As he unerringly rattled his second goal of the game into the bottom corner of the Chelsea goal, giving Manchester United a 2-1 lead a Stamford Bridge, Anthony Martial’s purple patch extended to four goals from his last five starts.
The 22-year-old Frenchman divides opinion inside Old Trafford. Many fans feel he is too inconsistent and lacks the requisite drive to succeed at the club. Others believe he has been the unfortunate victim of Alexis Sánchez’s January arrival and that his obvious talent should afford him greater patience and more game time.
The fact Martial has now scored as many goals in his last five starts as Sánchez has mustered in 26 appearances since leaving Arsenal for United during the last mid-season transfer window suggests there is credence to the latter line of thinking.
Martial’s first goal of the current season was a deflected effort in an evening’s stroll of a victory over Swiss champions Young Boys in the Champions League in September. It was his first strike since January, as doubts had grown over his future at the club amid a dwindling contract and an apparently cool relationship with José Mourinho.
It’s not as though Martial’s recent form suddenly justifies the early hype that surrounded his £36million move to Old Trafford, or that we can now be sure the young attacker is on the path to fulfilling his vast potential.
Indeed, even in recent displays there have been instances of inconsistency and frustrating inertia. But the signs are overwhelmingly positive and it is becoming clear he benefits from regular game time, rewarding his manager’s renewed faith with a level of productivity few United colleagues currently offer.
Now in his fourth season with the Red Devils, Martial has spent around half of his time in Manchester living up to his billing as one of Europe’s most gifted young forwards. He was top scorer and United’s most dynamic attacking threat during his first season, under Louis van Gaal’s auspices, but off-field problems contributed to a difficult second term, while the latter part of last season saw him struggle to impact the first team.
Now, though, Martial is thriving and building towards once again becoming a key contributor for United. So much so, in fact, that despite rumours of a move away from the club last summer – as Mourinho reportedly wanted to let the Frenchman go in order to sign Willian from Chelsea – he is said to be close to agreeing a new long-term deal with the 20-time champions.
Martial’s situation is beginning to mirror that of left-back Luke Shaw. The former Southampton defender was openly criticised several times by Mourinho, with his commitment and attitude questioned and his future at the club seemingly expiring. Until this season, that is, when he has been arguably United’s most consistent performer, his fine form rewarded with a bumper new contract.
So, then, has Mourinho’s tough-love policy with these capricious youngsters paid dividends? And was the Portuguese coach playing the long game all along, steeling the wayward talents by forcing them to learn lessons the hard way?
Correlation, though, must not be mistaken with causation; the theory is pure conjecture and doesn’t really hold up against scrutiny. While Shaw’s impressive turnaround was overdue and longer in the making than most would have hoped, it is a stretch to believe that constant public criticism from his manager and a near-banishment from the first-team picture aided his resurgence.
And when it comes to Martial, the evidence against this argument is impossible to ignore. It is a fact that his performances dipped severely in the second half of last season but there is a very obvious reason for that. Before Sánchez was signed on January 22, Martial had been rotating in the left-wing position with Marcus Rashford, the pair enjoying a fine run of form as the competition for minutes kept them on their toes.
Of the two youngsters, Martial had been especially productive up until that point, scoring nine Premier League goals and registering four assists, meaning he was directly involved in a goal every 74.3 minutes. At the time of Sánchez’s signing, Martial ranked fourth in the division for expected assists per 90 minutes (xA90) and was United’s clear top performer in terms of xContribution per 90 (expected goals and assists combined).
Yet, despite this, it was Martial who had to make way for Sánchez, with the Chilean assuming the left-wing spot. The United No.11 was initially moved across to the right flank, where his ability to dribble inside on to his stronger right foot – the most effective tendency of his game – was negated.
Martial’s form dipped and he was soon dropped, making just three more starts on the left side of attack that season, and none in the centre-forward position many consider to be his natural role.
Meanwhile, Sánchez, until very recently, remained the undisputed first choice on the left, even though he has thus far failed to deliver at United, scoring just four times and looking a shadow of the player who starred for Arsenal for many a season.
Martial, of course, needs to make improvements to his game, and he has not developed as quickly as expected after his excellent first season in England. But his current form should come as no surprise. While he can frustrate at times with his decision-making and movement, his is a talent around which attacks should be built. He should never have been the one sacrificed for Sánchez’s benefit.