If Anthony Martial felt unsure about the scale of the challenge awaiting him at Manchester United, it will have been made plain by a comment from his new team-mate Morgan Schneiderlin. Addressing journalists at France’s training camp, which the 19-year-old Martial had just left in order to sign for United, Schneiderlin said that Wayne Rooney had spoken to him about the club’s newest recruit.
“Wayne Rooney came to speak to me and asked me who this Martial was, because the English press were starting to really talk about it,” Schneiderlin said. “‘Do you know him? What’s he like?’ Those were his questions.” Not only is Martial alighting at Old Trafford as the most expensive teenager in the game’s history, having cost a reported initial fee of £36 million ($55.1 million, 49 million euros). He is doing so as a relative unknown.
It is believed the fee could rise to £58 million, but though the deal is said to be heavily incentivised — including a provision for Martial winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or — it inevitably prompts unhelpful comparisons. Only Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Neymar, James Rodriguez and Angel di Maria have cost more than that and all were fully fledged world-beaters at the time of their respective transfers.
Thierry Henry, with whom Martial is often compared, was similarly raw when he left Monaco for Juventus in 1999, but he was two years older, had twice as many games behind him and had already won a World Cup. Henry himself has described the deal as a “massive gamble”. Like Henry, Martial is a striker who started his senior career as a winger and he is similarly drawn to the left flank, from where he can cut inside onto his right foot and shoot at goal.
The fact he has been handed the number nine shirt, coupled with Rooney’s early-season struggles as United’s lone striker, suggests he will be given a chance to play through the middle.
‘I don’t feel pressure’
But United manager Louis van Gaal’s emphasis on Martial being a “multi-functional forward” suggests he may be asked to serve at least part of his apprenticeship on the flanks. In Van Gaal, Martial could hardly have asked for a coach with a better reputation for developing young talent.
The Ajax team that Van Gaal led to Champions League glory in 1995 remains a symbol of the power of youth and Patrick Kluivert was a year younger than Martial when he scored the winner against AC Milan in the final. In that there is a caveat, however, with several youngsters having been given chances at Old Trafford in recent months — Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair to a lesser extent — only to then sink from sight.
United’s recent record when it comes to big-money signings does not bode particularly well, with Di Maria having left after a year and Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini still finding their feet. Martial, though, said he was unfazed by the weight of expectation, telling MUTV: “I don’t feel the pressure.”
He has also spoken about how the birth of his first child in July has sharpened his focus, after he was criticised for nonchalance during his early days at Monaco. He will not want for team-mates of a similar age in a squad that contains 19-year-old James Wilson, Luke Shaw, who is 20, and 21-year-old Memphis Depay, who has quickly been supplanted as the club’s star signing.
In Schneiderlin, Martial also has a fellow Francophone (Fellaini is another) to help him adapt to life with both United and France, albeit one who has only just set foot in both camps himself. His move to Manchester having come just days after his first France call-up, it has been a whirlwind week, and there will be no time to catch his breath — his United debut will be a home game against Liverpool.