Alexis acquisition demands greater Martial maturity
Over the last few weeks much has been discussed about implications of Alexis Sanchez’ dramatic arrival at Old Trafford. The debate surrounding United’s outlay was particularly misdirected, because the focus on what the Chilean can bring to the team is far more important. However José Mourinho chooses to utilise Alexis, Manchester United has gained an élite player and will become a more of potent attacking force as a result. Of his new teammates, Sanchez’ acquisition may prove most significant for Anthony Martial.
Not only does the Frenchman occupy the place the Chilean will likely take up, but the transfer also comes at the most pivotal period in Martial’s United career. Amidst the recent tabloid hyperbole, it has almost been forgotten that United paid £54 million to secure the services of a Martial just two and a half years ago.
In part this is because, as the song goes, the English press said he had no chance, with the Mirror proving predictably inaccurate in labelling him a “a waste of money.” Martial enjoyed an outstanding début season in which he finished as the club’s top scorer and picked up the European Golden Boy award.
Initially, it was an investment in Martial’s potential, but it became increasingly warranted in the short-term, with the Frenchman proving to be the bright spark in an otherwise flat attack during the 2015/16 campaign. The arrival of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard would later help ease the burden on the Frenchman, but with Wayne Rooney in alarming decline and Memphis Depay proving frustratingly ineffective, Martial was often the only attacker to bring fans to their feat under the shackles of Louis van Gaal’s tactics.
* Season to date. Stats from transfermarkt
Over reliance on Martial that season is underscored by the data. He made 56 appearances in all competitions, completing 90 minutes on 44 occasions. At a club of United’s ambitions it was a staggering burden to place on a 19-year-old. It not only impacted Martial physically, but also in terms of expectations on the player ahead of the ’16/17 season.
Indeed, Martial’s standing as a leading light in that attack could have masked some of the inconsistencies and flaws within his game. These are to be expected of a young player, but on reflection Martial’s ‘off days’ may have gone under the radar given how often they coincided with problems in United’s attack as a whole. Attention was largely focused on Rooney’s diminishing goal threat, Memphis’ poor decision-making, Juan Mata’s lack of pace, and United’s pedestrian central midfield.
Still, Martial undoubtedly enjoyed a brilliant début season, contributing to higher expectations the following season under Mourinho. He failed to deliver on the promise.
External factors were certainly in play before he had kicked a ball under Mourinho. Euro 2016 not only stretched the physical demands on the youngster, but may have affected Martial mentally, with indifferent performances leading to Didier Deschamps dropping the United player for the tournament’s latter stages.
Martial also had personal issues; a split from his wife was made public amidst claims that he had travelled the well-worn path of a footballer playing away. It clearly affected him, with the player noting that he “had some problems off the pitch” that played in his head. “I wasn’t really focused,” he told Telefoot.
On the pitch, Martial was deployed 42 times in Mourinho’s debut campaign and yet never fully gained the trust of the Portuguese coach. Injuries disrupted the start of his season and Martial only rarely showed more than glimpses of the talent to which United had become so accustomed. He seemingly fell into a broad category of players who struggled to adapt to Mourinho’s demands and whom the manager openly questioned.
"Martial is now showing the sort of consistency that his manager needs, but he now faces a new challenge in the wake of United’s winter acquisition."
While United’s attack was by no means free-flowing in ’16/17, it was an improvement on the previous year when Martial had largely shone alone. The team was bolstered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goal-scoring prowess, the mercurial Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the growing contributions from Rashford and Lingard. Martial was no longer the standout threat and declining performances were matched with increased scrutiny.
Martial’s form was patchy but the good will of the previous season and his undoubted natural ability ensured most supporters remained patient. He avoided being frozen out of the team altogether, a fate that befell others. The youngster’s superb goal-scoring display away at Burnley in April seemed to underline his capabilities, ensuring that Martial ended the season with a consistent run of starts.
Still, with a return of just four league goals in ’16/17, Martial’s place in the team was never certain entering the upcoming campaign. After all, Lukaku arrived in the window at great expense, Rashford’s stock was high, and Mourinho’s pursuit of Ivan Perisic was an open secret seemingly all summer. The Frenchman had much to prove as he took his place among the substitutes for the Reds opening day fixture with West Ham United. He ended that game with a goal and an assist and has been on an upward curve ever since.
“He’s hard with all of us and he is hard with me, there is no question,” Martial told Premier League TV back in November. “But I know it’s for my benefit.” The player has seemingly come to terms with Mourinho’s tough love and is applying himself on the pitch.
Martial’s return of 11 goals and nine assists in 32 appearances this season is healthy, especially considering the limited minutes granted given while he is rotated with Rashford. It’s a battle Martial is winning, with successive starts and goals in the three league games leading up to United’s defeat at Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.
While Martial is now showing the sort of consistency and reliability that his manager needs, he faces a new challenge in the wake of United’s winter acquisition. Not least because patience is not Mourinho’s virtue.
The forward’s recent performances might ordinarily dictate that he is offered a chance alongside Sanchez, but there are no guarantees at United. Whether starting or on the bench, he has to work even harder, to force a Mourinho re-think. Increased levels of maturity and commitment are now a requirement, not a hope
“I think we’re now at the stage where I really think he can be a great, great player,” the manager noted earlier in the campaign. Mourinho also admitted that the player had to start afresh this season. With that, the first half of the season has been about Martial proving his worth; the second half is where he must progress once again.
Mourinho has witnessed Martial at his destructive best. The manager is now waiting for the player to fulfil a prophecy and, like compatriots Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, step into the world-class bracket.
The pressure is greater now though. The Reds have just acquired a player already at that level.