Martial must be more proactive – but Mourinho will be to blame if he fails to fulfil his potential
A “sophomore slump” is defined as a second effort which fails to live up to the standards set by the first; the difficult second album... or second-season syndrome as it’s often termed in football.
It’s a malady all too familiar to Manchester United forward Anthony Martial, who struggled to recapture the highs of his maiden Premier League campaign last season and often cut a frustrated figure. He was also frustrating to watch in return, his fleeting flashes of excellence coming fewer and further apart.
The 21-year-old’s disjointed displays quickly drew the ire of manager Jose Mourinho, too. “Do I think Anthony is player with great potential? Yes,” the Portuguese tactician said ahead of a Europa League tie in April. “Do I think he can play successfully for me? Yes. But he needs to give me things that I like.”
The things Mourinho likes, what he expects from his players, are no secret. The former Real Madrid and Chelsea manager demands wholehearted commitment, tactical discipline and defensive work rate, no matter which position the player in question plays.
Martial demonsrated few of these last season, to Mourinho’s obvious chagrin. At times he was infuriatingly passive, lacking the verve and vigour that he exuded a year earlier. Though always outwardly serene, his on-field displays in 2015/16 at least betrayed an inner ferocity.
Martial has stalled, but he remains among the most talented youngsters around
Martial certainly needs to do more if he is to deliver on his immense promise and justify the hype that grew two years ago. But Mourinho, too, is responsible for moulding the gifted 15-cap Bleus star.
Mourinho isn't known for his patience; rapid, short-term gains are his forte, immediacy his obsession. As such, he has seldom afforded a burgeoning young talent the space and patience to grow. Handing out debuts in dead rubbers is one thing, but incrementally shaping and developing a player from prospect to finished article is quite another.
Martial's development has stalled, but he remains among the most talented youngsters around. Countrymen Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele may have usurped him as the hot new things of European football over the last 12 months, but the United No.11 can still become one of the best players in the world. When a young footballer is as gifted as he is, it would be negligent to give up on him after one sub-par season.
It mustn’t be forgotten just how refreshing the Frenchman was when he moved to Old Trafford on transfer deadline day in the summer of 2015. Back then the £36 million that United handed over to Monaco set a new record for a teenager – but it looked worth it.
The exuberant Martial was the ideal tonic to the sleep-inducing football on display at Old Trafford in his first season
A relative unknown among Premier League watchers, Martial announced his arrival with a stunning debut solo effort against Liverpool that had Martin Tyler screeching with joy like a hyperactive eight-year-old. He went on to finish the season as his new club’s top scorer with 17 goals.
United, stifled by Louis van Gaal’s possession-for-possession’s sake system, were turgid and uninspiring. But Martial was the ideal wake-up call to end snoozefests at Old Trafford, his speed, directness and youthful exuberance exciting fans who'd long grown tired of watching their team.
Last term was a grand disappointment for Martial, but the former Monaco man has time and talent on his side. Either way you look at it – from a cold business view of protecting the club’s investment, or from a more philosophical vantage of putting faith in youth – it's Mourinho's job to create the conditions Martial needs to flourish.
That would mean giving the Frenchman feedback – constructive feedback – and guidance behind closed doors (a stern rollocking if required, even), but also protecting him from criticism publicly, much like Sir Alex Ferguson did during his 26-year reign at Old Trafford.