Anthony Martial: Manchester United forward leaves behind mixed Old Trafford legacy

Manchester United forward Anthony Martial has joined Sevilla on loan for the rest of the season, leaving behind a mixed legacy at Old Trafford.

The conclusion of Martial’s loan move comes after a protracted period for both club and player.

In December, Sky Sports News exclusively broke the news of Martial’s desire to leave United in the January transfer window in search of regular playing time elsewhere. After a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa in January, the 26-year-old was accused of asking not to play in the game by interim manager Ralf Rangnick, though Martial refuted the claim on Instagram.

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Dharmesh Sheth explains that Anthony Martial’s loan move to Sevilla with no option to buy could be a smart move by Manchester United and increase his transfer value.

Rangnick later said he considered the incident to be “resolved” and Martial returned to the team as a substitute in the club’s 1-0 victory against West Ham, where he played a role in creating Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner. Just three days later, his loan move to Sevilla for the rest of the season was confirmed.

Having joined the club in 2015 as a highly-rated 19-year-old with a Ballon d’Or nomination clause, how has Martial’s time at Old Trafford turned out?

‘Welcome to Man Utd, Anthony Martial!’

Martial joined United for an initial £36 million that would rise to £57.6m, making him the most expensive teenager in football history at the time. He was utilised by then-manager Louis van Gaal primarily as a striker and immediately endeared himself to Manchester United fans on his debut with a brilliant individual goal against Liverpool that showcased his immense dribbling and finishing ability.

The 2015/16 campaign was a successful maiden year with the Red Devils for Martial as he registered 26 goal involvements across 49 appearances and was the club’s top scorer for the season. Though United missed out on Champions League football with a league finish of fifth, Martial’s goal and assist against Everton in the semi-final of the FA Cup sent the club through to the final, where they eventually ran out as winners against Crystal Palace.

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Image: United won the FA Cup in Martial's debut season with the club

Moved to the flanks by Mourinho

However, Martial has since struggled to consistently replicate the form he displayed in his first season with the club and he experienced a relative decline in productivity under United’s next managerial appointment, Jose Mourinho.

The arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, coupled with the emergence of precocious talent Marcus Rashford, saw the Frenchman moved to the left wing to accommodate his teammates. This change was encapsulated by Martial’s shirt number as he swapped number nine for 11.

Despite the positional change, Martial was still able to contribute with 16 goal involvements in 42 appearances but did not play a large part in the Europa League and Carabao Cup double achieved by the club that year.

His playing time also suffered: he played 46% of available minutes in the Premier League in 2016/17, a marked decrease from the 86% of minutes he played the previous season. This trend continued for the most part in subsequent years and the only other time Martial has played more than 50% of available domestic minutes was in the 2019/20 season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The club’s signing of Romelu Lukaku in 2017 appeared to indicate that Mourinho did not envisage Martial playing through the centre and he continued to play the majority of his minutes as a winger. His predatory instinct was still evident in flashes during this period however, as he scored a combined 23 goals across the 2017/18 and 18/19 seasons, including a purple patch in the latter campaign where he scored six times in five Premier League fixtures.

Martial’s best season – a false dawn?

After Mourinho was sacked by United in December 2018, Solskjaer took charge of the club on an interim basis and was later appointed as permanent manager.

It is under Solskjaer that Martial enjoyed his most successful period in a Manchester United shirt – 23 goals and nine assists in the 2019/20 season represented his best return since his first year at Old Trafford. Martial played virtually all of his minutes as a forward or striker and averaged 0.58 goals per 90 minutes in the Premier League, ranking him in the 85th percentile among all forwards in the division that season.

This was complemented by his 2.2 completed dribbles per 90 minutes in the league, up from 1.83 in the previous season as the Frenchman appeared to be making good on his much-vaunted potential as a youngster.

However, this halcyon period proved to be a false dawn for United and Martial as he has since failed to find the same consistency, having scored a combined eight goals in his 47 appearances for the club in 2020/21 and 2021/22.

The signing of Edinson Cavani meant that Martial again featured on the wings when the Uruguayan was playing, but even when deployed in his favoured position, Martial was still unable to affect games in the same way he had done the previous season.

Neville: ‘His work off the ball drives me crazy’

When he has been misfiring in front of goal, other players in the United squad are preferred to him for what they can bring to the team in terms of their efforts without the ball – a complaint about Martial that has followed him throughout his time at the club. In 2018, Sky Sports’ Gary Neville said of Martial: “What drives me crazy about him is his off the ball work.”

A perceived lack of application and desire have not helped his cause and Martial’s 9.02 pressures per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season do not compare favourably with Cavani’s 13.7, despite the Uruguayan being eight years his senior. This is also evident in the club’s sprinting statistics in the Premier League this season – when Martial is on the pitch, he is contributing fewer sprints per 90 minutes than Cristiano Ronaldo, who will soon turn 37.

He sustained a ruptured knee ligament injury in March 2021 which ruled him out for the rest of the season and Martial’s injury record at the club has been patchy, having suffered more than 10 injuries since the start of 2019 which have kept him out for varying lengths of time.

Upon his return at the start of the 2021/22 season, he found himself behind academy graduate Mason Greenwood in the club’s pecking order, while the signings of Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, along with the recent introduction of Anthony Elanga, resulted in even fewer opportunities. His substitute appearance against West Ham is the only time he has featured this season under Rangnick.

Martial’s career at Old Trafford has been one that began with promise but he has been unable to consolidate his undoubted talent into consistent success and effectiveness.

It remains to be seen whether he will be brought back into the fold following the conclusion of his loan spell at Sevilla, but his record of 79 goals in 269 appearances for Manchester United leaves a sense of what could have been, rather than a notion of fulfilled potential.

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