By Iwan Lehnert
It’s too easy to dismiss Anthony Martial’s struggles at Manchester United as a classic case of ‘second season syndrome’. Sure, on the face of it, things don’t look quite as rosy for the Frenchman as they did a year ago; Louis van Gaal’s best purchase during his time at the club has struggled to replicate the sort of blistering form that saw him rip defences apart with his immaculate feet last season, and considering that he was far and away United’s best outfield player during that frequently torturous term, it’s hard to watch Martial struggle under Jose Mourinho and not feel a pang of disappointment.
But this loss of form isn’t down to one obvious, tangible factor, and given what’s been happening around him from a purely footballing perspective so far this season, it’s not that much of a surprise that Martial isn’t hitting those same dizzying heights. He doesn’t have the element of surprise over Premier League defences anymore, for a start; there’s also the fact that, as plenty have mentioned, he’s playing in a slightly deeper position than he was last year, which is making it difficult for him to be as effective; he’s had fitness problems, too, specifically what appeared to be concussion against Watford, and finally, it’s not like United are performing consistently as a unit under Mourinho. Not yet, anyway.
Then there’s the very public nature of Martial’s private life, which has been less-than edifying to behold even if you’ve only taken a cursory glance at it. James Ducker wrote that United’s coaching staff are concerned about the effect it’s having on the Frenchman in a piece for the Telegraph this week, so in that sense, it’s no small wonder that things aren’t going so well.
The club’s fanbase don’t appear to be getting on his back, despite his return of two goals so far this term and that’s encouraging to see, but not everyone is queuing up to preach patience. During Saturday’s game, Gary Neville laid into Martial during his Sky Sports commentary, stating that he, as a £55m player must offer more, and suggested that he should be subjected to the same scrutiny as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney.
To a certain extent, that’s fair enough. Martial is paid a handsome wage for his work, AS Monaco were given a fortune for his services and so far this season, his performances haven’t been up to snuff. Of course, then you remember that we’re comparing a 20-year old with two players who have both scored hundreds of league goals in their careers, who have won countless trophies and are fifteen and ten years his senior, respectively. Combined, Rooney and Ibrahimovic have played top flight football longer than Martial’s been on this planet, for goodness sake. He doesn’t have their experience, he doesn’t have their maturity (?) and he hasn’t faced anything like this sort of obstacle in his short career.
This isn’t to say that Martial is blameless for his troubles; on the pitch, he’s appeared to be on the periphery of games too often of late, and has decidedly less spark to his play, too. But feeding the narrative of ‘YOUNG PLAYER WORTH BIG MONEY MUST PERFORM’ isn’t going to help him, especially not when Martial is surrounded by players with far more experience who are also struggling to deliver consistently. His performance against Arsenal wasn’t stellar, but he troubled Petr Cech at times, and whilst he wasn’t at his menacing best on the left of Marcus Rashford, he wasn’t hiding, and he was still trying to get involved in what was going on around him. If it looked like Martial had zero interest in playing football when Mourinho hands him a start, then there would surely be greater cause for concern. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
That 17-goal season, and Martial’s clear talent are both reasons to be patient this term, even if that means he doesn’t get over the 10 goal mark. He’s a fantastic finisher, great dribbler and possesses the sort of quick-thinking in attack that few players in this current United team have. We’ve also seen the dangers of expecting too much, too soon from young attacking talent; even if they’ve shown bucket-loads of promise or offered plenty of excitement one season, you can’t guarantee that you’ll get the same results the next. A short glance at Adnan Januzaj’s career since his emergence under David Moyes should act as a stark reminder about how simple it is to fall out of both form and favour.
Of course, ‘patience’ is one of two words beginning with the letter P that United fans are sick of hearing these days, with the other being Louis van Gaal’s oft-referenced description of his footballing ethos which will not be mentioned here. But it’s worth reiterating when it comes to this team as a whole, given that this will likely be the fourth straight season that United will spend outside of the Premier League title race, face pressed against the glass, looking in like a Dickensian orphan admiring a particularly fine Christmas turkey. We will see jagged performances, bad results and we will get frustrated as we have done already; that’s part and parcel of supporting this club at present, but when it comes to Martial, he should be given the time and space to rediscover the sort of form that we all know he’s capable of. So far, Old Trafford hasn’t placed much pressure on him, and it needs to stay like that.