Sunday 22 September 2019

Resistance to Martial sale finally paying off

Anthony Martial. Photo: Getty Images
Anthony Martial. Photo: Getty Images

Jason Burt

When Daniel Levy called Ed Woodward during the summer, the Manchester United executive vice-chairman was expecting a conversation about whether his club were ever going to make a bid for Toby Alderweireld (they were not).

Instead, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman was inquiring if United were willing to sell Anthony Martial, as he had heard was possible. Levy also asked about Juan Mata, but Martial was his No 1 target. He got nowhere. Even though Jose Mourinho wanted him out - and Martial was determined to leave - United were even more determined not to sell someone they still believe can develop into one of the best players in the world.

Spurs had hoped to secure Martial in June 2015 for €25 million. Talks were progressing well with Monaco for the then 19-year-old France under 21 international, except the deal did not happen.

Monaco resisted offers until United signed Martial that summer, on transfer deadline day, for an incredible fee that could rise to €80m.

"It was the final days of the transfer period and I sat down with [the then-Monaco coach Leonardo] Jardim and said, 'Look, this is the offer' and he said, 'It happens at the wrong time because there's no time to replace him, but I fully understand you cannot turn it down'," recalled Monaco vice-president Vadim Vasilyev. "To make it happen it had to be something exceptional. And it was."

That fee, and the expectation around Martial after he scored a wonder goal against Liverpool on his United debut, have weighed heavily on him. He is a player who craves an arm around the shoulder, something Mourinho has appeared loath to offer. He would have preferred to have sold Martial if it meant he could bring in a more durable, experienced player, such as Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan.

Martial even became the only United player fined by the manager, after going absent without leave during the tour to the United States to attend the birth of his son.

Things have undoubtedly changed. The likelihood is that, with an option for one more year after this season, Martial will sign a new deal. Maybe he has reasoned he will outlast Mourinho, maybe his relationship with the manager is better. Maybe both - and the fact United are adamant he will stay - have convinced him.

The most important thing is that Martial is just 22 and it appears United have looked at precedent. Kevin De Bruyne left Chelsea under Mourinho, as did Mohamed Salah. Both were a similar age to Martial, but Mourinho wanted tried and tested players. Martial could be United's equivalent if he were to leave.

With five goals in six games, Martial is performing far better. Maybe Mourinho's approach has worked, although he appears to have softened his stance.

"It was hard work with people like Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, for example, because, for these talented players to come to the level they are, it is a process," Mourinho said, which is maybe part of a realisation that he is not going to catch the likes of Manchester City any time soon.

His form has earned Martial an international recall. "I hope he's seeing the importance he's taken in Manchester," said France coach Didier Deschamps, who did not take him to the World Cup. "It depends only on him, he can develop a lot more, he has to do it and has to change a lot of things to get regular performances through a whole season, or even several seasons."

That tallies with Mourinho's thinking.

Martial has power and pace, an ability to beat opponents and the skill of making difficult finishes look easy.

He does not work hard enough off the ball - the statistics show he runs far less than Eden Hazard, Raheem Sterling or Sadio Mane, for example - which will annoy Mourinho, whose assessment that Martial needs to develop from being a "top talent" into a "top player" is right.

United are increasingly hopeful it will happen with them.


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