Anthony Martial: The Make or Break Season

The 2015 Golden Boy winner Anthony Martial took English football by storm in his debut season at Manchester United, yet bizarrely we are here in 2017 asking ourselves whether the gifted Frenchman really has a future in the most competitive league in the world.

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So firstly we need to ask why would he want to leave?

On paper Anthony Martial has the perfect conditions to grow into a player of elite quality. A world class manager that won multiple league titles, teammates that have great chemistry and a club renown for making elite talents with home-grown players and developing young signings like Wayne Rooneyand Cristiano Ronaldo of course.

Nevertheless, last season 12 players had more appearances than him and he played in 1,558 Premier League minutes (42 minutes less than Marouane Fellaini) which was an astonishing 1,074 minutes less than his 2015/16 season (2,632). For any talented youngster, minutes are crucial to real development, any lack of them can genuinely change potential world class talents into run-of-the-mill youngsters with high ceilings never reached. So concerns over game time from Martial are justifiable.

The fans have been bemused at the way his place in the team was not retained despite impressing with goals or assists. The weak-minded footballers would have lost all heart at this seeming unfairness and sheer unpredictability, so the fact he is still fighting for his place and smiling with teammates is testament to Martial’s resilience. However despite the positive exterior, it must be questioned whether someone of the Frenchman’s elite potential really would be satisfied with limited game time again this season.

Anthony Martial - The Make or Break Season

Why does Jose not play him?

Of course no one will truly know the reasons behind Anthony Martial’s reduced game time last season but we can certainly make assumptions to try and make sense of it. What does Jose Mourinho want in a winger or wide forward? Historically speaking, he likes direct players with an identifiable crossing strength with some real grit to track back and help the full backs when asked.

Only in special circumstances, when there is a stand out wide player in the squad like we saw with Ronaldo at Real Madrid and Hazard at Chelsea, can he make special allowances but Martial is not of that level or importance to the team yet. So maybe it is that lack of defensive knowhow which has given Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford opportunities ahead of him last season.

One noticeable thing last year was that the 21 year old was prone to ‘trying too hard’ by keeping hold of the ball for too long, dribbling when an easier pass was available which led to him being easily dispossessed in the final third. Unlike his first year, there seemed to be a lack of variety in his game, there was visibly fewer runs in behind the back 4 and a sense of predictability with the number of times the Frenchman cut inside.

Irrespective of whether that was a confidence matter or not, these factors certainly gave Jose an excuse to leave him out of the starting XI. Of course on the flip side, the Martial fans can be justified in arguing that he did not have an honest chance of improving his consistency and confidence by playing regularly despite at times only having one bad game or even harsher one bad patch in a game.

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Anthony Martial - The Make or Break Season

Where does he fit in this season?

One thing that should please the Red Devil fans who rate Anthony Martial highly this season so far is the tactical flexibility and a visibly more attacking team mindset.  We have seen Jose Mourinho set the side up in a lopsided 4-2-3-1 in which the left winger (both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial himself) has freedom to stay central and further forward with Romelu Lukaku.

In pre-season we saw 4-3-3 and variants of a formation with a back 3 allowing for two strikers, these two systems means he potentially could be fitting into the starting XI either playing wide or as a secondary striker. On the pitch the intent shown thus far is hugely different from the pragmatic Mourinho debut season.

When United have taken the lead in the first two Premier League games, the desire to get the second goal even late on and go for the kill rather than meagrely putting more defensive-minded players to consolidate a precarious lead has really impressed the Old Trafford faithful. That change in mentality prima facie is great news for flair players and the incredibly impressive numbers produced by attacking outlets reflect that as this is the first time in 110 years that Manchester United have scored four or more goals in their opening two league games of a season.

Despite the competition with Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata also vying for two or three attacking spots, Anthony Martial already has scored 2 and assisted 1 in 26 minutes, illustrating a clinical edge and composure not boasted by his closest comparator Marcus Rashford. The side has transformed into a counter-attacking machine when he has arrived on the pitch this season because in the impactful cameos totalling 26 minutes, United have scored 5 goals (without him 3 goals in 154 minutes).

If this is another season of limited game time it could spell the end of his Manchester United career with him only having one season left on his contract by the end of season. However the early season signs are certainly encouraging despite only two bench appearances as the team set up and mentality is more conducive to Anthony Martial replicating the magic of his debut season.

Jose Mourinho’s recent words praising him and highlighting his incredible potential shows that he genuinely does have faith in one of the most talented youngsters in European football. Manchester United fans are praying to see the fearless sensation with a devastating ruthless streak in front of goal we know Anthony Martial is and can be.

By Hesham Bilal-Hafiz (@hesham786)

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