‘Fifty million down the drain, Tony Martial scores again’

Take a look at the headline.

It’s a chant that’s well documented by now, most are aware of it. It’s the chant that United fans will inevitably scream at the top of their lungs when supremely talented forward, Anthony Martial ripples the net for the Red Devils of Manchester. 

We are now approaching the close of year five on the Frenchman’s tenure in the North West of England, and, similarly to his compatriot Paul Pogba (who I wrote about not too long ago on @ZICOBALL), opinions are split. Some view him as someone who, in the right system, will be a ruthlessly effective player and become one of the best players in the world. 

Others, however, view him as a lazy, entitled player, who is not worth the hassle due to said sluggishness. 

Let’s take a look at Martial’s time in England. From Louis Van Gaal in his first season, to Jose Mourinho for two and half years, and finally, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the last 18 months. 

Louis Van Gaal‘s Martial

In the summer of 2015 after a promising start to Martial’s senior career with Monaco, the principality which proved a hotbed for promising talent over the next few years, a Premier League backed transfer fee came in for him. 

His pace, dribbling, and finishing ability, caught the eye of Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United. A £36m fee was coughed up, with that figure potentially rising to as high as £58m. The most ever paid for a teenager in football, and would not be broken until fellow Monaco starlet, Kylian Mbappé, moved to PSG for near-on £160m, in 2017. 

Martial’s career in England got off to a hot start, playing centrally, and with goals coming immediately. A game-sealing solo stunner where he glided past the Liverpool team and slotted a winner past the ‘keeper. This was to be his first involvement in English football, nearly breaking Martin Tyler’s voice box in the process. A wonderful entrance into the English game for the man from Monaco. 

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Martial’s Liverpool exploits was swiftly followed up by a match-winning performance against Southampton. First twisting Virgil Van Dijk and finishing with his weak foot, before capitalising on an errant back pass with an unerring finish, to give United the lead at St. Mary’s. 

As you would imagine, three goals of such varying styles set pulses racing at Old Trafford. One goal following a waltz past the defence, the other displaying excellent centre-forward play, and the final being an opportunistic finish off the cusp. Wonderful wing-play to set up Wayne Rooney for a tap in only served to increase the hype for the French teenager. 

After his hot streak of form, Martial was due to cool down. He went on a long drought and had a run of what is probably best described as average to below-average performances, for the most part. The Frenchman had failed to make the central striker role, his preferred role, his own. He was not yet ready.

Due to his penchant to run out to the left-channel to pick up the ball, and his visibly excellent wing-play displayed through the season, Louis Van Gaal proceeded to mostly play him off the wing for the remainder of the season. 

His performances were promising while interchanging between both roles, but the performances were almost always better from the wing. Towards the end of the season, Marcus Rashford emerged as a key player in red. Mature centre-forward play beyond his years led to two positions established; Martial off the left, and Rashford through the middle. 

Martial, with clarity afforded around his position, finished the season with multiple impressive performances against Liverpool, Manchester City, and West Ham. The former Monaco-man was a crucial component in the successful FA Cup run, scoring the winner to send United to a Wembley final. 

Overall, Martial in his first season was impressive. He was attacking players off the dribble very well, proved a constant threat, playing lovely sharp one-twos to open up defences, and gave what was considered an impressive amount of output. That is, before Mbappe came along and ruined our expectations of teenagers. Martial showed his ability as an excellent finisher, missing just four big chances all season, domestically and in Europe. A season of significant promise for what was a left-winger full of striking potential. 

Mourinho’s Martial

With Louis Van Gaal being replaced by Jose Mourinho, and with star signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba joining Manchester United, the stage was set. Martial was primed to kick on and improve on United’s FA Cup win, and the 5th placed Premier League finish last year. 

United did improve; achieving Champions League status via winning the Europa League, and clinching the League Cup, thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic shining on Wembley’s Stage. However, the same can’t really be said about Martial. 

Let’s start with the obvious, Martial’s output. His opening campaign hit double digits in both goals and assists with 18 and 11. In his second term, he declined drastically in both, registering eight goals and eight assists, although his assists per game stayed at the same rate of 0.19. 

Martial was clearly (for some utterly absurd reason) drastically affected by Zlatan taking the number 9 shirt from him. He grew less direct, losing the edge that made him so enthralling in his debut season. He was running off the ball into goalscoring positions less, and even his finishing took a hit. Sure, he would have the occasional rip-roaring finish which even the best of players would have been pleased with, but it wasn’t enough. 

Martial had clearly regressed. A sophomore slump if there ever was one. Apart from his assists per game staying the same, which was most likely due to his teammates’ productivity in front of goal, he was not as effective at creating chances as he was in his debut season. It was rather disappointing, to tell the truth, as if he took a step or two backwards in his development. Such was the excitement he brought to all at Old Trafford in his opening English chapter; this was a stark contrast.

