Despite having had a successful season to date, Manchester United has had a difficult stretch of late. Supporters are beginning to accept that Wayne Rooney is showing his age, and the club has suddenly drawn five of its last nine matches in all competitions.
It hasn’t exactly been a disaster, but it’s been enough to get Louis van Gaal thinking about changes, some of which may just be burdening budding French star Anthony Martial.
People watching Manchester United realised early on this season that Martial (along with fellow newcomer Memphis Depay) might be a better striking option than Rooney at this stage. Martial got off to a scorching hot start in his first few matches with the Reds, and looked like the future of Manchester goal scoring. Only recently, however, has Van Gaal directly recognised this transition, as he said recently that his club is stronger with a player like Martial in the striker position. Comments like this are directly comparing Rooney and Martial, and naturally heap a great deal of responsibility on the young Frenchman’s shoulders.
That Van Gaal would feel this way is certainly no surprise given Rooney’s aforementioned struggles and the state of the club of late. A change is in order, and Martial looks like the future. But it’s somewhat puzzling that Van Gaal would go there in the midst of a challenging return from injury for his young star.
Martial injured his foot in a friendly playing for Les Bleus against England earlier in November, and as L’Equipe reported, he left the match on crutches. It certainly looked like a nasty blow to both the French national team and Manchester United at first. Ultimately, Martial made a quicker return to action than some expected, though he struggled in his first matches after injury as he was thrust into a bigger role.
His first game back was a Champions League contest against PSV Eindhoven, and he failed to make the most of a chance to lead the attack. Rooney was returning from injury as well and took up a creative role behind the front four. Martial had a chance to be the focal point of the attack and saw two scoring opportunities, but both were saved by PSV keeper Jeroen Zoet.
Martial also started over the weekend at Leicester City but failed to make much of an impact. He was on the field for the entire match but didn’t see a significant opportunity as Manchester United. managed only a draw against the surprising contenders from Leicester.
As has become typical in the EPL, Jamie Vardy was the story of the match, netting an early goal and putting the Reds on their heels early. It would have been a nice opportunity for Martial to go toe-to-toe with the league’s deadliest scorer, but he was rather ineffective in 90-plus minutes.
None of this is meant to criticise Martial, but rather to suggest that we all ought to remember to be patient about his development. In fact, some even viewed the young star’s injury as something of a blessing in disguise for this very reason. It has been suggested that it is unreasonable to expect Martial to win games for United week in and week out, especially so early on, and that he’s still developing as a player and as an athlete. A spell on the sidelines, as the analysis theorised, could have rejuvenated Martial and given him a little bit of timely rest before the season really kicks into gear.
But we now know that Martial came back more quickly than expected, and did so with a bigger role. Rather than being set back by his injury, Martial appears to have been handed the reins in the midst of Rooney’s struggles, and he’ll now be viewed as the primary attacker for Manchester United whether he’s ready or not.
It’s certainly an exciting time for French and Manchester United fans alike. And there’s no doubt Martial will have some very strong moments as the season progresses. But it’s also a very heavy burden for a 19-year-old player to carry a competing EPL club steeped in history, and that will be important to keep in mind as we gauge Martial through performances like his last two.