Anthony Martial has another chance to rescue his Manchester United career, but if Cristiano Ronaldo stays he will have to produce something exceptional to remain in the team.
When Martial joined from Monaco, little was known or specifically expected of the player. He had played 70 games for the side, scoring just 15 goals. A decent return for a wide player but indifferent for a striker.
A scoring debut, customarily cutting in from the left to strike, secured a 3-1 win for United over Liverpool, and in his first season he scored 17 goals. He was quick, confident and apparently unflustered. He had pace and showed decent technique. Much was expected for the coming years.
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While there were highlights, Martial - like Marcus Rashford and many other players at Old Trafford - seemed equally to blame for poor results as much as they seemed disheartened by them.
Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all had their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them seemed capable of coaching young players to improve on the pitch or to become mentally resilient. Martial suffered and did not have the inherent brilliance to transcend his surroundings.
Last season that led to the player asking for a move away, and he was granted half a season at Sevilla. A change of scenery made sense, but he scored just a single goal and the Spanish team were unconvinced.
There was no attempt to make the transfer permanent, and there appeared little inclination either from United to keep him, or for another club to buy him.
However, Martial was handed a chance. With Rashford unable to play through the middle after refining his game into very little, there was nobody left to step into the striker role when Ronaldo attempted to force his way out of the club.
When United went on tour, the 26-year-old Frenchman had to be employed through the middle, often said to be his favourite position, and he started scoring. Only friendlies, of course, but it is reportedly enough to have changed United’s position on his future.
Practically speaking it makes sense. If Ronaldo leaves, selling Martial would double the task for United’s transfer team, who are notoriously incompetent. There can be no guarantee they would manage to sign even one player, so why risk two being needed? Secondly, it might seem as if Martial works best when he is given the chance to lead and be an almost guaranteed starter. In the absence of real competition, that is now essentially the situation he finds himself in.
Of course, Martial will have to ultimately prove himself on the pitch in competitive games. If he can lead the line, score goals, stretch play and involve those around him, he will be United’s main striker if Ronaldo does indeed leave.
But there’s a situation where Ronaldo stays. What then? Martial would then need to be prepared to push Rashford hard for his role on the left, assuming Jadon Sancho rediscovers his form. It would require much more defensive discipline if he had to accommodate the Portuguese striker’s concise application of effort. That is not something that has come naturally to Rashford, but would afford him the opportunity to once again be a first-team regular.
Of course if Ronaldo leaves and Martial doesn’t convince, there are alternatives. Bruno Fernandes and Donny van der Beek may get a chance to perform as a false nine, with Christian Eriksen able to help out in midfield where Paul Pogba theoretically used to contribute. Anthony Elanga may be given another chance after acquitting himself well under Ralf Rangnick. But the lack of serious alternatives make it clear: this is Martial’s chance to win back his place, and keep it.
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