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Martial had a definite uptick in his production during his third season. On a per 90 basis, his production was at its highest. Martial offered a goal every other 90 minutes in which he played. He was much better, especially in the first half of the season. The Frenchman made the left-wing his own from November to mid-January. He was dribbling more directly, he was more of a threat, he was troubling defenders once more, and his finishing was back to a higher level. Martial’s aggressive play had returned. 

That is, until Alexis Sanchez came to United. Alexis’ arrival in Manchester was catastrophic. The only potential positive for the club was that they got an arguably worse signing off the books in Mkhitaryan. Sanchez threw the entire balance of the team off. Pogba and Martial’s telepathy had been ruined by Alexis occupying the left side; the same half-space Pogba enjoyed a lot of time. 

Sanchez was hogging the ball, constantly losing possession, and in general, failing to do anything remotely positive for 90% of his time in Manchester. He wasn’t so much as a fraction of the player who was lighting up the Premier League at Arsenal.

Sanchez’s arrival meant that Martial was forced into his least favoured position on the right-wing. Martial had never liked playing on the right, as was shown by the fact he hadn’t had many notable performance from that side in his entire senior career. This trend would continue. To my own recollection, Martial did not have a single memorable performance following the arrival of Alexis.

His form was so bad on the right that he was involved in only one goal for the remainder of the season. He looked lost. His directness, dribbling threat, incisive nature, and even his finishing ability all abandoned him. Playing on the right-hand side was just not for him, and it showed. He was so uninspiring, and it ultimately meant that he drove himself away from the victorious French World Cup team. 

It wasn’t good enough from the Frenchman in his third year at United. It was onto season number four, was this the season he rediscovered the dangerous form he showed in his debut year? 

In short, no. Not at all. Bar a brilliant stretch of form across October and November; he would offer nothing but a few nice finishes now and then. No directness, no threat, no dribbling at pace, no movement off the ball; maybe a bit of combination play with Pogba, but that’s it. 

Up to this point, Martial has had four years in England. Year one and year three were impressive, year two was an expected slump, but year four was wholly uninspiring. It felt like Martial had not grown at all from the player we saw in his debut season. This is partially down to the lack of competent support around him, but mainly down to him. His lack of application and seemingly mental toughness led to a questioning of his mentality, with fractions of the fanbase calling for him to vacate Manchester. 

However, as is the case with a lot of players, talent gets you opportunities. With Martial, talent bursts out of every pore. Martial would get plenty more opportunities, and they were to come under a new coach. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s Tony

The new coach would be Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We shall ignore his first six months under the new boss, as he was still off the right.

This new season would begin with Martial playing in a central striker role consistently for the first time since his debut year. This would bring through his best goalscoring season to date from a ratio standpoint, a goal every other game as we currently speak. So that would suggest that this is undoubtedly his best position. However, is it really as simple as that? 

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The answer is, no. People still question Martial, and rightly so. His movement off the ball, whether it was into the channels or in behind, was not up to the standard of a leading Premier League striker. His play as an anchor point for the forward line wasn’t good enough either, and several questions surrounded his ability to play as a centre forward in a title-winning team. Despite him being on pace to comfortably hit over 20 goals for the first time in his career, there were question marks.

The lockdown arrived and halted played, and with it, a seemingly new Anthony Martial. Excluding the first game back, Martial’s activity off the ball has been brilliant. He has always been an option off the ball, whether it was out wide for his midfielders and wingers to find him with the ball, or in behind to stretch opposition defences. His activity level has been much improved. He has even been making himself an option for his teammates as an anchor point to run off of in combination play, as has been the case with Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford.

Martial has clearly raised his game following the lockdown, with his overall performance much improved. However, this should not merely be a purple patch, because Anthony Martial has everything needed to be a top-level striker, which his potential demands. 

He needs to make this a consistent staple of his game. Like the best strikers in the world, he needs consistency in every aspect of his game.

As is the case with Pogba, there is no excuse for him now. He has teammates operating at an elite level around him, and they will find him if he makes the runs. They will engage in combination play, either as the anchorman or the runner who initiates the sequence. He now has the tools around him, and the position he has always clamoured for. 

Now is the time for Martial. To prove he owns the number 9 role, to prove he can be a world-class striker. A focal point, a finisher, a goal scorer, a world-class player. All of it. Now is the time Martial, to prove you can do it consistently. We know it’s there, we have seen it.

This United striker has talent coming out of every inch of him. His name is Anthony Martial, and he will prove it was not £50m down the drain, because Tony Martial will score again. And again. 

Written by Mustafa Jawad – @Mussy__J10