Just four games into his Manchester United career and already the boo boys have called for Memphis Depay to be benched or dropped altogether – a situation that does not bode well for the club’s new £36 million (fee via BBC) capture Anthony Martial.
Signed at the very end of what turned into a seemingly panicked and unprepared transfer window, the highly-rated Frenchman – just 19 – will step into a dressing room lacking goals, pace and sharpness up front. While captain Wayne Rooney may have just confirmed himself as England’s all-time top scorer, his form in the Premier League has so far been underwhelming for a player expected to lead the line of a top four side, let alone one of his age, reputation and experience.
On top of that, the team’s collective failure to find some clarity in the final third, and produce chances at the rate, quality and quantity expected, has already lead to finger pointing.
Memphis, who earns £135,000-a-week (Daily Star), has been called arrogant, wasteful, unfinished and much more. Yet at the age of 21, and having only just arrived at Old Trafford, it seems an absurd knee jerk reaction to blame a winger that is still working out his new surroundings and colleagues for the lack of inspiration, ingenuity and bite within the forward line at present.
Still, some dissenters have picked out the Dutchman for particular criticism, casting unfair, revisionist comparisons between him and the sainted Cristiano Ronaldo, as if their new No. 7 should be a clone of their old one, who of course, behind their rose tinted glasses, never put a foot wrong or lost the ball in his own years before greatness.
Martial is an even rawer prospect than Memphis, who dominated the Eredivisie last season as the most potent individual performer in Dutch football. His goal threat from the left flank was one of the key weapons that won PSV Eindhoven the title, and left his homeland with the blessing of many experts who agreed he had outgrown his surroundings and was ready for a new challenge.
The response to his new French teammate’s departure from Monaco for Manchester was a little different. Reactions ranged from shock to fear. Both the timing and the money involved was unexpected, and while he may be thought highly of by teammates, some Ligue 1 watchers and those involved in the France set-up, Martial has only ever completed the full 90 minutes of a senior game on five occasions, and only three times in the league.
While comparisons may have been made with Thierry Henry, his professional, first-team strike rate stands at just 15 goals from 72 games in all competitions across four seasons. For Ligue 1 games, that’s 11 in 52.
Casting his current record in such a stark light isn’t an attempt to do Martial down or write him off early but to make it clear just how far he still has to go before he will be able to justify his fee and give the naysayers as little room to complain as possible. It shouldn’t take too long for supporters to search their grey matter for memories of Danny Welbeck and the tantrums and protests that met his failures to play with the composure of a striker of superior calibre.
United are currently a club in possession of expectations that look to be beyond their immediate means. Van Gaal’s efforts to imprint his philosophy on his squad appear to have taken a step back following a summer of disquiet and distracting battles off the field. Much needed reinforcements in midfield have been slightly undermined by an over-eagerness to sell off attackers and defenders without replacing them.
The fluidity and threat of the team’s best form towards the end of last season has seemingly dissipated into the ether rather than remain ready to be refined and polished into the title rush that had been talked up following the signings of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and Memphis.
Yes, Memphis may not have matched up to the hype that his arrival helped to create in the four Premier League games he has played so far, and he certainly hasn’t looked as omnipotent as he did while playing in Holland last year, but he was always going to need time to resettle and go up a level.
Demanding that he stops trying to take risks, constantly defer to others and have his confidence cut down to size will take away many of the qualities that he will need to become the breakthrough player United fans would surely prefer he develops into in the years to come.
Attackers need a bit of ego and self-belief – and the space and trust to go out on a limb at times – to score goals, create chances and affect games for their teams.
The answer isn’t to try and deprive a young footballer of the right to back himself when the opportunity arises but to support and help him with game time and a patience for errors so he can stretch himself and grow. An under-performing team, featuring established, senior players who are also struggling to make the difference, can hardly be pinned on such a player, or at least it shouldn’t.
What will happen when Martial makes the wrong decision, fluffs a chance, loses the ball or stutters when trying to beat the goalkeeper, one-on-one? It won’t happen just the once.
Mistakes and failures are an important part of a player’s development. Going by the impatient, knee jerk reactions that have come from some quarters to Memphis failing to play like Ronaldo after two months of competitive first-team football, United fans need to hope more perspective is found over their latest youthful signing.
If they end up watching on as Martial makes his way at Old Trafford immediately expecting to recognise the new Henry, they might be disappointed, and that won’t be the 19-year-old’s fault.