Whether it's a loss of confidence, a dip in form, a manager who doesn't like him or all of the above, Anthony Martial's once-promising Manchester United career has stopped in its tracks.
It was another desperately disappointing afternoon for Manchester United on Sunday, with Jose Mourinho's lackluster side slumping to a surprise 3-2 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion.
What's more troubling for United fans is that this latest setback adds to a catalogue of problems to recently engulf the club. An objectively disappointing transfer window, where the club failed to deliver the signing of a much needed world-class center back, coupled with general unrest caused by the antics and behavior of Mourinho, would suggest that things are falling apart at the seams of one of English football's greatest institutions.
A particular concern recently has seen the relationship that Mourinho has with some of his players seemingly deteriorate, with alleged problems with star player Paul Pogba dominating the headlines. One long standing issue since Mourinho took charge at the Red Devils a little over two years ago though has been the utilisation of young sensation Anthony Martial.
Having been bought to Old Trafford under a wave of optimism for an initial £36m three years ago, Martial was tipped as the next big thing in world football. Compared to the legendary Thierry Henry, the then 19-year-old was strongly backed by many to become a leading light as the spearhead of United's attack for years to come.
What's transpired for Martial since the departure of Louis van Gaal after his first season in England has been hugely disappointing. Shoved out wide to accommodate first Zlatan Ibrahimović, and then Romelu Lukaku, the 22-year-old Martial has become a peripheral figure at the club–and one that is barely able to force himself onto the pitch as a substitute when Mourinho has a full pool of players available to him.
Yes, his goal return of 11 in 31 Premier League appearances during that solitary season under van Gaal certainly wasn't spectacular, but it certainly wasn't disastrous. Martial was adapting to the speed of the Premier League, and put in a number of impressive performances, despite the goals column perhaps not suggesting he was contributing enough. Of those 31 appearances, 29 of those were starts - and only twice was Martial replaced during the course of the 90 minutes.
Under van Gaal you felt Martial was trusted by the manager. Under Mourinho, you feel that is anything but the case. Replaced by Zlatan up top in the Portuguese manager's first season in charge, Martial saw his claim to be United's striking option significantly marginalized. It must be said, you can understand the rationale behind needing to improve United's striking options. A fifth-place Premier League finish, despite the winning of the FA Cup, was simply not enough for a club of the Red Devils' size and stature.
The problem for Martial was that it wasn't just Zlatan's arrival that threatened his place in the team. The emergence of the talented Marcus Rashford provided yet more competition, and it soon became apparent that Mourinho didn't see a place for Martial up front. To make matters worse, Zlatan even took his No. 9 shirt–a further indication of what was to come at Old Trafford.
As a result, Martial has found his new home on the left wing. Granted, he has all the attributes in his locker to make playing in that position work–his raw pace and power testament to the fact that Martial has some of the tools required to play the 'modern winger' role. But what we've seen though over the duration of Mourinho's tenure is his inability to gain his manager's full backing, and as a result, a significant drop in confidence and performance.
His meager return in that season of four league goals in 25 appearances was troubling, and only 18 of those appearances were from the start. Martial was taken off by Mourinho a startling 11 times during that season, and it didn't get any better last year either: 13 times he was substituted from again, 18 Premier League starts.
The goal tally slightly improved, but Mourinho's desire to use him as a left winger with increased defensive responsibilities just hasn't worked. It even cost Martial a shot at getting into France's World Cup winning squad this summer. Now, the idea of Martial playing up top as the central striker under Mourinho seems also unthinkable now that Lukaku is top dog at the club.
Throw the signing of Alexis Sanchez into the mix, and you can understand why Martial cuts a frustrated, almost disinterested figure on the United touchline. On Sunday, he was back in the starting XI, but only because Alexis missed the game through injury.
United were very poor, and sadly for Martial, he was too. Put simply, he wasn't a factor in the game. His thirst and desire to burst into the box from wide areas has all but evaporated. It could be tactical instructions from Mourinho, or it could be just the aforementioned dip in confidence–either way, Martial was ineffective, and it was little surprise to see him replaced by Marouane Fellaini with just under half an hour to go.
Sadly for him, that is Mourinho's way of thinking. Needing a goal, what does he do? Sacrifice a man whose potential transfer fee could cost United up to £58 million. Mourinho has been critical of Martial both on and off the pitch, and although that doesn't seem unusual given his track record of falling out with players, it's a further indication that the former La Liga- and Serie A-winning boss just doesn't fancy sorting things out.
With that said, Martial seems to be a problem that United have now decided they are unable to fix. Talk all summer long has been over potential transfer destinations for Martial and whether or not United will look to cash in on him as he enters the final year of his deal.
Throw in the fact that United decided to fine Martial £180,000 for leaving a preseason training camp to attend the birth of his son, and you start to see the unveiling of a very unsavory picture. What's for certain is that Martial is fast fading away from the Old Trafford spotlight, and barring a sudden change in management, he looks almost certain to walk away from the club.
Madness from the club maybe, or madness from Mourinho. Either way, the real losers from this situation are both Manchester United and Anthony Martial himself. A bad player he is not, but unless he finds a way to convince his manager of his worth soon, or leaves Old Trafford for pastures new, Martial's potentially glittering career faces ruin.