After standing out for his ability to cope with the pressure of livening up the attack for Louis van Gaal, he has fallen down the pecking order under Jose Mourinho, who continues to have doubts over the 21-year-old Frenchman.
So where did it all go wrong?
A difficult summer
June to August 2016
Martial returned to France tipped as one of the young starlets to help deliver his country to Euro 2016 glory as hosts but in the end, he played just 70 minutes of football out of a possible 660.
He started just one game – the second match of the group stage against Albania – only for manager Didier Deschamps to hook the forward after 45 frustrating minutes.
The forward would not play against until the final when he was handed an 11 minute cameo in the closing stages of extra time as Portugal took the trophy with a late wonder goal from Eder.
Back at United, his shirt number was reassigned to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Frenchman had commissioned a branding agency to redesign his website and social media profiles based on the number nine – the shirt he was handed in 2015 – and he was not consulted or given notice over the switch; a move which left a bad taste in the player’s mouth.
The “Mkhitaryan process”
August to January 2016
Martial started the Premier League season brightly, with two assists in a 3-1 win over Bournemouth on the opening weekend of the season, but it proved to be a false start. He would lose his place in the team just two games later, scoring just two goals and adding another assist in 12 league games.
The Frenchman hadn’t been the only star name pushed to the sidelines by Mourinho. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s absence from the starting line up following his big money move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer had overshadowed Martial’s own exile in the opening weeks of the season.
Yet by the end of November, the Armenian was being reintegrated into the team, and in the aftermath of an emphatic 2-1 comeback win over Middlesbrough, in which Martial came on to score the equaliser, the United manager used Mkhitaryan’s improvements in training to make an example of the Frenchman.
“I know he is a top talent,” said Mourinho in his post-match press conference. “I know that Mkhitaryan was a top talent and I was not playing him.
“Anthony has to listen to be me and not his agent. He has to listen in training every day, in every feedback I give to try to improve players. ‘The Mkhitaryan process’ – every day Mkhitaryan’s agent was calling me and saying he will be a better player with you.”
The message from the management seemed clear. His small number of interventions on the pitch may have been timely for United but Mourinho expected more, and not just more goals and assists.
Loss of focus
January – April 2017
The new year didn’t exactly provide a fresh start for Martial, either on the pitch or in the eyes of his manager.
Since January 1, the Frenchman has managed to score twice more – one in a 4-0 win over Reading at home in the FA Cup and another against Watford in the Premier League. It was his best performance of the season which also saw the forward lay on the assist to win 2-0.
“I don’t think he lost his focus,” said Mourinho ahead of the second leg of his team’s EFL Cup semi-final against Hull City in January 2017. “I just think he didn’t catch with both hands a big opportunity he had.
“We have Rashford, Lingard, Mata, Mkhitaryan and Martial, and I cannot give the same player chance after chance after chance and not consider the effort of the others.”
A month later he added: “Your perspective is that if a player is not playing, the manager is disturbing him but that is not true. Sometimes you don’t play players and you protect them. Mkhitaryan was being protected. He was adapting. You see the magic things on the pitch and I see other things that I want to see.”
April 2017 – present
By mid-April, Mourinho had moved on from making unflattering comparisons between Martial and Mkhitaryan. The Portuguese instead decided to pick out Marcus Rashford to explain what the Frenchman needed to do to satisfy his arch-critic.
“Rashford, even without scoring a league goal since September, was always a player that I trust, always a player that I play, always a player that I support,” said Mourinho ahead of the second leg of his side’s Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht at Old Trafford.
“He was always coming in my direction, in the direction I want from a player, what I want from a Manchester United player. Do I think Anthony is a player with great potential? Yes I think. Do I think he can play successfully for me? Yes I think, but he needs to give me things I like very much.”
Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, the two young attackers he started in United’s impressive 2-0 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford, were full of running, and not only to get behind Antonio Conte’s back three. They played with the sort of tenacity and intensity their manager was looking for, and that it seems Mourinho is still waiting for from Martial.
What comes next?
Different players need different things. Some respond well to all the barbs, challenges and bravado that comes with playing under a manager like Mourinho, who believes in the power of motivating a dressing room through confrontation. He needs a squad of soldiers to fall in line and get behind him.
Others require a lighter touch – an arm around the shoulder. Then there are the more focused, self-starting performers who prefer to do away with the mind games and involved man management all together.
Kevin De Bruyne is by most accounts a model professional yet disliked the atmosphere and environment he found himself surround by at Chelsea under Mourinho and eventually pushed for a move away to Wolfsburg. He is now one of the leading players in the Premier League for Manchester City.
Mourinho still felt compelled to fire some parting shots at the Belgian in the media, deriding his work rate and attitude. He isn’t the only player to receive similar treatment from the Portuguese, but that doesn’t make Martial blameless for his own situation.
There could be tactical issues at play too. After taking over at Old Trafford, Mourinho complained that his squad had been been brainwashed by Louis van Gaal.
It would take time for him to strip the Dutchman’s philosophy from their thinking, sharpen their instincts once again and make individual expression the focus of their attacking play, rather than working to a more restrained, risk-averse system.
Maybe Martial needed that?
He has looked inhibited by the prospect of having to do more off the cuff in order to give Mourinho’s more basic attacking framework the flair and finishing it needs to fly.
The Portuguese has always relied on big personalities on and off the pitch; players that can cope with his demands and show some fight and make the difference in crunch moments.
Martial is more discreet and introverted than many of the players who have in the past excelled under Mourinho, and maybe that is the problem.