“Anthony who?” That’s how plenty of Manchester United fans would have reacted to the news that their beloved club was making the 19-year-old striker the most expensive teenager in history by signing him from Monaco for £36 million. Martial may have immense potential, but that fee has raised eyebrows around the world.
So let’s start with the price tag: is he worth it? Does the vast sum of money United have splashed out to secure his services make any sense, or is this an end-of-window impulse purchase that suggests Louis van Gaal has had a last-minute panic attack about having to rely on Wayne Rooney to be United’s main scorer this season?
Martial’s fee is comparable to the £32.5 million Liverpool paid for Christian Benteke in July – except that before making his move to Anfield the Belgium striker had already proved he had the goods to perform in the Premier League, averaging 14 goals a season over the previous three years in what was a distinctly average Aston Villa side.
The Martial fee is also more than what Everton paid to make Romelu Lukaku’s loan deal from Chelsea into a permanent move last summer. Like his compatriot Benteke, Lukaku had a track record backing him up, having scored 32 goals in the two seasons directly before Everton decided to pay £28 million to make him their all-time record signing.
Martial has scored just 11 goals in 52 Ligue 1 appearances. Statistically he simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if you compare him with other Premier League strikers that have cost similar amounts over the last couple of years.
But looking at things statistically is only one way of doing things. You can look at the transfer in other ways, too – and in a different light, the Martial transfer makes complete sense.
Martial is two-and-a-half years younger than Lukaku, and five years younger than Benteke – and potentially better than both of them.
Is he really that good? Yes, he could be. What United are essentially buying is potential. The fee may look inflated now – but the way a fee looks at the time when a transfer is made and the way it appears a couple of years down the road are sometimes two entirely different things.
United are gambling to a degree, but they’re buying a player whose massive potential has been apparent for some time, in the same way Manchester City did when they splashed out £49 million on 20-year-old Raheem Sterling this summer.
United’s thinking is that Martial’s long-term output will be so significant that eventually the fee they have paid will seem like money well spent. And there’s no question that, if you were drawing up a list of outstanding teenage strikers operating across Europe at the moment, Martial would feature somewhere near the top.
Right-now the youngster is one of French football’s finest prospects. Without question he’s of the brightest young talents to have ever come out of the Lyon youth academy – which happens to be one of Europe’s most prolific – over the past two decades.
Even though he’s still only 19, Martial has been well-known for so long that he was on the radar of scouts from leading clubs across Europe long before his 18th birthday. That goes some way towards explaining why Monaco were willing to pay €5 million (£4.3m) for him two summers ago even though he had played just 50 minutes of first-team football for Lyon at the time.
Monaco knew they’d make a considerable profit on Martial one day – and they could have done exactly that last summer, when it was mooted that clubs such as Wolfsburg and Atletico Madrid were ready to offer nearly four times what Monaco had paid just to take Martial off their hands.
And while Martial’s scoring record may not stand comparison with Benteke and Lukaku at the moment, in a way that is like comparing apples and pears. The Belgium duo are older and have made more first-team starts, so of course they’re going to have more goals to their name.
A smarter comparison would be to see how Martial – who could made his France debut in les Bleus’ international friendly against Portugal in Lisbon on Friday night – measures up against some of his most famous French predecessors when they were the same age as he is now. On this particular scale, you could argue he’s well on target to becoming a great.
At the same age as Martial is now, Karim Benzema – another famous centre-forward graduate of that Lyon youth academy – had scored 11 Ligue 1 goals in 46 appearances at a rate of a goal every 211 minutes. Thierry Henry – the player to whom Martial is most frequently compared because of his height, stride and pace – had scored 12 Ligue 1 goals in 52 appearances at a rate of a goal every 213 minutes.
Martial’s 11 Ligue 1 goals in 52 appearances have come at a rate of a goal every 240 minutes. In other words, there’s hardly anything to pick between him, Benzema and Henry – and you could argue that Martial’s Monaco side has played less expansive, attacking football than Henry’s Monaco or Benzema’s Lyon did back in their days, making it harder for Martial to stand out and score goals.
Leaving the fee to one side, the other intriguing question is how Martial will fit into United’s system. So far this season van Gaal has favoured a 4-2-3-1. That should pose few tactical difficulties for Martial as he operated in a 4-2-3-1 while Monaco were en route to finishing third in Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals last season.
He is a tall, rangy striker and, similar to Henry in his pomp, likes to cover a lot of the field rather than being restricted to a narrow strip of grass down the centre of the pitch. Most commonly you’ll see him pulling away to the left wing, where his pace, energy and ability to beat players in one-on-one situations can be devastating.
An early concern might be that this is the area where another summer signing, Memphis Depay, has done much of his best work in the opening weeks of the season. Will the two get in each other’s way? Well, perhaps – but usually great players have a way of working these things out.
If van Gaal decides to continue using Rooney as a centre-forward – a decision he’s been heavily criticised for in the opening weeks of the season – then we might occasionally see Martial used as an orthodox winger. It would also make sense for the pair to operate as a central attacking tandem at times, with Rooney playing just behind the ex-Monaco star.
And, as the new kid on the block, Martial will almost certainly spend some time kicking his heels on the substitutes bench. He may be the club’s most expensive signing this summer and third most expensive ever behind Angel di Maria and Juan Mata, but the fate of those two players over the past 18 months shows that arriving with a big price tag doesn’t guarantee you a place in the starting line-up every week.
By signing Martial, what United have now is something different in attack – a player that will add pace, terrific movement on and off the ball, get behind defenders and take some of the pressure for scoring goals off Rooney. While the fee may seem huge, Martial has so much potential. So there’s every reason we may look back one day and conclude it was money very well spent.