It took injuries to other players for Marcus Rashford to get his chance to become a Manchester United first team player back in 2016. Now Romelu Lukaku’s crocked ankle, which is likely to keep him out for United’s final three league games at Brighton, West Ham and home to Watford, will give Rashford and Anthony Martial opportunities to play and show their talents.
Martial, 22, needs two more games to reach 100 starts for United. He’s started 17 of United’s 35 league games this season and come off the bench in 12 more. In 43 appearances across all competitions, he’s scored a creditable 11 times made 10 assists.
Yet creditable isn’t sufficient for a player of Martial’s talents. He should be well on the way to becoming one of the best attackers in world football, up there with Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne in the ballrooms of London’s best hotels to receive a flurry of gongs in award ceremonies.
Martial is fast, sharp, skilful. He runs at players and past them. He can cut in front the left or right — defenders hate playing against him. He’s got the magic and should be pushing to be United’s player of the year, not being subject to speculation about leaving because he’s not happy at Old Trafford. He’d be far happier with his manager if he was playing every week, but he’s not and he knows there’s no shortage of suitors for him.
United have no intention of selling Martial and are not looking to sign any new forwards. If he wants to leave then he’d really have to push for it, but United are good at holding on to players. They also know they’ve got a hugely talented youngster worth a lot of money. The last thing they want to see is Martial fulfil his potential away from Old Trafford, but, like Rashford, he’s yet to become a mainstay in the side.
United fans, especially younger ones, don’t want Martial to be sold either, but they also want him to keep on improving, not stalling. Martial, Rashford and Lukaku should be becoming 2018’s answer to Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez, the jewels in United’s recovery, but they’ve still some way to go. You also have to factor in where Alexis Sanchez or Jesse Lingard are going to play if United play a 4-3-3 system.
Martial didn’t even start in the two dreadful games against Sevilla and Jose Mourinho didn’t escape criticism for that. He didn’t get off the bench against Real Madrid in the Super Cup in August either. These are the games Martial wants to be playing and, ideally, finishing. He’s played a full 90 minutes in only five of United’s 35 league games.
There’s much room for improvement in the relationship between United’s manager and his No.11, but it’s a question of trust. Too many times, Mourinho has started his man, only be to seen wincing from the side as he’s lost possession. Too many times, Lukaku has started games when Martial and Rashford feel they can play as a central striker. If Martial could play a role in the Champions League last eight aged 19, he can play it now.
Martial’s immediate future could be about to get brighter, though. Ahead of the World Cup, he’s come back into contention for France, climbing to 18 caps after starting in two of his country’s last three friendlies. He didn’t make the squad for any of the previous 11 France games going back to 2016.
He is on the radar of several clubs. Juventus noted his talent over both legs of a 2015 Champions League last eight tie, when he was Monaco’s best player and was congratulated for his performance by several Juventus players after the game, including Patrice Evra, who grew up in Les Ulis only 400 metres from Martial.
His Monaco teammate Dimitar Berbatov told ESPN FC: “Martial had something special and he’s developed. He’ll develop even more.
“You could see how fast and strong he was. The only thing lacking was to be more confident. I liked playing in defence in training; it helped me understand the defenders well. Martial would come towards with me the ball. Sometimes he hesitated, he didn’t want to take me on because he thought I was going to take his ball. The self-belief was not there. I would say: ‘Anto, you are so quick, you can go past me. Don’t me afraid to do that to every player because you are so quick.’ He’s a top guy.”
People from the tower blocks of Les Ulis will also attest that he’s a top guy, though he doesn’t look like one in Manchester, where he can have a surly demeanour.
Lukaku’s injury means Martial has more of a chance now. But if Lukaku recovers, as expected, to fill a central role for Belgium at the World Cup, it could mean that Martial will be needed if Mourinho decides to ease Lukaku into next season.
It’s two years since this writer sat down with Eric Abidal, who played with Martial at Monaco, and the France and Barca legend said: “Martial has a very, very, very good talent. But more important is the humility and he has that. He’s focused on his goals: he wants to be the best striker in the world and he worked for that. He has a mix of 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.
“I played with Martial for one year in Monaco so I know what he’s like. He was in Lyon too, they were crazy to sell him. To be the best player in the world, he needs to spend five or six years in Manchester like Ronaldo did. Manchester is good with young players. Or even stay in Manchester and be a legend of Manchester.”
Martial is coming to the end of his third season at Old Trafford. Fans don’t want him to be halfway through the United finishing school before he’s sold to Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, they want him to become a mainstay, a club legend, someone who realised those Ballon d’Or clauses on his contract.
He has the talent, he just needs to be more consistent, more trusted, happier and more productive. It’s a win-win for everyone if he can.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.