The Frenchman is a star for Manchester United and Alexis Sanchez’s signing should not see him lose his place
Anthony Martial’s debut in the Premier League was every up-and-coming footballer’s dream — an appearance against his new club’s old enemy, and a goal barely minutes after coming on following some breathtaking pieces of dribbling. That performance immediately sparked comparisons with his compatriot and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry and it is a weight that the youngster is still carrying with him.
When Louis van Gaal splashed £36m, with a provision for another £22m, on an unknown 18-year-old Frenchman from Monaco in the summer of 2015, football fans and pundits in England thought that the Dutch manager had lost his vision and was throwing money at quick-fixes for his ageing squad. The Dutchman was gone at the end of that season, but Martial emerged as the club’s top goalscorer and a hope for the future.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho as the club’s new manager, however, halted his progress. The Portuguese manager brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, handed him Martial’s #9 shirt and left the Frenchman on the bench for most parts of the season. First team opportunities came few and far between and Mourinho refused to hand him an extended run of games. “We have so many good players in similar positions — Martial, (Juan) Mata, (Henrik) Mkhitaryan, (Wayne) Rooney. I cannot give him four, five, six, seven matches in a row when I have other people on the sidelines waiting for a chance. I try to give him chances. In fact, I gave him good chances because I played him against Tottenham and Arsenal, in some big matches,” the manager said at that time.
He even claimed that the France international was struggling to adapt to the pace of United’s game.
Martial’s agent sparked transfer speculations, with Sevilla and West Ham United among the parties interested, following the barrage of criticism from his manager. Mourinho hit back soon after by telling the player to listen to him and not his agent. While many thought that this was the master man-manager’s attempt to get the best out of the prodigious youngster, others felt that the player was genuinely disgusted by the dearth of opportunities and was looking to quit the club.
Martial did turn out to be crucial following Ibrahimovic’s season-ending injury and played a part in United’s first ever Uefa Europa League win. However, that didn’t stop the tabloids from listing his potential destinations in the summer. Inter Milan even wanted him to be part of any deal to take Ivan Perisic in the opposite direction. Mourinho, however, stood firm and refused to grant the Frenchman a transfer. That, coupled with a run of several games during the summer tour, helped settle the player back at the club and he has already reaped the rewards.
He has already surpassed his goals tally from last season having played 10 fewer games. Having been signed as a striker, Martial has been played wide on the left by both van Gaal and Mourinho. This season, the Portuguese boss has alternated between the Frenchman and Marcus Rashford on the left, with both giving a good account of themselves whenever they got a chance. Martial’s confidence has been boosted by a regular run of games and he’s started to play with a smile on his face. But the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal is bound to make him nervy.
In his very first interview at his new club, the Chilean said about his preferred playing position: “I really like to play down the left, through the middle… but to tell you the truth, as long as I’m playing football, I’ll fit in anywhere.”
Mourinho has bemoaned the lack of competition among his attackers. After the club’s win against Burnley earlier this month, the manager said: “In this moment there is no competition for places. We have four attacking players for three positions: three are starting, one is on the bench. Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) for the whole season was not available. You look to central defenders, we played (Phil) Jones and (Chris) Smalling. (Marcos) Rojo was on the bench, Victor (Lindelof) was in the stands. Eric Bailly was injured. Look to midfield, there was (Marouane) Fellaini, (Ander) Herrera, (Scott) McTominay on the bench, (Michael) Carrick in the stands. We need that extra, internal competition but (also) more solutions for us.”
Sanchez’s arrival means that the “competition” Mourinho deemed was missing is there in the squad and it will be a good test of the players’ calibre seeing how they rise to that challenge. On form, however, Mourinho has no reason to drop Martial, even if it is to accommodate his new signing — the Chilean needs to settle either on the right wing or play behind the striker.
Inconsistency may blight Martial’s performances once in a while, but, at 22 he still has a lot to improve and give to the club. If the manager drops the youngster at this time, however, he will just kill the player’s confidence and that might coincide with the end of the player’s time at the Theatre of Dreams.
The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.