The cult of the individual superstar in football has never been stronger. In fact, footballers are so powerful as individual brands that the way fans consume the sport is starting to change. Younger fans, the ones who speak in a language of Tik Tok videos and dabs, increasingly following players rather than teams.
For some, this is a zeitgeist that only holds currency in the virtual world, in social media impressions and follower counts. But it’s warping the real world. It’s why Manchester United valued Paul Pogba at £89 million three years ago and why Juventus were willing to splurge £99.2 million on a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo last summer. Just as pop stars, such as Taylor Swift (Swifties) and Justin Bieber (Beliebers), have their disciples, football players, more than ever before, have the same.
Enter Martial FC. That is the moniker given to Anthony Martial’s following of fundamentalist fanboys. For the most part, it’s a name used to mock and deride, but it serves as an illustration of the fervent advocacy that revolves the French winger who, until not so long ago, seemed to be on his way out of Manchester United, ostracised from the first time by Jose Mourinho.
Of course, Martial’s immediate future appeared to change when Mourinho was sacked before Christmas, with the 23-year-old signed to a new five-year contract just over a month later. At that point, with 10 goals in 25 United appearances, it seemed that United had righted one of Mourinho’s wrongs, preserving the future of one of their most exciting prospects.
Since then, however, Martial has done nothing to justify the faith shown in him by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Man Utd. The Frenchman was meant to be among the vanguard of the Old Trafford outfit’s next generation, one of the players capable of carrying the club into a new age. While once the question concerned how high Martial could go, now the question is rather more negative - did Man Utd make a mistake by handing the winger a new contract?
In recent games, Martial has been a non-factor. Some might even say that he has looked disinterested. His form of late has been in stark contrast to the manner with which the Frenchman swaggered in the initial matches following Solskjaer’s interim appointment. At that stage, something looked to have clicked. Martial was finally the difference maker so many had implored him to become.
The only difference Martial is making now is to Man Utd’s wage structure, with Martial now reportedly earning £250,000 a week. The poor decision to sign Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal on a deal worth a supposed £350,000 a week (£500,000 including bonuses) has already disrupted things at Old Trafford, with David De Gea and Ander Herrera both basing recent contract negotiations on the Chilean’s pack packet, and Martial’s undeserved wage has surely only added exacerbated the situation further.
If United can find a buyer for the 23-year-old this summer, they could be tempted into cutting their losses. As much as the primary focus ahead of the 2019/20 season will be on replenishment, squad realignment, not least in terms of the wage bill, is also required. Moving Martial on might make sense.
United’s £36 million capture of Martial back in 2015 made a strong statement. It hinted at a fundamental change of ideology at Old Trafford, of a club intent on looking to the future with ambition and vigour. Martial has since become a symptom, or maybe even a cause, of the culture crisis at Manchester United.
Martial’s debut goal against Liverpool has faded in the memory. Not since the breakthrough of Cristiano Ronaldo had Old Trafford witnessed such an explosive emergence of a young player and yet the French winger has barely developed his game in the four years since. Looking at the numbers, the case could be made that Martial has actually regressed, suffering a big drop off from his maiden Man Utd season which saw him register 17 goals and nine assists.
Previously, that might have been blamed on Mourinho. But what explanation can be offered for Martial’s form since the Portuguese’s exit as United boss? Solskjaer favours a style that should, in theory, suit Martial as a speedy winger with an eye for a goal. The Norwegian wants his attackers to get in behind, to stretch the pitch - all things that the Frenchman has the natural capacity to deliver.
This just adds to the mystery around the recent performance of this Man Utd side. This is a team that won their first eight games under Solskjaer, but has lost six of their last nine, winning just one. Major reconstruction is needed this summer, with key areas of the United squad woefully ill-equipped, but players like Martial are grossly underperforming. Nobody, not least Solskjaer, can figure out why.
It’s for this reason that many are pushed to make judgements about the work ethic and commitment of those currently in the United dressing room. In this regard, perhaps only Paul Pogba has faced more scrutiny than Martial, a player whose languid body language is taken badly.
There is perhaps too much smoke for there to be no fire regarding Martial’s supposed poor attitude. The Frenchman’s weak mentality has been referenced in countless reports over the years, with Didier Deschamps, Louis Van Gaal and Mourinho all slinging thinly veiled barbs towards the winger.
Martial was benched for four consecutive France internationals in 2016 for his reaction at being substituted off at half time of a qualifier against Albania. Deschamps has never truly trusted him since. Along the same lines, leaks to the press just a few weeks ago claimed Solskjaer gave Martial a dressing room dressing down for his sulky response to being benched.
When the Norwegian recently spoke about members of his squad needing a “reality check,” many suspected Martial to be one of the players being referenced most pointedly. “I’ve spoken to individuals and they know and Anthony is one I’ve spoken to, what we expect from them,” admitted Solskjaer, before highlighting the Frenchman’s natural talent.
That’s what makes his recent form so perplexing, though. Martial is undoubtedly talented, maybe even the most talented in the Old Trafford dressing room right now, but no superstar, not even one with the individual marketability of the Frenchman, was forged by talent alone. The cult of Martial FC might soon have to find a new church.