There is a new obsession in the wider football media. A craze more baffling than the demand for official club Twitter accounts to ‘announce’ a particular signing. A fad stranger than claiming to work for Forest Echo News. A trend more curious than polls without an Arsenal option included.
Pep Guardiola is one of the many individuals to have already fallen foul of it. On Wednesday, Anthony Martial joined him.
‘Fraud’ cried much of the watching public. Some went for ‘overrated’. Others went for ‘weak’, or variations thereof. Plenty went for a good old-fashioned ‘sh*te’.
If this season has taught us anything, it is that writing off Martial is a futile task – ‘WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY’ indeed. The Manchester United forward was lacklustre in France’s last-gasp win over Albania. He made just 15 passes, had just 27 touches, did not offer anything defensively (zero tackles, interceptions and clearances) and spurned one of the hosts’ most presentable first-half chances when played through by Dimitri Payet. By anyone’s standards, Martial struggled. By the lofty standards he has set himself since bursting onto the scene, he was a major disappointment.
Didier Deschamps agreed. At half-time, and with the home fans in Marseille growing impatient at yet more possession and control but a similar inability to capitalise, Martial was the sacrificial lamb. The ‘fraud’ had been found out.
But still France floundered. How could this be? Martial had been removed, so how had France not taken the lead? Chances continued to fall for Olivier Giroud, for Kingsley Coman, even for N’Golo Kante. None of them could breach the goal of Etrit Berisha, so expertly defended too by Arlind Ajeti.
Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet – it’s always Dimitri Payet – spared France’s blushes with strikes in the 90th minute and in stoppage time. Had they not, Martial may well have been made the scapegoat.
It is difficult to forget that he is still only 20 years old, such has been his impact during his first season in the Premier League. Signed from Monaco for an initial £36.7m, Martial relished the valuation, and finished as Manchester United’s top goalscorer. His France debut only came in September. Wednesday, when he and Coman replaced Griezmann and Paul Pogba, represented the forward’s fifth international start, and his first in a competitive game.
Martial will be the first to accept he was poor against Albania. But so was Giroud. So was Kante. So was Blaise Matuidi. So was Patrice Evra. The latter of the four was error-strewn, stretched and notably fatigued on the left-hand side. It is no coincidence that Martial, tasked with partnering him, struggled.
Where patience is quickly running out with Evra, the Juventus left-back is now 35. He has enjoyed over a decade of service with the national team, but his regression is notable. His poor games now outnumbers his good games, and able replacements are waiting to usurp him. But for Martial, this was a rare poor game in among the usual excellence. The fraud has defied critics before, and he will do so again.