All in all, last week was a pretty big week for Anthony Martial. He made his debut for France as a second-half substitute against Portugal on Saturday, four days after becoming the most expensive teenager in the history of football. This Saturday, it’s possible (but unlikely) that he’ll make his debut for Manchester United–the most successful club in English history in terms of league titles won–against Liverpool, the second most successful.
But while his life has been hurtling along–from being, in the wider consciousness of English football, some promising French kid who played against Arsenal for Monaco last season to full-on celebrity with the potential to define a manager’s reign–for the other key figure in United’s deadline day, everything has stalled.
David de Gea had seemed certain to move to Real Madrid only for the transfer to fall down at the last minute. It’s still not immediately clear who was to blame: there’s something so incredible about the notion that two clubs as wealthy and successful as Real Madrid and Manchester United couldn’t get their paperwork done on time that the temptation is to cry conspiracy. In the end, the outcome is one that might end up suiting both clubs: United gets another year with its best player and Madrid– perhaps, depending on release clauses in the new four-year deal de Gea signed on Friday–could get him at a relatively knocked-down price at the end of the season.
Van Gaal was critical of de Gea on United’s preseason tour of the U.S. and then, after consultation with his goalkeeper, decided that, in the immortal parlance of football, his head wasn’t right. Which is why de Gea has been sat in the stands all season. For five of the six games, Sergio Romero, his replacement, did perfectly well, but he was at fault for at least one and possibly both Swansea City goals two weeks ago.
It’s not quite so simple, though, as de Gea simply slotting back into the starting XI, although he will surely do so against Liverpool on Saturday. “Now,” said Van Gaal, “his head is empty and he can concentrate and focus on the match, it is a big change.”
From a position of strength, United persuaded de Gea to sign a four-year contract. In a sense, the keeper had little option but to accept. With Iker Casillas fading away at Porto, de Gea should be Spain’s first choice at next summer’s Euros–after Casillas started Saturday’s 2-0 win over Slovakia, de Gea played against Macedonia on Tuesday. To be so, though, he needs to be playing; United was able to force his hand–although it remains as yet unclear of there is a release clause to allow Madrid to sign him for, say, £33 million, the amount it wanted from Madrid this summer before settling for £29 million.
The problem for de Gea now is that, he will be under a different level of scrutiny to before. Any mistake now and questions will be asked about whether his head actually is right. Is he thinking of Madrid? Is he seething at Van Gaal or United’s CEO Ed Woodward? Is he still training with the same intensity?
The only positive for de Gea is that at least he will share the burden of that scrutiny with Martial, who finds himself in an unprecedented situation. He has insisted he isn’t worried by the fee (£36 million up front plus three tranches of £7 million if he achieves certain targets) saying that that’s a matter for the clubs, which is what everybody (reasonably enough) says in that situation. But that doesn’t alter the fact that if United ends up paying the full fee, it will have paid £2 million for every league game Martial had started before making the move to Old Trafford.
Nobody doubts that Martial is hugely talented, but his lack of experience means there must be doubts about whether he will even come close to realizing his potential.
Comparisons keep being made to Thierry Henry, and stylistically that perhaps is understandable, but when Henry arrived in the Premiership with Arsenal, he was almost 22 and had won the French league and a World Cup.
He was also, vitally, joining a team that already had Dennis Bergkamp, Kanu and Davor Suker as striking options. United, having sold Javier Hernandez and let Adnan Januzaj and James Wilson leave on loan, has only Wayne Rooney, who is arguably better deeper. Van Gaal has hinted that it will take time for Martial to adjust to his way of doing things–United as a whole still hasn’t–but with so few other options, Martial has to play a fairly major role this season.
At both ends of the pitch, United have players under extraordinary pressure. It’s hard not to wonder whether a more coherent transfer policy might have avoided that.