Without a Premier League start since February and an unused substitute in recent key encounters with Manchester City and Liverpool, Anthony Martial is reportedly considering his Manchester United future.
Were the Frenchman to depart Old Trafford this summer he wouldn’t be the first player to leave United with a sense of potential unfulfilled, and he surely would not be the last, either.
But as one of the most gifted attackers of his generation, and a player who arrived, expensively, with considerable hype, his loss would be particularly bitter for the 20-time champions.
What’s more, it would mark an alarming continuation of a policy shift that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with most United fans. One that is at odds with the club’s traditions.
Of course, to frame United’s historical recruitment policy as being some kind of holier-than-thou approach of unwavering faith in young prospects, eschewing the chance to splash out on ready-made alternatives, would be entirely false; no team has broken the British transfer record more often than the Red Devils since they first did so in 1962, when they signed Denis Law from Torino for £115,000.
But over the years they have supplemented homegrown talent (from the Busby Babes to the ‘Class of 92’ and on to Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard) and prospects plucked from around the globe (Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, etc) with established, big-money stars like Bryan Robson, Andy Cole and Ángel Di María, to name but three record-setting signings.
Not every player fulfilled expectations: for every Ronaldo success story there are a dozen Gabriel Obertans, and even a player of Di María’s pedigree guaranteed little. But this method gave United sustainability. The older stars brought on the youngsters, who eventually replaced them and returned the favour to the next generation.
A significant portion of United fans expressed concern when José Mourinho was appointed manger in 2016, feeling the Portuguese would be ill-suited to upholding the club’s traditions when it comes to giving patience and opportunities to young players.
The former Chelsea boss is constantly reminded of his decision to jettison Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah from Stamford Bridge during his second reign in west London, with both now starring for direct rivals and arguably the two best players in the Premier League at present.
Most managers have similar oversights on their record, albeit not quite so glaring given the proximity of De Bruyne and Salah, and, to his credit, Mourinho has maintained United’s proud record of having at least one academy graduate in every matchday squad for more than 80 years.
But evidence of Mourinho’s slight mistrust in youth is beginning to mount. There is the decision to field veteran converted wingers in the full-back positions, leaving Luke Shaw sidelined and marginalised and loaning out Timothy-Fosu Mensah. Alexis Sánchez‘s signing from Arsenal in January was a coup, but in playing the versatile attacker on the left, the position Martial and Rashford were rotating in has been closed off.
Each example can be explained away, with varying degrees of reason, by anyone who wishes to do so – there are question marks over Shaw’s application, and Fosu-Menah remains raw, for example, plus Rashford has made as many appearances as anyone (although we all know it’s minutes on the field, not accumulated cameos, that foster development).
But allowing Martial to leave might just tip the balance against the counterclaims and expose a trend towards short-termism at the expense of nurturing seeds planted previously.
For his part, Mourinho is content with his attacking options, seeing no need for further additions and, likewise, no reason for his current charges to be getting itchy feet.
“We have Alexis, we have Romelu Lukaku, we have Martial, we have Rashford,” he said on February 9. “Rashford can play on the left and on the right, Alexis is exactly the same, all of them apart from Lukaku can also play from behind, they can also play as a second striker.”
“It’s bad for you [the media] because you like to have things to write and things to speculate especially in the summer, but I don’t want attacking players so don’t speak about attacking players coming here because nobody is coming here.
“Juan Mata, Lukaku, Rashford, Martial, Alexis. I don’t want attacking players so for speculation in the summer you have to go to other areas, but for attacking players I am really happy.”
This will offer Martial little comfort, though. There is a general feeling that the Frenchman remains painfully inconsistent and hasn’t entirely justified the hype he arrived with almost three years go. But he was United’s best outfield player in his first campaign with the club, top-scoring with 17 goals, and was in fine fettle this term.
The 2016/17 season was a disappointing one for the No.11, but experiencing the kind of off-field problems that no footballer is impervious to, no matter how much they earn, he can, and should, be forgiven.
What’s more, Mourinho’s decision to pinpoint Martial as the man to make way for Sánchez, first moving the former Monaco man out of position to accommodate the new signing, then dropping him when performances inevitably dropped, flies in the face of reason.
Despite job-sharing with Rashord for the first half of the season, and despite finding himself out of the side of late, Martial is still only second to Romelu Lukaku when it comes to direct goal involvement for United in the Premier League this season (nine goals, five assists), and the 22-year-old still leads the way for ‘big’ chances created (eight).
His expected goals (xG) and expected goals assisted (xA) contribution also accounts for a greater percentage of United’s total chances than any colleague except Lukaku.
Understandably, then, in light of the uncertainty around his first-team place, French outlet RMC claim Martial is reluctant to commit to a new contract at Old Trafford, while The Times suggest the attacker wants to be assured of his future prospects before considering renewing terms.
United and Mourinho, however, for the sake of the club’s direction beyond the immediate, shouldn’t let it come to that.