Manchester United

Manchester United

Premier League • England

Anthony Martial at Man Utd: Where it all went wrong, from expensive wonderkid to flop who can’t leave quickly enough

Ryan Baldi
Man Utd forward Anthony Martial

Anthony Martial is coming to the end of his Man Utd spell

As he slalomed past Martin Skrtel and calmly slotted the ball beyond Simon Mignolet and into the far corner of the Liverpool net, sending Old Trafford into jubilant delirium, Anthony Martial could hardly have dreamed of a more emphatic way to introduce himself to the Manchester United faithful.

He was just 19 years old and had arrived from Monaco as a deadline-day signing in the summer of 2015.

The most arresting element of the transfer, unquestionably, was the fee – an initial £36 million, potentially rising as high as £58 million should performance-related add-ons be triggered.

It was an astronomical sum for a player with just one full season of first-team football under his belt, no senior international caps and just 15 career goals.

It was a striking figure, too, for someone the average Premier League fan couldn’t pick out from a line-up of one.

Yet that goal, which sealed a 3-1 victory over United’s bitterest rivals, lit an inferno of expectation.

And even in a season of drab football and disappointing results, with United finishing fifth in the table and manager Louis van Gaal sacked at the end of the campaign, Martial delivered on the hype.

A return of 17 goals in a side bereft of any attacking urgency under the dogmatic Dutchmen was an admirable effort, while his dramatic stoppage-time winner against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley provided one of the season’s few memorable moments.

Yet over the following eight seasons, Martial would surpass that single-season goals tally just once – assuming he does not return from injury in April and suddenly muster a strike-rate to make Erling Haaland look goal-shy.

With his contract set to expire this summer, the now-28-year-old forward will leave Old Trafford for free, departing with a whimper. The flame of expectation fizzled out long ago, to the extent his high wages, frequent injuries and apparent on-field disinterest has seen United unable to generate any interest for Martial in the transfer market.

Where does the blame lie for Martial’s deterioration?

There will be debate over where the finger of blame should aim – whether the club, any of their recent managers or the player himself is at fault for Martial’s massive underperformance.

But the more nuanced truth is that there is no one factor behind Martial’s mismanagement, no single malicious actor. There is a blame pie to be sliced, and there’s plenty to go around.

First, there is the matter of the initial signing. In the summer of 2015, United were desperate. Perhaps as desperate as they’d ever been.

It was the beginning of the year 3AF – after Ferguson – they’d risen from seventh under David Moyes to fourth under Van Gaal, but the style of play was sleep-inducing and the previous year’s marquee attacking arrivals – Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao – had flopped.

In the final hours of the transfer window and in need of a fan-appeasing addition to the frontline, they moved quickly and spent heavily on a talented yet vastly unproved striker.

With executive vice-chairman and regular wonton waster of cash Ed Woodward at the helm of the club’s transfer operations, little thought was given to the tactical fit and the environment into which Martial was being deposited. The player was overburdened.

When Jose Mourinho replaced Van Gaal, Martial never seemed able to gain the confidence of the Portuguese tactician. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was signed and not only prevented Martial from playing as a central striker – with the French forward almost exclusively then operating from the left wing – but took his shirt number, too.

Then, when United bought Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, Martial slid down the pecking order of the left as well. In the formative early years of his United career, Martial’s development was afforded scant care.

Things looked to be belatedly brightening for Martial under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the 2019-20 season. Restored as the primary centre-forward option, he scored a career-best 23 goals in all competitions. His six Premier League assists that term was also a high mark as he and Marcus Rashford formed a formidable duo in attack.

Nobody expected him to trouble the upper-echelons of Ballon d’Or contention, but there was faith that Martial might prove not to be a complete bust after all.

But that exceptional season turned out to be just that – an exception. A measly four league goals was all he could muster the next year, before a loan move to Sevilla midway through the 2021-22 season essentially ended any real hope of Martial succeeding at United long-term.

How Martial became a burden

Anthony Martial playing for Manchester United

If Martial had been unfairly burdened at the outset, his wages, his persistent injuries, his disinterested demeanour and his performances of recent years have made him the burden his club now carries.

In the end, the total figure United paid to Monaco for Martial rests at around £44 million. Just one of three conditional bonuses was triggered, for the modest milestone of 25 goals within four years of the transfer. Another, requiring further payment should Martial receive 25 caps for France in the same timescale, was not realised.

The mere insertion of the loftiest of the three bonus targets, which would have been triggered in the event of the Frenchman winning the Ballon d’Or, is evidence of the potential those within the game believed Martial possessed at the time.

The fact that most fans would consider it laughable now for Martial’s name to be associated with the game’s most prestigious individual accolade is an indictment of how club and player alike have handled that potential.

The reasons why Martial’s Old Trafford career has fallen so far short of those early expectations would be easier to grasp were there clear flashpoints – a career-altering injury, a blazing fallout with a manager – as is the case with so many tales of sporting potential unfulfilled.

But instead the story of Martial at Manchester United is one of failure by a thousand cuts – some self-inflicted, many emblematic of the structural and directional malaise that has gripped the club for more than a decade.

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