Taking a quick cut inside to send the Liverpool defender flying, giving Anthony Martial enough space to take on the keeper one on one. Martial would bury that shot and extend Manchester United’s lead to 2 on his debut for the club, giving United fans hope that he could truly be their future star. Over his next six seasons with the club, the highs of his debut would wane, as his struggles mirrored those of the club.
When United announced Martial’s arrival in the summer of 2015, many were confused as to why a club that had struggled the past season would spend tens of millions on a teenager. Not only was he just 18, but he had never dominated the game at Monaco in the seasons before his move. Despite all those concerns, his performance against Liverpool showed United fans hope that they had their cornerstone player.
Over six years later, Martial left the club on loan to Sevilla and with his contract running down, it seems unlikely that he will ever play for United again. His over 150 appearances of both great hope and crushing disappointment mirror perfectly the struggles of a post-Ferguson United.
Martial’s time spanned over 6 and a half years, 4 managers and a countless amount of money spent on transfers to varying success and won one Europa League and FA Cup. In that same period, United has seen rivals like Liverpool and Manchester City become world beaters. Like United, Marital has seen players like Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood become key pieces to the team.
It certainly seemed, after his first season, that a young player who had acclimated well to the Premier League could serve as United’s springboard back to the top of the league. Throughout his time there were moments where both he and United showed that he was key to any future success. However, a combination of lack of trust from coaches, competition from other players and a lack of personal development doomed him and United to this point.
Having coaches who swung from seeing Martial as a potential key player either on the wing or as a striker and coaches who saw him as a luxury player was always going to hinder his development. Again, never having a set manager hurt both the player and club, as a lack of stability has held the club back.
Louis van Gaal, Martial’s first manager, saw the potential in him, but always preferred to be patient and tried to get him play different positions to develop him even further. Ole Solskjær continued the development of Martial and trusted him to be the main goal scoring. When looking at his production under both managers, Martial scored over 30 league goals, demonstrating that when he has the trust of a manager, he can be an elite finisher.
It was a different story under José Mourinho, his longest manager at the club, as he never truly wanted to use Martial as his main threat. Often leaving him out of the match day squad entirely, Marital was never able to gain Mourinho’s trust, as he wanted more proven strikers. Ralf Rangnick, in his short time, also omitted Marital from the squad but it seems like it was a move to force a transfer.
Due to a lack of consistency from the managerial side, the club was never able to make Martial comfortable and give him the space to grow. At the same time, this cloud of uncertainty around managers has never worked for United, as it has for Chelsea where their strong ownership can negate the uncertainty.
Alongside the issues with managers, the club’s transfer policy has limited the opportunities that Martial got, but promotion from the academy offered him a chance to grow. The insane amount spent by United seemed like they were throwing money on issues without truly addressing them.
This is really highlighted during Mourinho’s tenure where despite Marital’s performances in seasons past, the club spent a lot of money on different strikers. Although more talented than Martial, players like Zlatan Ibrahimović and Romelu Lukaku naturally took opportunities from Martial. Both players would have their struggles at United, but Marital had to sit on the bench while they tried to figure out their issues.
At the same time, the United academy was producing star players like Rashford and Greenwood who could have formed a trio with Martial. Rashford is a better player than Martial, and Greenwood will surpass him too, but it feels like the club should have leaned into creating a youth culture with those three. It’s not the fault of any of those players, but it feels like there was a way to build something special with the three of them.
More a symptom of a club in a tailspin, the exorbitant amount of money spent on transfers was always going to limit opportunities for young players to develop. It seemed like the club was too eager to jump a level in the rebuild without properly developing a youth culture.
Of course, there is always the fact that player development relies on the player too and at times, it never seemed like Martial was willing to achieve his potential. There were reports that showed the club was concerned with his attitude during training sessions. It could even be seen in games where he could drift in and out without making a real difference.
At all levels, be it on the French team or at United, the glimpses were always there, but it just seemed like it was easier for him to drift by. Given that he had already become a goal scoring threat, it would have been easy to focus only on the striker position. Perhaps, like van Gaal mentioned, had he honed his skills as a winger too, he could have taken his game to the next level like Thierry Henry.
With all that said, it does seem like so much of this rot can stem from United’s chaos since Ferguson’s departure. The lack of a culture and plan could never truly sit right with any player and it could be to blame for why so much of United has stagnated from Paul Pogba to Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Martial could very well find a home in Sevilla and develop into the star that it always seemed like he could become. Maybe the glimmers that he showed were nothing more than that, glimmers of a player that he could never truly become. Or maybe the shell of a club that United has become is stagnating player’s growth.
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