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Anthony Martial was bought to be a Man Utd superstar but will leave with a whimper

What started with a bang against Liverpool in September 2015 will end with an injury-related whimper nine years later.

Anthony Martial is nearing the end of his Manchester United career. The 28-year-old France striker will be unavailable for selection for an estimated 10 weeks as he recovers from groin surgery. Barring an unprecedented goalscoring hot streak between a potential April return and the end of the season, he is unlikely to convince senior executives at the club to exercise the option of another year on his expiring contract.

This is the beginning of the end of Martial as a United player.

It cost them £36million ($45.7m at the current exchange rate) to acquire his services from Monaco nine years ago — at the time, the highest fee any club had paid for a teenager.

Questions over the fee were calmed late in his debut as he scored the clincher in a 3-1 win against Liverpool at Old Trafford, collecting the ball in the left half-space, twisting Martin Skrtel inside and out, then finishing in the far corner. It was a goal that drew comparisons to Thierry Henry, although in the years that followed Martial proved himself closer to another former Arsenal and France forward, Nicolas Anelka, in playing style.

Football fans in England and France may have scoffed at the three clauses (worth £7.2million each to Monaco) included in the deal that brought him to Manchester, but there was merit at the time in thinking the then 19-year-old might score 25 times for United by June 2019. And it was easy to envision a player of his ability earning 25 caps before his first United contract ended. The much-touted clause linked to Martial winning the Ballon d’Or would, obviously, be the hardest to trigger, but in the December of that first season he had received the Golden Boy — the award given to the best player in Europe under the age of 21.

The Martial who arrived in England late that summer was a rough but dexterous diamond with explosive pace which could stretch defences. He married an impressive first touch with good close-control dribbling and a finishing ability beyond his years. The timing of his runs was still a little naive, but the skill set was there.

If a teenager emerged today with a similar aptitude for goals, there would be a host of suitors vying for his, very expensive, signature.


Martial’s debut goal against Liverpool sparked early optimism he would justify his record fee (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“Anthony is a naturally-talented, young, multi-functional forward with great potential. I believe this is the club for him to continue his development,” said then United manager Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman bemoaned the cost of the signing but believed his successors at Old Trafford would be grateful to work with such a promising player.

Martial would deliver only in a series of flashes, however. All the while, a series of United managers oscillated between carrot and stick in their attempts to turn potential into consistent goalscoring production.

Looking at Martial’s season-on-season performances for United, one gets the picture of a player who went from an exciting prospect to an underwhelming talent before becoming a mostly-injured veteran.

Season Dominant Position Appearances Goals Premier League Goals Assists Total Minutes Played

2015-16

LW

49

17

11

9

4128

2016-17

LW

41

8

4

8

2447

2017-18

LW

45

11

9

9

2337

2018-19

LW

38

12

10

3

2327

2019-20

CF

48

23

17

12

3566

2020-21

CF

36

7

4

9

2422

2021-22

LW

11

1

1

0

367

2022-23

CF

21

9

6

3

1441

2023-24

CF

19

2

1

2

629

The seasons marked in blue are ones where United played in the Champions League. In 2015-16 and 2020-21, they began in the Champions League before dropping to the Europa League. Martial was on loan at Sevilla from the January of 2021-22.

Jose Mourinho questioned Martial’s inconsistencies and mental resilience, growing frustrated by the player’s lack of development as a winger and viewing him as too wasteful to be a centre-forward.

Mourinho brought in a 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku to supplant the Frenchman up front. Alexis Sanchez was acquired to play in Martial’s other favoured spot, on the left. On more than one occasion, Mourinho attempted to get United to sell Martial, only to be thwarted by senior club officials who felt another manager could conjure something more out of the player. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked to have done it after he replaced Mourinho, but a career-high for Martial in 2019-20 was followed by a career-low one year later.

Martial would come to rely on his finishing ability to bail him out of situations his naive runs landed him in. His close-control dribbling eventually became a way for him to win free kicks and penalties, rather than a method for beating defenders. His raw talent at 19 remained that way in his mid-twenties. Rather than continue to run in behind and stretch defences, he became increasingly static, asking for the ball to be played to his feet.

Opinions are varied on who should take responsibility for his lack of development. Some see Martial as a victim of the dysfunctional malaise that has affected many players at United, others believe his lack of application — and a lack of proper punishment for it — has helped foster the same club-wide malaise.

In a rare but illuminating interview with France Football magazine in 2022, Martial took some of the blame.

“I am not irreproachable,” he said. “When people say I lack consistency, it’s true. When I have my place, it often goes well, but when I’ve been used less, my performance has not been the same.

“It’s a vicious circle: I’m less efficient because I play less, and therefore I play even less. When it’s like that, I can sometimes drop out a bit. A player like (fellow United striker for the previous two seasons Edinson) Cavani, he’s at 3,000 per cent even when given few minutes.“

Injury curbed what hopes remained that Martial would correct things.

Across his eight and a half seasons in England, he has missed 84 games and counting because of various injuries. A hip problem sustained in March 2021 — followed by torn knee ligaments that same month — began a physical decline from which he has never quite recovered. In 2020, United icon Paul Scholes referred to Martial as a conman when the forward’s scoring touch had abandoned him.

Martial said in 2022 that attempting to play through pain left him unable to accelerate properly for several months. That loss of the acceleration which enabled him to race away from defenders when he was younger meant he no longer had a crucial edge.

Early in his 2022-23 debut season as United manager, Erik ten Hag said Martial could not handle the “physical load” of playing three games in a week. Yet even in his diminished physical state, he possessed a superior back-to-goal game than Marcus Rashford and was a better finisher than last January’s surprise signing Wout Weghorst. He can still collect a long pass better than any other attacker at United and be useful to the fourth permanent manager he has played for since being signed under Van Gaal.

This is damning with faint praise, though.

He looked awkward while sprinting in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford in January last year before being substituted at half-time. After that 2-1 United win, Ten Hag explained Martial went into the game carrying an injury and was unable to play more than 45 minutes. When he has played in the 12 months since, there has been little obvious difference between his jogging and sprinting speeds.

Martial is not the first footballer in his late twenties to realise he missed numerous opportunities to better himself in his earlier years, and he now appears to have taken a leaf out of Cavani’s book, deciding not to try to push through the pain barrier, instead waiting for his body to reach 100 per cent.

Earlier this month, Martial turned down transfer offers from multiple suitors, preferring to stay at United and focus on his rehabilitation.

He will (likely) leave this summer after his contract expires as a player who was envisioned as a superstar, but lacked the focus and development to become one; a striker who is best when asked to be a crucial ever-present in a team’s attack but who lacks the consistency — both in goals and availability — to be dependable.

An explosive talent has now fizzled out.

Martial’s United career will be a story of failed promise and a symptom of the club’s many dysfunctions.

(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)



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