Manchester United’s Anthony Martial has bounced back this season and deserves credit for taking his game to the next level under Jose Mourinho, writes Adam Bate.
While the Alexis Sanchez transfer saga dominated the January headlines, the player currently occupying the position that the new man is targeting has been quietly going about his business. Martial has scored in all three of Manchester United’s Premier League games this month. The Frenchman is in the form of his life.
He has already more than doubled his Premier League goal tally of last season and is United’s most efficient goalscorer right now. Martial may be two behind Romelu Lukaku’s total of 11 but his nine goals have come in 15 fewer hours of football. His strike rate of a goal every 121 minutes is world class and surely marks him out as undroppable.
It certainly sets him apart from the young man he is so often bracketed alongside. It was Martial’s injury in the warm-up against FC Midtjylland two years ago that gave Marcus Rashford his big opportunity. Their careers have been intertwined ever since – attracting differing reactions because of the contrasts as much as their similarities.
Rashford, the Mancunian from Fletcher Moss, embodies the traditions that United take such pride in – his overt joy in seizing his chance making him an instant favourite well beyond Old Trafford. Martial, meanwhile, was the diffident outsider who found himself painted as a £57.6m panic buy, symbolic of Ed Woodward ushering in the era of excess.
It was an impressive start nevertheless – scoring on debut against Liverpool is one way to win over supporters – and Martial was United’s top scorer in his first season. But last season saw a dip. Suggestions that losing the No 9 shirt to Zlatan Ibrahimovic had upset him were trivial. Worries that he might not respond to Jose Mourinho’s brand of tough love were real.
Jose Mourinho hailed Martial's turnaround in form earlier this season
“He has to understand what we need from him but it’s not just for us but it’s also for him,” Mourinho explained in April. “If he wants to become a very special player – he can do that – then he has to go in a certain direction.” The response this season has been emphatic and the United boss has suggested that this is a consequence of Martial’s change in attitude.
“I see a great improvement in the person, in the mood, in the face, in the body language,” said Mourinho in September. “If you want just a word, in the happiness. He’s a happy guy, he’s working extremely well. He starts matches, he tries to do well. He goes from the bench, even it is for 10 minutes [and] he tries to enjoy and give something in these extra minutes.”
Martial has certainly had to make the most of those chances from the bench. He started only three of United’s first 11 Premier League games of the season but came on to score in the wins over West Ham, Swansea and Everton before netting the winner against Tottenham at Old Trafford. His patience has been rewarded.
Watch highlights of Manchester United's 1-0 Premier League win over Burnley
In showing such maturity, the fears that Martial would not respond positively to Mourinho’s demands have been allayed. “He is hard with me, there is no question,” Martial admitted earlier this season. “I know that it is for my benefit. I also know that he really likes me as a person so there is no issue about the discipline being for the wrong reasons.”
Given that he burst onto the scene when he was still a teenager, it is easy to forget Martial’s age. He only turned 22 last month and is the youngest player among the Premier League’s top 10 goalscorers this season, despite playing from the left wing and, according to Opta, having far fewer clear-cut chances than the other men on the list.
Ice cold finishing has long been his forte. Martial has a ruthlessness hardly typical of a player of his age. But he has added the spectacular to his repertoire of late. Only Philippe Coutinho and Kevin De Bruyne have scored more goals from outside the box, but Martial has succeeded with one in five of his attempts. Coutinho scored one in 10, De Bruyne one in 13.
Playing from the left demands that he also creates and Martial is delivering in this respect as well. Unlike the other players among the top 10 Premier League goalscorers, he ranks among the top 10 for chances created from open play per 90 minutes too. Indeed, he is only slightly behind Manchester United team-mate Paul Pogba in this respect.
Alexis Sanchez, even amid the distractions that marred his final months at Arsenal, is some way ahead of both men in terms of his creativity this season and United have not made this investment in a 29-year-old to bench him. Like Martial, Sanchez has clocked up those numbers from the left wing but he may have to work around his new club’s in-form player.
“We know he has the talent,” said Mourinho of Martial last week. “We just want consistency.” Having started 2018 by scoring in three consecutive Premier League games for the first time in his career, he looks to be delivering just that. Sanchez will be the one in the spotlight in the coming weeks. But this could be the year that Martial takes centre stage.