Fans think of footballers as solely that, heroes with a ball, rarely considered beyond the pitch. Despite players’ outrageous wages, they all lead lives outside of their football. They have wives, girlfriends (boyfriends), mistresses, children, friends, pressures and stress: the same as everybody else. Much of it holds little interest for supporters. For players, including Anthony Martial, real life can get in the way.
Martial has suffered a turbulent summer. On the pitch Euro 2016 was a disaster; off it, his partner and young child reportedly left for France. The youngster has been forced to focus on personal issues and football may have taken something of a mental backseat. Martial’s story is certainly relatable, although at the highest level the players’ personal challenges fade into the background when they aren’t lighting up the pitch.
After taking Old Trafford and the Premier League by storm in 2015-16, the boy dubbed “a waste of money” by the Mirror has stumbled out of the blocks under José Mourinho. Whether it is personal difficulties, tactical adjustments, or fatigue resulting from a tough first season in England, the 20-year-old has not reached the heights this season expected of an exceptional talent.
Turning 21 in December, consistency remains an issue for Martial, as it is for most players in his age bracket. Rumours of unhappiness with a shirt number change were later proven to be nothing more than clickbait, with the versatile forward inheriting the number 11 famously worn by Ryan Giggs when Zlatan Ibrahimovic took the number 9 in the summer.
However, United’s final fixture before the International break might prove to be a catalyst for Martial’s return to form after the forward scored against Stoke City at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney was dispossessed on the edge of the box and the rebound set-up Martial’s neat finish – a goal reminiscent of the one he scored in the same fixture last season.
Martial’s strike seemed to invigorate the player and he tapped the club badge as a sign of relief. Martial ran at the Potters defence repeatedly and his smooth finish would have secured United three points but for the defensive mistake which led to Joe Allen’s equaliser.
The forward’s direct running combined with his knack for simple passing in the build-up provides vital balance to United’s attack. Too often this season Marcus Rashford has become that outlet when others have failed to. But last season it was the Frenchman who offered the main source of pace and energy in United’s attack.
Many hope that the pair will now feature more regularly as part of United’s front four, and if Martial can turn this goal against Stoke into a good run of form he might be able to help unlock United’s true attacking potential.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Martial’s story is certainly relatable. He has suffered a turbulent summer on and off the pitch. The youngster has been forced to focus on personal issues and football may have taken something of a mental backseat.[/blockquote]
Ibrahimovic’s clever hold up play should also bring the best out of two quick wide men, and if its not Martial and Rashford, then Jesse Lingered and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will benefit from the Swede’s presence. United certainly needs Martial’s fluidity and pace in attack.
Mkhitaryan’s return to the first team – or eventual arrival – may be a crucial factor in Martial’s return to form. The Armenian’s ability to create spaces in the attacking third will generate chances for Martial to get in behind opposition defences.
Under Louis van Gaal, Martial was United’s best player, and there’s little question that until Rashford’s breakthrough, the Frenchman carried more attacking responsibility than is typical for a 19-year-old. It was a heavy burden to carry when factoring in the lofty expectations and pressure that come with playing for United.
The challenge of adjusting to Mourinho’s tactics is also a worthy of note, while a year on from his introduction, defenders are now more attuned to the player’s danger. Defences are better prepared for Martial’s trickery on the ball, with a midfielder often coming across to help his full-back, forcing the Frenchman wide. After all, Martial’s crossing is still a work in progress and the opposition defender will now offer him the touchline and not a route to run inside.
It is something that will prompt Mourinho to take note. Defences have been more likely to funnel United’s attack to the less dangerous right side, where Antonio Valencia and various wide men do not offer the danger that United’s left presents. With Paul Pogba roaming the left channel, this adds to the opposition’s focus. Martial and Mourinho’s team must adjust.
Yet, the player already is improving, and the confidence that last weekend’s goal offers will pay dividends going forward. With fixtures against Liverpool, Fenerbahce, Chelsea and Manchester City ahead, Martial’s potential return to form is pivotal in determining the forward trajectory of United’s season.
Now the question remains whether the young Frenchman can put a rough period behind him, or if it will define his season.