The huge shadows cast by Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could provide a place for Anthony Martial to grow in peace this season but one year after a record-breaking move from Monaco, the French striker still feels he has a lot of improving to do.
Martial, who became the most expensive teenager in football history when Manchester United paid €43m for him on September 1, 2015, is back in the news this weekend as Jose Mourinho decides whether to play him in the Manchester derby or react to media pressure and select Marcus Rashford instead.
When you consider what an impact the striker made in his debut season for United despite all the background trauma, it seems almost unfair that his contribution is even in question; but so drastic have been the changes since Louis van Gaal was sacked, nothing is certain at Old Trafford any more.
New manager Mourinho has different formations, different ideas, while Wayne Rooney’s return to a more attacking role — and the arrival of Zlatan to play up top — means suddenly Martial’s position, and his role as United’s great young hope, is at the very least up for debate.
Used so far in a wide role, he endured a difficult Euro 2016 with France, playing only 20 minutes, is yet to score this season for United and now sees his place under increasing challenge from the performances of young rival Rashford, who scored a hat-trick for England U21s on international duty this week.
The Frenchman, however, remains determined to make an impact in what could prove to be a hugely important year in his young career; and there is every reason to believe he will play a big part in United’s future, given his obvious talent.
“It’s a big season for me and I want to be better than last year,” said Martial, who scored in a friendly victory over Italy for his country last week but was substituted after 57 minutes of a disappointing goalless draw in Belarus days later.
“I don’t think you have seen the true Martial at Man United. Not yet. I know I can perform better, I know I can do more. But I’m convinced this season can be my year. It’s a personal feeling I have.”
It is a sign of Martial’s inner belief that he judges last season so harshly, having contributed 17 goals and earned himself a call-up to the French national side in the process; but there are clearly aspects of his game he believes can be improved.
“There are many aspects, but I prefer not to say them in public,” he said.
“For me it’s a secret and I just want to work hard on improving them. But I have to be positive. I didn’t think I would play so quickly and get a regular place at my age. I am proud — but I will be better this season.”
It’s fair to say the arrival of Mourinho at Old Trafford could make or break the young striker.
The Portuguese doesn’t suffer fools gladly — and rumours that Martial’s private life affecting performances on the pitch are a concern — but nevertheless the Special One also has the ability to bring out the very best in players who are willing to work, listen, and learn.
“Already you can see he’s a great manager,” said Martial, who insists he has no problems playing anywhere across the front line.
“The thing that sticks in my mind is his presence and ability to hold the group, even in training. He’s a winner, you can see that. His experience working in the best clubs in the world makes me very pleased he is here.
"I know what he decides will be best for me, both personally and for the whole team. Football is a game where the coach decides where you can be most beneficial for the team. As long as I am attacking, I am happy.”
Martial’s performance against City today will certainly be under the microscope in a match which will provide the first clues as to how far United have progressed in their bid to become real title contenders for the first time since Alex Ferguson retired.
But perhaps the money spent on Pogba’s transfer fee and Ibrahimovic’s wages mean he is no longer under the kind of intense scrutiny as when he first arrived in a transfer deadline-day move which many onlookers, at least those outside of Old Trafford, felt smacked of a panic buy.
Most of those pundits, it’s fair to say, have more balanced views after seeing Martial’s talents at first hand, but there can be no harm in Pogba taking over his fellow Frenchman’s mantle of marquee signing.
“I was really pleased when he arrived,” said Martial.
“I am convinced he’s going to bring a lot of joy to this club — he’s a great player. I talk a lot with him and the more I see of him the more I realise what a great player he is. He’s a big signing for United, as is Ibrahimovic. You can feel the difference in the atmosphere here amongst everyone, including the fans.”
Whether that change of atmosphere results in a title challenge remains to be seen, but victory over Pep Guardiola today would go a long way to marking United out as contenders.
“Of course we want to win the title, it would be sensational but we know it won’t be easy,” Martial said.
“There will be a lot of contenders, including City. Guardiola has won everything in Spain and Germany and he has come to City to do the same. There’s no question he is a great coach and I am convinced he will do well, but I hope that this year Man United will be better!”
So far the signs for United are good — and the onus is on Martial to achieve his potential in a winning team in which competition for places has been intensified and in which he is no longer carrying expectations alone. By the time he reaches his second annivesary at Old Trafford we will have a much clearer picture of where he’s at; but right now there is an opportunity to be grasped.
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