Anthony Martial and David De Gea have a lot in common. Both joined Manchester United at a young age, the Frenchman at 19, the Spaniard at 20, and both were immediately thrust into positions of high pressure. De Gea was given the unenviable task of replacing the iconic veteran Edwin Van Der Sar in goal and struggled initially to adjust to the more intense and physically demanding environment of the Premier League. Written off early into his United career, he’s blossomed into a truly world class goalkeeper, single-handedly keeping his team afloat in the disastrous post-Fergie years and winning the club’s player of the season award three times in a row.
Martial landed in Manchester and faced a similarly high-pressure environment. His new team were finding goals hard to come buy and the squad was desperately short in the striking department after the sales of Javier Hernandez and Robin Van Persie to Bayer Leverkusen and Fenerbahce respectively. A raft of injuries stretched a small sq to breaking point. The fee for signing Martial, which could eventually reach nearly £60m if contractual add-ons become payable, stunned many in England and in France where the teenager was playing for Monaco. Whilst his talent was not in question, his ability to justify such an outlay in the short to medium term was questioned. He was considered to be a rough diamond rather than a ready-made star. But United’s failure to recruit an experienced goalscorer meant that the attacking burden would fall largely on the struggling Wayne Rooney and the new prodigy. Martial’s introduction to English football was as a substitute against Liverpool at Old Trafford. With the game in its final stages and in the balance at 2-1, Martial received the ball by the left touchline and set off for goal. Seconds later, with the visitors’ defence bamboozled, the ball was in the net. Hero status was immediately bestowed upon him. Eight days later, away at Southampton, the Frenchman struck again, twice converting with the coolness of a far more experienced forward. United fans suddenly realised that they had a rare talent on their hands.
The problem for Martial was that it was quickly clear that even at 19 he was by far his team’s best outfield player. At a club the size of United, new signings would normally find themselves surrounded by top class teammates, but Glazernomics and the wretched tenures of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal left a squad with solid but unspectacular pros. Martial became the fulcrum of the fans’ hopes, an incredible burden to carry at such a young age. When Alex Ferguson used to integrate young talents he was largely able to do so slowly and in a winning environment, surrounded by world class footballers capable of providing guidance and support aswell as being able to carry the side when those young players had inevitable off-days. Throwing a teenager into a desperate situation and hoping he can carry his teammates was far from ideal.
To his credit Martial rose to the challenge in a manner that few could have anticipated, providing some x-factor in a mundane team and finishing the season with 17 goals in 49 games. Even with him, last season’s unbalanced and overly conservative team could only score 49 league goals from 38 games. At the other end, David De Gea once again saved his side from enduring even greater embarrassment, making key saves and fluffing up a defensive record which said more about the keeper and his manager’s conservative tactics than the quality of the defenders in front of him. Such was the importance of De Gea and Martial that an assessment of how the 15/16 season could have gone without them sends a chill through this writer. For Martial, as with De Gea three or four years ago, it would have been easy to buckle and lose his way, just as Adnan Januzaj has after carrying the hopes of United fans after his promising introduction to a wretched team during David Moyes’ disastrous year at the club. Rewarded with a large, lengthly contract to tie him to a club stung by the loss and subsequent success of Paul Pogba, the Belgian failed to thrive under pressure and two years on finds himself dispatched to Sunderland on loan where he will be reunited with Moyes. Likewise, Memphis Depay arrived at United as one of the most highly rated young attackers in world football, but glimpses of genius were few and far between in a season of underperformance.
Had Louis Van Gaal retained his job, it was possible and indeed likely that Martial and De Gea would again be facing a new season knowing that they would be expected to carry their side. Indeed, in that scenario it is almost certain that the Spaniard would have jumped ship to Real Madrid, the keeper having had a release fee clause inserted in the new contract he signed after the farcical collapse of his move to the Bernabeu 12 months ago. Frankly, who could have blamed him? Whilst Martial clearly loved his first year at United, continuing mediocrity and the pressure to carry his team would eventually have started to weigh heavy on the Frenchman’s shoulders and wanderlust would likely have taken hold.
That was the future until Jose Mourinho succeeded Van Gaal as manager. This was a game-changer, both in terms of De Gea’s future and Martial’s continued development. The Portuguese targeted four signings and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly arrived by the end of the first week in August. Suddenly the landscape at the club has changed for both players; De Gea was convinced by the Portuguese that he would revive a sleeping giant, whilst Martial must be relieved to no longer be the focus of the hopes of his club and its fans. Zlatan and Pogba in particular are pure box-office, on and off the pitch, and as United start their Premier League season all eyes will be on the new signings. With Mourinho making one defensive acquisition and targeting another centre back the likelihood is that De Gea will be required to perform less miracles this season, even if there is still further defensive strengthening required. In attac, the fortunes of this side will no longer rest on the shoulders of a now-20 year old. Zlatan, Pogba and Mkhitaryan should bring creativity and goals, whilst Mourinho’s preferred system allows for more direct and frequent attacking, which should make better use of Martial’s pace and skill. Ibrahimovic will also provide a target in the box, an area of the pitch where Martial and Marcus Rashford must have felt a little lonely last season.
Most importantly the arrival of Jose Mourinho and the likes of Pogba and Zlatan take the pressure off Martial and De Gea, both on the pitch and off it. For the Frenchman in particular, he no longer faces an environment where the pressure to deliver is so great that it could have had a serious negative impact on his development. To his credit, Martial handled expectations extremely well, but quality and distractions elsewhere in the squad now mean that he can take a step back, breathe a little and concentrate on developing his immense talent. Inexperience always brings inconsistency, but he now has space to make mistakes and to learn from them without the significant consequences he faced last year. Both Martial and De Gea have performed in stifling conditions, facing criticism about the money paid for them and their quality relative to the players they have replaced and it is to their credit that both have succeeded regardless. But for the hopes of a huge club like United to rest in the shoulders of two young players was never a healthy situation. Mourinho and his signings have lifted that weight of expectation and both are now free to continue their development in relative calm. They possess the talent to be the best in the world in their respective positions (one could argue that De Gea already is) and with the arrival of Mourinho, Zlatan and co the conditions are far more conducive for them to do so at United. For both, I imagine that this season couldn’t have arrived soon enough.