Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is a big fan of Anthony Martial. He’s said it a lot. He likes his pace and his technical ability. He thinks he’s a good finisher and likes the way he puts defenders under pressure.
The only thing he doesn’t like is his availability — or lack of it — and that element might cost the French forward a chance to be part of the next stage of Ten Hag’s rebuild at Old Trafford.
Last week was Martial’s season in a nutshell. He missed United’s FA Cup fourth-round win over Reading because of injury, but returned to the squad four days later for the Carabao Cup semifinal second leg against Nottingham Forest. A game drifting towards a goalless draw was transformed in part by Martial, who scored 10 minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute. He left the pitch smiling, but when the teams were announced for the next game against Crystal Palace, he was nowhere to be seen.
“He had a setback from the game when he returned,” said Ten Hag. “He thought he could build up, but yeah, he dropped a little back, so have to wait, be patient, not to force it.”
It’s becoming a bit of a theme. Martial’s comeback against Forest was the fourth time he’s returned from an injury break this season and it’s only February. He’s scored six goals in 14 appearances at an average of a goal every 120 minutes. When he’s been on the pitch, things have usually gone well: it just hasn’t happened enough.
Of United’s 34 games in all competitions this season, Martial has failed to make the matchday squad 20 times. He’s only managed to start nine games and it is giving Ten Hag a problem, both in the short-term and for the future. Still alive in four competitions, the United manager needs all of his options to navigate a season that could yet stretch to 65 matches.
Martial, 27 and in his eighth season at the club, is one of only two recognised centre-forwards in the squad along with January loan signing Wout Weghorst, but they are very different players. While Martial is sharp and mobile, Weghorst, at 6-foot-6, is a target man.
Weghorst showed what a valuable option he can be off the bench during Netherlands‘ dramatic World Cup quarterfinal defeat against Argentina in Qatar, but in Martial’s absence, he’s had to start United’s last six games. It’s not Weghorst’s fault, but he can look a bit out of place when United try to attack with pace and purpose.
Martial, meanwhile, offers something very different. “The qualities of Anthony Martial are so important right now to our game,” said Ten Hag earlier this season. “His movements, his ball security, the pressing, let’s not forget that. In my way of playing I like the type Antony Martial is because he can hold the ball. He is a target, he can link up, but he can also run behind. He has speed, he can finish and he has good pressure.
“He plays very well in a lot of aspects of football. I’m happy with that, except for his availability.”
That’s something likely to count against Martial as Ten Hag begins to draw up plans for the next phase of United’s upward push.
Sources familiar with the situation have told ESPN that signing a new striker is a priority for the club ahead of the summer transfer window, while there are also plans to bring in a central midfielder and goalkeeper. The size of United’s potential transfer budget is unclear while the future of the club’s ownership remains up in the air, but it’s likely a number of first-team players will be allowed to leave for the right fee in an effort to boost the pot of money available.
Martial’s contract at Old Trafford runs until 2024, with the option of another year, and while Ten Hag has been clear about the high regard he’s held in, he wants a group of players he knows he can rely on. It’s one of the reasons he’s been so thrilled with the arrival of Casemiro, who started 22 of United’s last 25 games before being sent off against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Ten Hag will hope that Martial can shake off a frustrating first half of the season to become a key part of the push for a trophy and a top-four finish between now and May. Despite missing most of the campaign, he’s still United’s third highest goal scorer behind Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes and if Ten Hag was to pick his best XI from a fully-fit squad, Martial would be in it.
Given how highly he’s rated by Ten Hag and his staff, it would be no surprise if Martial was part of their plans for the future. But ahead of a crucial summer, he first has to prove he can be available and this season, it’s simply not happened enough.