Anthony Martial is in an unusual position. In the last year, he has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the most dependable young attackers in European football, but he still somehow remains on the fringe.
This was seen with France in the Euro 2016 final when, having not been given any playing time since the second group-stage game, he was given only a few minutes to run at Portugal’s resolute but tiring defence.
Meanwhile, at Manchester United, the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic might also suggest Martial has slipped down the pecking order. However, the arrival of these two attackers, coupled with Luke Shaw’s return from injury, might be the final step in unleashing his talent to best effect.
Martial, like David De Gea, is already trusted to deliver to the very highest standards each week. If there are question marks over Ibrahimovic’s fitness, Marcus Rashford’s stamina and Wayne Rooney’s general conditioning then Martial, like his goalkeeper, is a player who is simply expected to perform wherever and whenever he is played.
This season, though, he will no longer be required to stay quite so wide on the left, since Shaw will add pace and dynamism down that flank. Mkhitaryan will also be effective running the counter-attack, which should free up Martial to take more advanced positions. For these reasons, though he will still probably play mostly on the wing, he is likely to score more often.
Despite a highly creditable debut season at Old Trafford, in which he scored 11 Premier League goals and 17 in all competitions, Martial experienced some surprising criticism. Paul Scholes, in one of his typically blunt moments, remarked that he “doesn’t look bothered if he misses a chance… He doesn’t look bothered if he scores a goal. As a centre forward, all you live for is scoring goals, all you want to do is score goals.”
Scholes made his remarks at a time when Martial was enduring a run of one goal in 14 games for club and country, but the reason for that barren run were two-fold.
First, Martial, the calmest of finishers, had found himself out on the wing and frequently called upon to forage for himself and provide chances for others. Second, the France forward was playing for a club that generated painfully few opportunities for its forwards, due to the stifling tactics of Louis van Gaal.
As for the accusation of not being bothered, anyone who saw his euphoria after netting an FA Cup semi-final winner against Everton can have no doubt as to his passion for finding the net.
It is a mark of Martial’s brilliance that, to some extent, some people have begun to think him indifferent or take him slightly for granted. He arrived at Old Trafford as a virtual unknown, with the largest price tag of any teenager in history, but justified the hype in his very first appearance with a spectacular goal against Liverpool.
In the circumstances, his was a very respectable debut season and it is notable that few commentators now refer to how much he cost, which suggests that most people now consider him to have been an excellent investment.
Indeed, maybe he was a bargain. Should another club come in search of his services in the future, then it is likely that — given the progress of the transfer market — his fee would be not be far from the £100 million mark.
A key question for the coming years is the position in which Martial will end up playing: out wide or as a striker. To an extent, he is a victim of his versatility, since few of his peers can play as well across the forward line.
Historically, several others have been successful wide positions before migrating into the middle — most notably, Thierry Henry — and Martial has shown some promise as a target man. Yet such is the quality of his movement and his skill in build-up play that he may actually be slightly wasted in a central role.
His dribbling is such that he is devastating at close quarters and there are echoes of Cristiano Ronaldo in the way he can be dangerous when cutting in from the left.
It is to be hoped that, if he remains in that role under Jose Mourinho, Martial will be left less on the fringes of the action and, instead, afforded more opportunity to do the attacking damage of which he is truly capable.