While Jose Mourinho was unloading a rant aimed squarely at the football authorities and their match officials on Wednesday, many Manchester United fans might have been wondering why he was wasting his breath on an old argument when he could have been using it to explain why Anthony Martial missed out for the third time in four games.
The Frenchman was an unused substitute in the 0-0 draw against Hull City at Old Trafford, a result which had his manager fuming about apparent inconsistencies in refereeing and disciplinary measures rather than analysing what went wrong with his static team. No amount of asking journalists to cover “the truth” can mask the fact that United are way off the boil at the moment.
But far from being one of the answers to United’s issues, Martial has arguably been one of the problems at the root of their ills. A team failing to convert good territory and a healthy dose of possession into chances needs more than it is getting from its attacking midfielders, with the suggestion that the likes of Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have almost become too reliant on the quality of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic holding some weight.
Mourinho warned Martial before selecting him for the FA Cup tie against Wigan Athletic last Sunday that he would need to earn another nod for the Hull fixture which followed. “He will play Sunday and if he plays magnificently, he will play against Hull City in the next match. It’s simple,” explained the manager.
The 21-year-old did assist two goals in a short period during the second half, but by that point he had already turned in a non-existent first 45 minutes playing as United’s main striker. That lack of movement and inspiration helped to undermine his bid for a start in the following game, and Mourinho had not been persuaded he was worthy of a shirt.
There were plenty of fans who disagreed with the Portuguese, with Martial’s every warm-up at Old Trafford in midweek being serenaded and a largely one-sided viewpoint being taken aired online by the end of the night. But you can see the manager’s point when he says Martial has not done enough to earn a start.
Martial was one of United’s most visible threats under Louis van Gaal last term, but that was in a side which appeared much less suitable to cutting-edge football. While Mourinho is not exactly an exponent of football at its finest, United have looked to quicken the tempo markedly since he succeeded the Dutchman in the summer. And Martial has not reacted positively to that.
Gary Neville wondered aloud recently whether the youngster’s body language was really helping, but Martial is hardly the first player to carry himself differently to the majority and many of a similar gait have gone on to great heights. However, he did have a few issues away from the field which made a flying start to the campaign difficult and he appears to have been playing catch-up ever since.
Right now he is a shadow of the player he was in 2015-16, and Mourinho can’t be blamed for running out of patience with him. He has Rashford, Lingard, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Wayne Rooney and Pogba to fit into the attacking midfield line in some way shape or form, and Martial has not earned the right to be treated differently than the rest. He was even given another chance as a centre-forward against Wigan despite having a record of three goals in 15 starts as a No.9 in a United shirt, but still he didn’t deliver a truly compelling case for continued inclusion.
There is every chance he could feature against Leicester City on Sunday, especially given how abject United were at times against Marco Silva’s outfit. But he has to actually start taking such opportunities. Those backing Martial in this stand-off need to look at the 17-goal revelation of last season and then at a guy turning it on for 20 minutes or so against a Wigan side looking a fair bet for relegation to League One and decide whether the Frenchman really is still the player he was.
It is worth remembering, too, that he is still only 21. There are not many players earning a regular shirt in the front line of one of the world’s greatest clubs at a similar age, and it is all a part of the learning curve for any player that these situations are bound to arise.
One thing that would definitely help would be for Martial’s representatives to stop threatening to tout him to the likes of Sevilla every time the United team sheet doesn’t bear his name. No footballer who runs away from every battle they face in their career ever makes it to the top.
Martial has the pace and the talent to be one of the best forwards in the modern game. Now he has to prove to both Mourinho and the football world at large that he has the character to succeed too.