That thrilling debut goal against the Scousers feels like an awfully long time ago now. On the fringes, out of favour and possibly on the move, Anthony Martial is already a case of what might have been at United.
The comparisons to Thierry Henry may have been premature, but not as forced or as wide of the mark as we may have thought. Young, French and a bundle of pace, energy and trickery, Martial – signed for a fee in the region of £50 million – took the Premier League by storm during a spectacular debut season in 2015-16. In an otherwise tepid and torrid season under the ill-fated Dutchman Louis van Gaal, Martial was the single ray of light in an otherwise dark campaign.
The path to greatness had seemingly opened up before him, especially after a United debut in which he became an instant hero, catapulted into the national spotlight after a blistering and brilliant bow, when he scored in scintillating fashion after 21 minutes. When he arrived at Old Trafford, he was – in many ways – both the antithesis of the Dutchman and a player in keeping with the Dutchman’s famed philosophy. Offering excitement and penetration in a slow side configured to pass the ball sideways, Martial was the latest in a long line of teenage talents to flourish under LVG. He came in a period of flux, joining after a decline, during dullness, at a time when youth brought a promise of a brighter future.
Now, with Memphis Depay and Adnan Januzaj in permanent Old Trafford exile, Luke Shaw understudying to a 33-year-old converted winger and Martial apparently available for transfer, that particular future will never arrive.
Scoring 17 goals was a laudable effort in a Van Gaal team, given the paucity of attacking intent for much of his second season. Yet even had that been 27, Martial was always going to be a stylistic misfit for a Jose Mourinho striker. Simply put, Martial is just not a Mourinho man – he may simply be a victim of circumstance, the right player at the right club at the wrong time. The Portuguese’s four archetypal centre-forwards – in time Romelu Lukaku could become the fifth – are all very similar: Didier Drogba, Diego Milito, Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – powerful and physical warriors who specialise in bulldozing defences with their back to goal – not slick, fleet-footed, elusive forwards.
But yet, Martial’s job share with Marcus Rashford was highly productive – they had 20 goals between them before the end of January. Even when Mourinho dropped Rashford against Tottenham, it was Martial – his replacement – who scored the winner. The Frenchman was a specialist in immediate impacts, the Premier League’s most potent substitute.
Then came Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean’s high profile move was a deal typical of the United’s scattergun recruitment. Older players signed with a view as a shortcut to success – opportunism but no real strategy.
The departed Henrikh Mkhitaryan – capable of playing anywhere across the front – suited what the squad needed. Martial, displaced from the central striking role by big a target man – was demoted to bit part third choice behind Sanchez. A marginalised figure, he’s not scored for United since and perhaps never will again.
After the most spectacular of starts, it could be an anticlimactic end. Martial’s story feels a parable about life at Old Trafford now: the big fee, the excitement with something bright and new before something newer comes along, the ultimate sense that things could, and should, have gone better.
The last five years at United have framed by a lingering sense of what might have been. Martial feels a case in point.