It wasn’t meant to be like this. Anthony Martial was not supposed to have played over 2300 minutes for Manchester United already. Add over 500 minutes for Monaco and almost five hours for France, and Martial is a 20-year-old footballer who has played 3135 minutes of football this season by the end of January. While Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata have been axed as Louis van Gaal searches for creative solutions, Martial has played the full 90 minutes of United’s last 14 fixtures in all competitions. He is now as undroppable as Chris Smalling.
“It really is amazing that Martial has played in virtually every match for us,” said Louis van Gaal earlier this month. “I didn’t expect that because when we signed him, I expected this season to be a learning curve for him. It is a very big compliment to Anthony he has played so much.”
A compliment to Anthony, yes, but also a damning indictment of United’s current squad – a squad so lacking in pace and pizzazz that Jesse Lingard is a fixture despite being nobody’s idea of a Manchester United player, a squad so lacking in verve that Martial’s Premier League record of 2.9 successful dribbles per game dwarfs his nearest challenger (Memphos Depay with 1.2), a squad so lacking in invention that they have mustered only two more shots in the Premier League than Aston Villa. United need Martial in a way that no Premier League title challenger should ever need a footballer in only his second senior season.
Anybody who doubts Van Gaal’s belief in attacking football should look again at Martial and his untouchable place in the Dutchman’s plans. Even against Derby, when he destroyed poor Cyrus Christie, he still lost the ball six times with a poor touch. In a deeply flawed United squad, Martial comfortably loses the ball more often than any of his teammates, and his pass completion rate is worse than any other outfield regular. For a safety-first manager, Van Gaal sure places a lot of faith in a raw, inconsistent talent.
“He can beat almost anyone one-on-one,” said teammate Juan Mata on Friday night, but the truth is that Martial fails in his attempts to beat players more often than he succeeds – at least in the Premier League. Van Gaal will undoubtedly know this and yet he persists, largely because Martial is his only unpredictable attacking player, his only potential firework. When discussing Martial, it is incredibly difficult to ignore that ‘p’ word.
“He has incredible potential,” continued Mata, while teammate Daley Blind predicted that Martial “is going to be a great striker”. The message is clear: The Frenchman is far from the finished product. And yet this uncut diamond takes centre stage in Manchester United’s jewel collection, simply because there’s bugger all else with a hint of sparkle. This season is still a learning curve; it’s just that Martial’s school is situated on the left wing at Old Trafford.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Memphis Depay – two years ahead of Martial in terms of development – was supposed to be ready, and the Frenchman was to be allowed a season of integration into English football. But with this Manchester United, there is no time for integration; Martial is already accidentally integral.