It was September the 12th. Manchester United versus Liverpool. A 20-year old Frenchman barely off the plane from Monaco made his debut at Old Trafford as a substitute. What a waste of money, chuckled the press and fairly so for a largely unknown youngster costing close to €50m, it was inevitable.
The game ended 3-1 and Martial scored the third goal from wide left, turning Skrtel twice in the process to slot the ball home with the ruthlessness of a serial killer. It seemed everything was going to come together for United built around another prodigious young talent, which Martial undoubtedly is. And it did, as a matter of fact for Martial, at least on a personal level. He finished the season with 17 goals in all competitions, 11 in the Premier League, a vital 90th minute winner against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final. He was comfortably United’s best outfield player last campaign.
Louis van Gaal got the sack on the day after United won the FA Cup for a record 12th time and in came Mourinho who was obliged to stamp his authority meaning he brought in 4 different players thereby strengthening four key areas in the side. It’s all well and good but right from the very start of 2016/17, Martial seemed to have issues with the club and his own personal life.
The Frenchman, who had grown accustomed to his number 9 shirt at his new club, was clearly ruffled when Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided that he was going to be the new number 9 (literally) – meaning Martial had to settle for another shirt number although his agent made it clear that his client was not happy about the way the whole thing was done. As trivial as it may sound, this could have been a big deal for the 20-year old for all we know (check his Instagram handle, it still says ‘9’) and United, on their part, should have ensured that transition happened smoother than it actually did in the end.
Then came the accusation from his wife who he has split from, which is arguably the key aspect of his personal life that is affecting his on-field performances which are so far behind the level they are supposed to be, something that the French national team coach Didier Deschamps opined weeks ago. Anthony Martial was excluded from France’s most recent international squad and Deschamps said the following of his decision,
“His club coach expects more from him and so do I. I have not forgotten what he has done or what he is capable of doing, but it’s up to him to make efforts to find his best form. He is not at the level where he should be.”
Martial thus far has scored twice in 13 appearances in all competitions and only one from open play this season – a goal that reminded Old Trafford of what he is capable of doing, against Stoke City. He’s taking fewer shots per game, completed fewer dribbles per game (0.5 as opposed to 3 in 2015/16) since August than in his debut campaign and has quite simply gone into a shell which is disappointing from a player who could genuinely light up the whole league when he is at it. Or when he wants to be.
Mourinho has tried several different approaches to managing Martial out of this difficult period. So far the results have been sub-par. Mourinho, although, did seem to take a much softer route to improve the Frenchman’s morale and confidence when compared against the more abrasive technique he chose to operate with in the case of Luke Shaw and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, publicly criticising the pair for their lack of willingness to commit themselves to the cause.
Both Shaw and Mkhitaryan started the game against Feyenoord in a Europa League game which the Red Devils could not afford to lose and eventually made a positive impact on the resounding victory, the Armenian in particular. But Martial did not feature in the 18-man squad that faced the Dutch side on Thursday despite being fit to be involved. Mourinho later was quoted saying the following on the exclusion of Martial from the squad,
“Players have to win their positions. They are friends, they are colleagues, they work together every day, but at the end they compete between themselves to have more chances to play. Anthony played against Arsenal; this was the moment to give a chance to Mkhitaryan to start.”
Fair enough. But for a manager who has achieved everything one could possibly do in his career, the only achilles’ heel over the years has been the inability to work with and extract the best out of young players in addition to bringing them through the academy. In developing Anthony Martial, a player that was bought for Mourinho, according to his predecessor Louis van Gaal, the Portuguese can finally redeem and also reinvent himself in a club where it has quite been the prerogative.