Deadline Day came and went for Manchester United just as it did for everybody else. Unsurprisingly, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay were the two big names to leave the club while Bastian Schweinsteiger remains – presumably to help fill the midfield gaps left by others? José Mourinho has added him to the Europa squad so, though it is clear that he views him as old and battered luxury baggage left by van Gaal, he is likely to get quite a lot more game time in the second half of the season.
Schweinsteiger showed what a fine football talent he can still be with a winning performance against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup at the weekend, though the struggling Championship club may have flattered to deceive. Another United player to shine that day was Anthony Martial and, a year ago, it would have been astonishing to think of him being talked about as a potential leaver on loan this January amid lingering doubts over his long-term future at Old Trafford.
At the other end of the age spectrum from the German, Martial is still highly-rated as one of the best young talents in Europe, having followed a similar path to Thierry Henry, beginning at Le Club Omnisports des Ulis in Paris and then Monaco. He is also a full French international but, while the young Henry’s confidence was boosted by a successful 1998 World Cup campaign, Martial was left with the disappointment and self-doubt of failure in front of his home fans at Euro 2016.
Henry was of a similar age to him when he joined Arsenal but it didn’t work out for him immediately either. At 21 years of age and already labelled as the world’s most expensive teenager, this is a time of insecurity and uncertainty for Anthony Martial as well as excitement and the fabulous pace and skill we all know about.
Mourinho said of Martial: “Players pick themselves… His position is one where we have lots of options and he has to perform better than the others who are competing for the same positions.”
Having finally been given some game time, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is clearly ahead of Martial in Mourinho’s thinking and the message is very much that he needs to ‘try harder.’
Unlike the now departed Angel di Maria who, similarly to Martial at times, seemed detached (and has been booed by PSG fans for a similar lack of application there) it is more difficult for Martial to know exactly what he has to do, especially when a straight comparison to Mkhitaryan playing in exactly the same position is all that Mourinho will offer up.
Arsène Wenger’s coaching alchemy turned Henry from a very good player into one of football’s greats by playing him as a striker down the middle instead of on the wing. To get the best out of his players – and therefore the team – could Mourinho not try playing Martial down the left wing, Mkhitaryan down the right with both supplying Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the centre?
Top-scoring with 17 goals in 49 appearances and with a debut goal against Liverpool voted United’s ‘Goal of the Season,’ Martial could hardly be described as a failing talent or, indeed, a poor return on investment as he was instrumental in helping his team to win the FA Cup last season.
United paid £36 million up front for him with three bonus clauses, worth £7.2 million each that could take the total transfer fee to £57.6 million. If the United hierarchy, never mind Mourinho, seriously wanted him out, then, surely, they would have done so now rather than triggering more bonus payments?
If Martial can take small comfort from that he has, at the same time, got to really understand what it is that Mourinho still feels is lacking. Mkhitaryan apart, is it a clever ploy by the manager to keep him hungry for self-improvement – a piece of reverse-praise psychology? Or, are we seeing a similar, much more narrow approach of criticising ‘star’ players for lack of defensive discipline that saw Eden Hazard reduced to a detached shadow of what he had once promised?