Man United's Anthony Martial must adapt so long as Jose Mourinho's in charge
It has been reported this week that Anthony Martial is set to sign a new five-year deal at Manchester United, despite the club having the option to extend his current contract until the end of the next season. Given the player's public falling-out with Jose Mourinho this summer, the news sends a fairly powerful message.
To offer a new deal to a player Mourinho doesn't seem to fancy, but who the club recognise as having a bright future, is letting the manager know what they think about his place in the pecking order.
Mourinho's time at United is surely coming to an end, and news that the club are going against his wishes again is just the latest indication of that. Mourinho was open to selling Martial during the summer transfer window, so to see a player who wasn't in his plans rewarded with a long-term deal will speak loud and clear to him over whose future the club are keener to see tied down.
Supporters will be split on this, though, with many criticising the player's performances and claiming he doesn't do enough to warrant the faith others have in him. Yet the memories of his first season -- during which he managed an impressive 17 goals, including that great strike on his debut against Liverpool and the goal at Wembley against Everton that put United into the FA Cup final -- are still fresh in the mind.
Martial's supporters will point to the fact the Frenchman was the star of the show before Mourinho was appointed. The 2015-16 season was largely a depressing one, with Louis van Gaal's brand of football the dullest that fans had been subjected to since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, but Martial, as a teenager, was one of the few rays of light. He was responsible for 20 percent of the goals United scored in all competitions, which is saying something when you consider he was new to the league and missed the first month of the season.
Under a new manager, particularly one who values the qualities Martial boasts, maybe we would see a return to the form he originally enjoyed.
Martial won more player-of-the-month polls than any other United player last season, despite his limited appearances, because when he was played regularly, he scored. In his first eight appearances last season (four of which were off the bench), he found the back of the net five times. In January, he played in five games, scored three goals and assisted on a further two.
When he has games under his belt and is playing with confidence, Martial is the one player you want the ball to fall to in the box, so cool and calm is his finishing. When you look at the sitters Romelu Lukaku has missed in the opening weeks of this season when the score was 0-0 -- misses that have proved costly -- it's easy to wonder what might have been if Mourinho had spent more time building up Martial instead of tearing him down. The Frenchman, at his best, would have several goals to his name if those chances had fallen to him.
Yet Martial is a player who somehow manages to give his detractors the impression he doesn't care. Maybe he has started the season sulking, begrudging Mourinho the lack of playing time he was offered last season, which likely cost him a World Cup winners' medal in Russia this summer. Some would argue that he's justified to feel frustrated with the manager, while others will point out that it's the club paying his salary, not Mourinho. It shouldn't be up to Martial to pick and choose when he puts in the effort.
The question that needs to be answered, and likely will be if Martial stays at United once Mourinho leaves, is whether he was a one-season wonder or if he is potentially a world-class player. While he has showed flashes of brilliance since his debut campaign, he has not maintained that level in the years since. Is that something Mourinho should take sole responsibility for? Or is there a weakness in Martial's mentality that means when the going gets tough, he goes missing?
France's manager, Didier Deschamps, alluded to this problem a year ago when leaving Martial out of the squad for a friendly against England.
"He has a limited amount of playing time. He's been doing some good things but he's not as decisive as he was before. The two things are linked. Perhaps he's lost a bit of confidence, a bit of rhythm," Deschamps said then. "There's been a change of coach, maybe a different system as well. If you're playing less, when you do play then you have to be decisive, you're not allowed to make any mistakes."
Martial is still just 22, and some would argue it's normal for his waning confidence to affect his performances. Others would say he's a professional footballer, with a handsome salary to match, and that drifting in and out of games as regularly as he does is unacceptable, regardless of who the manager is.
Yet if signing a new deal gives Martial the assurances he needs that the club wants him, which in turn boosts his form, then that can only be a positive thing. If, in time, United aren't as keen, there will be plenty of clubs that are, and his extended deal means they can demand a decent transfer price for him, rather than lose him for little or nothing at all.
But Martial needs to accept that Mourinho isn't going to change, so if he wants to make an impact at this club while the manager is still here, he will have to be the one that adapts. And if he does, it's unimaginable that he will make his Old Trafford exit before Mourinho.