‘What A Waste Of Money’ screamed the headline. The Mirror newspaper was relaying the findings of an independent transfer review which claimed Manchester United had paid three times the value of Anthony Martial to sign the forward from Monaco in 2015.
At the time Martial was just 19. He had cost United £36 million, making him the most expensive teenager in football history at the time, and his contract included a number of clauses which would see that fee increase. He’d cost another £7.2m if he reached 25 league goals over the course of his initial four-year deal, the same again once he made his 25th appearance for France over the same spell and a third instalment should he win the Ballon d'Or before 2019.
It was a package potentially reaching €80m in total, and it immediately put the world on notice that big things should be expected of him. Almost eight years on, and with only one of those three targets having been hit, Martial has been neither a success nor a failure at Old Trafford.
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He’s had his highs. There was his debut strike in front of the Stretford End to settle a 3-1 victory over Liverpool, an injury-time winner in the FA Cup semi-final win over Everton on the way to collecting the trophy in 2016, and a 23-goal season in 2019-20 after finally being given a run as a centre forward.
But there have been low times too. He was rarely given a run in the starting XI in two-and-a-half years playing under Jose Mourinho, providing a significant road block in his progress, and lost the number nine shirt to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“During the holidays, he sent me a message to ask me if I wanted to take number 11, saying it was great because it was worn by the legend Ryan Giggs,” Martial later told France Football of his trouble with Mourinho.
“I told him that I have great respect for Giggs but that I preferred to keep my number nine. When I returned, I saw my jersey with the number 11. He disrespected me, straight up.”
After an upturn under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his form was so poor in 2021-22 that Ralf Rangnick sent him on loan to Sevilla, where he also struggled. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to United was naturally a hindrance to the Frenchman but even in Spain he couldn’t get going.
If you thought when he signed back in 2015 that he was going to be football’s next big superstar, you were wrong. If you believed Martial was a big waste of money, you were also wrong.
Martial has been a truly useful member of the squad without ever looking likely to kick on and become one of the biggest names in the game. When given the chance to start up front, he has scored goals, but never quite at such a rate that his starting place has become unquestioned.
A shy, unassuming man in the way that he carries himself, it is sometimes hard to read whether he has been upset by some of his treatment at Old Trafford, but it has to be said that he has received about the right amount of backing for what he has delivered when everything is taken into account.
Louis van Gaal was manager when United signed him, and while he made a decent start in his first few months, by the time of the return game with Sunday’s opponents Liverpool at Anfield he was playing on the left wing with Wayne Rooney preferred as centre forward. That summer, Mourinho succeeded the Dutchman and Martial’s career hit a standstill.
Under Solskjaer he managed to really get going again. His 23 goals in a free-scoring frontline in 2019-20 came thanks in large part to the Norwegian’s backing of Martial as a nine. He even netted United’s first league hat-trick in seven years that season against Sheffield United.
But since then it has been more hard luck stories for the 27-year-old. Right now he’s injured, but could return to the United line-up by the end of March. It is to be hoped that he will regain some of his form under Van Gaal and Solskjaer now that he has another manager in Erik ten Hag who seems to hold him in high regard.
“When he is available, we will have another good option,” the boss told ManUtd.com recently. “Then we will be happy because we have a quality option extra for the rest of the season.”
Neither a blow-away success nor a downright failure, Martial has had good times and bad but remains a vital part of a United squad looking to push on to become a true giant once again.
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