“He is not the striker the media has written about”. That was what then manager Louis van Gaal said when asked about Manchester United signing a forward back in 2015. United fans were in a state of excitement over who this mystery striker might be. Then out of the blue came the signing of Anthony Martial from Monaco.
An Unknown Entity
United shelled out a whopping £36 million to land the Frenchman and the deal was met with some apprehension by fans. On the one hand, he was an exciting young prospect who could develop, which was always a key part of the transfer strategy under Sir Alex Ferguson; on the other hand, it was a lot of money for a 19-year-old who was a relative unknown. United had struggled in the league since Ferguson stepped down and many wondered if Martial was the signing to start them back on the road to the top of English football.
They didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Martial was named on the bench against Liverpool in his first game after signing. He came on to replace Juan Mata and what happened after that will go down in Manchester United folklore. Martial picked the ball up on the left hand side and drove towards the goal. He weaved through the Liverpool defence and when he got within shooting range, calmly slotted the ball into the corner of the net. It was a fantastic goal and a fantastic introduction to life as a Manchester United player but it only got better from there.
He scored two more goals against Southampton at St Mary’s in his next appearance. They were very different goals but on both occasions he showed great composure when the chance presented itself. The supposed pressure of a big-money move wasn’t phasing the young man in the slightest.
In his first couple of United appearances he was showing the composure in front of goal of a seasoned striker. Perhaps the best example of this came later that season in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton at Wembley. The game was level at 1-1 with extra time looming. Martial was the man who made the difference for Van Gaal’s men. He picked up the ball on the left hand side linked well with Marcus Rashford and then with Ander Herrera. He then found himself through on goal with the chance to send his side to the FA Cup final.
The young man didn’t lose his head. Instead he did what he had done all season long and stuck the ball in the back of the net with aplomb. United were in the final and Martial was the match winner. He was making a real impact in his first season at the club and justifying every penny of the transfer fee. United went on to win the FA Cup, beating Crystal Palace in the final.
Martial had played a key role not just in the successful cup run but throughout the season in general. He finished the campaign as the club’s leading scorer with 17 goals, dazzling fans with his pace and trickery. The future looked very bright for the promising teenager.
Second Season Struggles
Much was expected of Martial in his second season at United. Manager Louis van Gaal had left the club and was replaced by José Mourinho. Martial was seen as a key component if the club were going to be successful under the new coach.
He started the first three league games of the new campaign but failed to hit the net in any of them. This led to him being named as a substitute for the Manchester derby. He was back in the line-up the following week against Watford. Etienne Capoue put Watford 1-0 up in the first half after Martial had the ball stolen from him deep in his own half. United were punished and minutes later he was substituted due to injury. The young forward had seen better days in a United shirt.
Martial scored his first league goal of the season in the home game against Stoke in early October. He was named as a substitute that day and this was the beginning of a frustrating period. He didn’t start again in the league until November 19th against Arsenal at Old Trafford, and continued to be in and out of the side for the remainder of the year.
Mourinho was asked in December of 2016 why Martial was struggling to get regular starts. He responded: “We have so many good players in similar positions — Martial, Mata, Mkhitaryan, 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”.
Martial did get a chance against Liverpool in January, but was subbed off in the 65th minute with United trailing 1-0. This was a far cry from the player who had excelled in the previous season and was the club’s top goalscorer.
The return game against Watford in February gave him a another chance to show what he could do from the start. This time, he took the opportunity, setting up Juan Mata for the opener then scoring himself for only his third league goal of the season. Fans got a rare glimpse of what he was really capable of in what had been a disappointing season.
The latter months of the season were strange for all involved. The race for the top four faded away and Mourinho focused on winning the Europa League. This gave Martial a few more opportunities to start in the Premier League. One such game was against Burnley at Turf Moor, where he opened the scoring after a brilliant counter attacking move.
Martial only managed four Premier League goals and six assists in the 2016/17 campaign; a poor return for someone so cool in front of goal. This has prompted manager Mourinho to move in the summer market. The club have been heavily linked to Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic. If the deal goes through, he will offer stiff competition in the coming season.
Martial is still only 21 and has plenty of room to grow and develop, but after an indifferent second season he must adapt to Mourinho’s style of play and nail down his spot in the first-team if he is to reach his potential.