“Les rumeurs sont fausses,” tweeted Anthony Martial on Wednesday: “The rumours are false.” Speculation this week had linked the forward with a move from Manchester United — Arsenal was a suggested destination for the French international — but, not for the first time, he used social media to refute gossip.
The latest rumours came about following a difficult second season for Martial at Old Trafford after an impressive first term. On and off the field, things could have been better for the man born and raised in the tough Paris cite of Les Ulis, where Thierry Henry and Patrice Evra also grew up.
Martial separated from the mother of his child, was exposed by British tabloid newspapers for indiscretions in his private life and also saw his fellow countryman Morgan Schneiderlin, initially his closest friend at United, sold to Everton.
After a personally disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, during which he was booed by France fans, Martial returned to his club to find himself stripped of the No. 9 shirt that was passed to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Unlike Antonio Valencia, who once wore seven, Martial had not asked for the change.
In Jose Mourinho, Martial found a manager who wanted different things from Louis van Gaal, the man who’d bought the then-19-year-old from Monaco in August 2015. Mourinho started Martial in the first three league games of the season but, while all three were won, his displays underwhelmed. United’s manager was justified in dropping him for the fourth, a home derby loss to Manchester City.
Many times last season, Mourinho’s body language was negative regarding Martial and nor was it hidden, as fans who sit close to the dugouts regularly notice. Mourinho appears frustrated that such a talent isn’t fulfilling his immense potential; he also demands that players defend effectively — he wants more than simply running back behind the ball — and that requires more from Martial.
But remember this: Martial is still just 21-years-old. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, another expensive teen arrival at Old Trafford who didn’t initially speak English, struggled for consistency on his eventual rise to becoming the best player in the game.
It would be easy to say Martial overachieved in his first season, when he scored 17 times in all competitions, and underachieved in his second, which yielded just eight goals. But United had big expectations for him right from the start, which is why they paid AS Monaco £36 million, rising to a potential £58m.
The reaction from swathes of the English media was that the club had grossly overspent, but that view was quickly banished when Martial started playing and scored on his debut against Liverpool. Fans used the criticism as the inspiration for a popular song:
Tony Martial, he came from France,
The English press said he had no chance.
£50 million down the drain,
Tony Martial scores again.
The tune really took off at Tottenham in April 2016. By May of this year, when United returned to White Hart Lane, Martial’s stock had dipped. Even though he was almost exclusively played in a wide position, a return of four goals from 25 league appearances was poor. He was one of the players who failed to bridge the immense goals gap between Ibrahimovic and the rest.
Perhaps Martial was hindered by his teammate’s immobility, as the pragmatic Mourinho realised his squad would be most effective by playing through its most consistent scorer, but highlights were few. Martial was the best player in United’s best performance of the season, a 4-1 EFL Cup home win against West Ham, and also started in the final of the competition, a 3-2 win over Southampton.
He doesn’t always look delighted with his lot and his demeanour can appear surly, yet those who know Martial insist that he’s popular and a contented figure around United’s training ground. He has a good grasp of English and players have been amazed at some of his tricks in training. He’s respected not only for his skills and blistering pace, but also his strength; defenders say he’s the most difficult man at the club to contain in training.
Martial is good friends with fellow forward Marcus Rashford and there are hopes the pair can achieve world-class status. They certainly have the ability; one of the three £7.2m add-on clauses in Martial’s United contract will be paid if he wins the Ballon d’Or before 2019.
Given Martial didn’t start the Europa League final vs. Ajax or the crucial semifinal second leg against Celta Vigo, that looks to be a stretch, but the tools are there.
“I felt a bit sorry for Anthony with the price tag,” says Nicky Butt, United’s Head of Academy. “But he’s still only 21. People need to be patient with him, but United also need leaders on the pitch. Anthony needs them to help him through tough times.”
United bought Martial to eventually be a centre-forward, the position in which he’d excelled during his final few games for Monaco, especially a Champions League qualifying win over Valencia. But he doesn’t always look like a natural in the position, instead appearing more comfortable on the left, cutting inside.
Only Mourinho knows if Martial fully features in his long-term plans. He needs love and confidence and, while United’s manager can have a tough outward demeanour, he’s also a compassionate individual who cares about his players, who respect him in return.
But Martial must take his chances and show more of the form that made his first season in England one to whet the appetite.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.