was hoped that the Chilean would slot in nicely on the opposite flank. But Mourinho had other ideas. Before we knew it, Martial was frozen out of the side. Some of Mourinho’s decisions were simply inexplicable. And it got to a point where Martial was on the brink of an exit.

But the Frenchman outlasted his Portuguese foe and was about to get a new lease of life under his successor. Ole Gunnar Solskjær was arguably the only man to put his full trust into Martial and the Norwegian was repaid handsomely for it in his first full season in charge.

Following the prompt departure of Romelu Lukaku, Martial reclaimed his No. 9 shirt and began acting accordingly. The previously rare smile was back on his face. It was vibrant. Football looked fun to him again. And he went on to net 23 goals in all competitions to lead all scorers — leading United to a third-place finish in the league.

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For a moment, it felt like Solskjær had cracked the winning formula. Martial and Marcus Rashford were flying. The addition of Bruno Fernandes helped massively. United went on to finish second in the league the following season. The team’s progress was gradual and evident.

But in the midst of things, somewhere along the line, something went awry for Martial. The Frenchman followed up the incredible goal tally from 2019/20 with just seven goals in all competitions.

Just when everyone thought that perhaps Martial had finally hit the lofty heights that he was always predicted to reach, it all fell apart — looking like nothing more than a flash in the pan.

Ultimately, only Martial knows what happened. Was it a mental thing? Was it complacency? We can sit here and speculate but we will never guess right. The only certainty was that the former Monaco marksman quickly became a shadow of himself. He slipped onto a brutal downward spiral in terms of his form and virtually to the bottom of the pecking order.

Now is probably a good time for reflection. And we can ponder — was it down to the lack of specific training earlier in his career? After a full season as the main man up front, defenders undoubtedly started preparing for Martial and his book of tricks.

Perhaps the lack of center-forward training in the past let him down? After all, he was preferred as a left-winger for the longest time and even recently looked more comfortable there. But he wanted to be a striker — without a doubt — and it just didn’t pan out long-term.

Ralf Rangnick is the fifth manager that Martial has been under at the club. The lack of consistency on that front can also be detrimental for a young player. But no longer a young prospect, the German head coach never really seemed in favor of the Frenchman. As you’d imagine, rumors of itchy feet began circulating promptly on Martial’s behalf. And on Tuesday, Jan. 25, it was officially announced that Martial would join Sevilla on loan until the end of the season.

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Albeit Martial’s story at United may not be finished yet — it certainly seems that way, despite the lack of option to buy this summer. It’s hard to imagine the forward wanting to return and try again, especially if he rediscovers his form at Sevilla. From the club’s perspective, it’s just a way of covering all bases and ensuring the new long-term manager can make his own decision on Martial’s future in a few months time. But the script very much feels written.

After the turmoil and the constant rumors, Martial looks to be on his way — something that felt very hard to imagine for most United fans even just a few months back. And it is the end of an era. The era of hope. The era of promise. But also, the era of constant failure. Who knows, maybe this was meant to be? Both parties moving on and opening new chapters.

When it is all said and done, most United fans will associate Martial with special moments amidst one of the lowest decades in United’s sporting history. And that’s why the Frenchman will always hold a special place in the hearts of those fans. He produced those moments that in years of trophy droughts provided some happiness. As far as cult heroes go, he will always be up there.

And for a parting gift, a vintage ‘Martial moment’.

Unexpectedly, Rangnick went to the Frenchman with United fighting tooth and nail to topple the stubborn Hammers of West Ham on Saturday. Replacing Mason Greenwood, Martial heard a few sour boos. But he received them cooly. Very on-brand.

On the pitch, he looked good. Relaxed. Confident. Watching on, we all probably thought: what if? A redemption arc, maybe? A rise like a phoenix from the ashes? After all, on his day, Martial’s skillset would prove invaluable to this team. The link-up play, the dribbling, the finishing. But as we have come to learn now — it was just a farewell.

A trademark run inside the left channel — same as when his United career began. Close control, cold as ice, impossible for defenders to read before slotting in the overlapping Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan did the rest, laying the ball on a plate to Rashford who closed at the back post. It was Fergie Time. Old Trafford erupted. There were limbs in the Stretford End. But Martial kept his cool. He joined in the celebrations but was not overly elated. He just did his job.

United sealed the three points in typically dramatic fashion. Martial sealed his exit — with a kiss.

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