Manchester United’s 3-2 comeback win over arch-rivals Manchester City on Saturday evening was one that will undoubtedly live long in the memory. It had everything that one would hope for in a match of this magnitude – aggro, goals and drama. At full-time, as everyone watching looked to grasp what had just happened, critics were full of praise for the match-turning performance of Paul Pogba, whilst on the left wing, Alexis Sanchez grew into his red shirt, providing two assists.
Whilst Saturday’s encounter will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest Manchester derbies of all time, it may also prove to be the moment Anthony Martial’s Old Trafford career came to a premature end. In the past two months, the France international has made just three starts in all competitions and reports this week suggest that United’s number 11 has turned down the club’s contract extension offer due to a lack of playing time. That the 22-year-old has fallen down the pecking order for some of his side’s biggest matches could lead to understandable frustration.
Martial arrived at the Theatre of Dreams as a relative unknown on transfer deadline day back in the summer of 2015, with the weight of a hefty initial £36 million fee around his neck. By the end of his debut campaign in a red shirt, the Old Trafford faithful had a new hero in the shape of the mercurial Frenchman. Last season, however, during the youngster’s second term in Manchester – and first under new boss Jose Mourinho – Martial’s progress at the club appeared to stagnate. He saw his number nine shirt taken away from him in order to be given to veteran summer signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and being handed the number 11 seemed to indicate that he was to be seen as a winger, rather than as a striker – his preferred position.
Martial found himself in and out of the starting XI and struggled to string together a consistent run of solid, convincing performances, looking devoid of confidence. He was a shadow of the player that lit up the Premier League just a few months earlier and again, there were rumours of a possible Old Trafford exit.
The opening of the current campaign saw Martial share the left-wing berth with fellow highly-rated youngster Marcus Rashford and whilst he started out as the England international’s deputy, he soon moved ahead of the academy graduate in the pecking order, as he looked to establish himself as one of Mourinho’s key men. A purple patch at the turn of the year saw the former Monaco man score three goals in four January appearances and it finally seemed as though the Frenchman had won over the Portuguese boss and was set to fulfil his undoubted potential.
The arrival of Sanchez from Arsenal towards the end of January, however, soon saw that development grind to a half. It was immediately clear that the Chile international was to become Mourinho’s first choice down that left flank, ahead of the promising talents of Martial and Rashford, as the Reds boss prioritised short-term success and results over developing such highly-rated individuals.
Throughout the campaign, the Frenchman has shown fleeting glimpses of what he is capable of. One just needs to take a look at his sublime touch for Jesse Lingard’s opening goal against Arsenal back in December, or the way he teed up Romelu Lukaku for his strike against Chelsea less than two months ago. Overall, however, Martial has been unable to play to the level that Mourinho seeks from him on a weekly basis, causing him to spend large chunks of matches watching from the sidelines.
Whilst United’s victory over their arch-rivals will live long in the memory, ultimately, the improved performances of the likes of Sanchez and Lingard could quite possibly consign Martial to even more minutes on the substitute’s bench. That Mourinho opted to bring on Rashford in the closing stages of the second half should also be an indication of the Frenchman’s standing in the pecking order.
In recent months, as Mourinho sought the ideal combination of players to bring the best out of Sanchez, the former Chelsea boss has relied heavily on Juan Mata, often deployed down the right-hand side, to make the most of the balance that the Spaniard offers his team-mates.
There can be little doubt that Martial has the ability to develop into one of the most fearsome forwards in world football. Besides having the technical ability to breeze past players as if they aren’t there, the mercurial Frenchman also possesses raw pace, strength and is a deadly finisher. All those characteristics should see the 22-year-old reach the top, but this can only be done if he is playing regular first-team football.
Unfortunately for United and their supporters, this does not seem to be forthcoming and the rumours linking Martial with a move away from Old Trafford may prove to have a bit more substance to them.