Wednesday 18 April 2018 17:29, UK
Alexis Sanchez's arrival at Old Trafford has pushed Anthony Martial further down the Manchester United pecking order and his future is uncertain. Is it time to move on?
Anthony Martial was in outstanding form when Manchester United confirmed the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal in January. The Frenchman had scored in consecutive Premier League games against Everton, Stoke and Burnley, delighting supporters and impressing Jose Mourinho enough to hold down his place on United's left flank.
His displays presented a conundrum for Mourinho, but Sanchez had been brought in at great expense and he was not there to sit on the bench. The Chilean took up residency on the left straight away, with Martial switching to the right to make room. The message was clear: Martial had moved behind Sanchez in the pecking order before a ball had been kicked.
Unable to cut inside and use his stronger foot and with his confidence seemingly dented, Martial's performances suffered. And after struggling in consecutive defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle, he lost his place in the team. He returned for the 2-1 win over Chelsea, laying on Romelu Lukaku's opener, but since then he has only started one game in seven.
Could Wednesday's trip to Bournemouth present him with another chance? Mourinho has promised to shake things up after United's shock defeat to West Brom, with Sanchez and Paul Pogba said to be among those in line to be dropped, but Martial did little to suggest a return to the side is imminent during his own half-hour cameo on Sunday.
Following newspaper reports claiming his days at United could be numbered, Martial looked distracted and off the pace at Old Trafford. In 31 minutes, he did not manage a shot, create a scoring chance or even complete a cross. Even more damning, he lost possession 13 times without winning it back once. Mourinho bemoaned his side "losing the ball so easily" afterwards.
Even if Martial does get another chance against Bournemouth, he could be forgiven for questioning whether Manchester United is the right place for him. The 22-year-old shone under Louis van Gaal in his first season, dispelling the notion that he was a £57.6m panic buy with four goals in his first four games and finishing the campaign as United's top scorer, but last season was different.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic became the main man - even taking Martial's shirt number - with Martial drifting in and out of the team as he struggled to meet Mourinho's demands. It was not until this season that he began to respond. "I see a great improvement in the person, in the mood, in the face, in the body language," said Mourinho in September.
The improvement showed on the pitch. Martial's playing time has dropped off recently and so too has his form, but with nine goals and five assists in 16 Premier League starts and 11 substitute appearances overall, he is still averaging a goal involvement for every 98.2 minutes on the pitch.
Only PFA Player of the Year favourite Mohamed Salah, Manchester City duo Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling, and Tottenham's Harry Kane have been more efficient in front of goal this season. As for his Manchester United team-mates, no one else comes close to his output.
Martial's talents are obvious - the speed, the skill, the clinical finishing - and the stats underline why European giants Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid are said to be among his suitors, but they also beg the question: Why has he not been afforded more chances? For all the goals and assists, Martial has only started more than two consecutive games on one occasion all season.
Perhaps a late-season surge will thrust Martial to the forefront, but it is difficult to see beyond the obstacles in front of him. Sanchez is only a few months into a four-and-a-half-year contract at Old Trafford, and while Ibrahimovic is gone, the central striking role now belongs to Mourinho's self-proclaimed "sergeant" Lukaku. Even Jesse Lingard seems to have moved ahead of him.
Marcus Rashford can afford to bide his time at 20, but for Martial, who turns 23 this year, the need for a regular starting role is more urgent. Increasingly, it appears his best hope of finding it lies away from Jose Mourinho and Manchester United.
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