MANCHESTER // Like the team that they play for, the majority of Manchester United’s close season signings have underwhelmed thus far. Anthony Martial has been the exception. He made an immediate impact after signing from Monaco in a superb opening month where he scored with one of his first touches in his debut against Liverpool.
That came a week after making his full France debut, and he followed up the Liverpool goal with two against Southampton away, a goal against Ipswich and then an assist against Sunderland.
He could not speak English, he would not turn 20 until December and he had never lived away from France before settling in Manchester with his young family. But on the training ground, he was just as effective.
There were no nerves with Martial, but the goals dried up. There was a clever, diving header in Moscow, but no further goals in the league for three months.
Young players lack consistency, more so at a club with faltering form. Callow talents need to grow in confidence, but it is harder to find when the players you look up to around you are lacking it. Martial was not the only United player struggling to score, they all were.
He is not judged on goals alone and initially Louis van Gaal joked that Martial was a signing for the future, insinuating that he would be used sparingly. Instead, he has played 90 minutes of every single league game since his debut, only missing one game at Watford with a foot injury. The high number of games should not surprise – he played 48 times for Monaco last season.
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Durability was a factor along with his age, speed, power, directness, calmness and variety of goals which impressed United’s scouts and led to the club sending a two-man delegation to Paris close to the close of August’s transfer window.
Keen to close the deal, they travelled on to Monaco. Checks on his personality and attitude also turned up positive results, while being able to play across the front three added to the appeal.
The £36 million (Dh195.3m) fee which made him football’s most expensive teenager was ridiculed in France, especially as the headline £57.6m fee was published, but that will only be dependent on several successes, one of which is him winning the Ballon d’Or.
The current United team need to concentrate first on winning football matches, but in showing that he could perform immediately at one of the world’s biggest clubs, the tone of comment around Martial changed and questions were asked why Lyon had let the Parisien go to Monaco for €6m (Dh30m) in 2013. Lyon had also passed over local boy Antoine Griezmann, who, to the frustration of their fans, made it elsewhere.
“Martial has got a very, very, very good talent,” said compatriot Eric Abidal, who played for a season with Martial at Monaco. “But more important is humility and he has that. He’s focuses on his goals: he wants to be the best striker in the world and he worked for that. He has a mix of Thierry Henry and Rooney. He has agility, power, he can go one against one. When he arrives in front of the goalkeeper, he’s calm and makes the right decision.”
Martial scored in United’s 2-1 home defeat to Norwich on December 19. On Saturday at Old Trafford, he scored with a header and set up Wayne Rooney’s audacious backheel, the match winner in a 2-1 win over Swansea City.
The first question put to Van Gaal in the post-match news conference was about Martial.
“Martial had a great contribution with an assist and a goal, and that’s fantastic,” said the United manager, who also praised Wayne Rooney for his positioning at the front post which freed up space for the Frenchman’s 47th-minute header.
“Right from the start he was very direct,” defender Chris Smalling added of Martial’s contribution. “He did it on Monday as well against Chelsea [a 0-0 draw on December 28], I don’t think [Branislav] Ivanovic would have wanted to play against him again today. Anthony created a number of chances and it was great to see him get on the scoresheet, too.”
United’s players have had more say in recent matches. The defenders pushed up higher against Chelsea, leaving themselves more vulnerable to counter attacks.
Against Swansea, the team started with three defenders, with Martial and Young afforded space to attack on the wings. They were the game’s best two players, with fans delighted to see them run at opponents and cross.
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Martial is one for the future, but given the lack of forward options at Old Trafford, he needs to perform now – a huge responsibility in his first season. The consistency should come, but he has done enough to justify the high hopes since arriving in England.
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