The message from Anthony Martial’s agent, Philippe Lamboley was unequivocal:
“After thinking about all the possibilities, Anthony wants to leave Manchester United…. He was booted three times a player of the month by the fans. Then arrived the transfer window of January. I will not comment on the consequences of this transfer window. Everyone will have his opinion. I think he must resume the course of his career. The time has come.”
There were some who read the words as an attempt at negotiation in ongoing contract talks, and perhaps this will be proven correct in time, but it seems more likely to be a genuine exit strategy.
United We Stand editor Andy Mitten has written about Martial’s discontent more than once and it is hard not to sympathise with the Frenchman, even if we accept that some of the responsibility for his failure to kick on after a tremendous first season under Louis Van Gaal should fall at his own door. Personal issues almost certainly stunted his second year at the club, after an affair and subsequent split from his partner saw she and their young daughter move back to France. Distraction was inevitable. But this season, having finally earned a run of games and hitting goal-scoring form, Martial saw Mourinho sign Alexis Sanchez in January and rather than accommodate him on the troubled right side of the attack where he played for Barcelona it was the 22 year old on the left who was displaced. Shifted right, to a position he has rarely played, Martial was soon dropped, never to be trusted again, his confidence punctured. As Sanchez toiled with little consequence, the Frenchman was expected to perform immediately when picked and swiftly banished if he failed to do so. It was not an environment conducive to the development of young talent and it has cost him a place in Didier Deschamps French World Cup squad, a desperate blow for any young player.
Critics, however, have argued that Martial has a poor attitude and does not dedicate himself to the team to the same degree that others do. They also point out that at 22 he should have developed greater consistency and the versatility to play any position requested of him. The transfer request has been interpreted by many as a lack of willingness to fight for his place at the club. The debate has been fierce, between those who feel he should leave and the loyalists who see a potentially world class player possibly being lost forever because of the lack of patience and trust of his manager.
Such is the ferocity of the debate that it feels as if it is driven by more than just the fate of a single young talent. Mitten has also written that several other notable United players are unhappy at Mourinho’s management and are minded to leave, even if they have not reached the same critical mass as Martial. The Portuguese manager is set to enter his historically terminal third season and it feels as if now is the time that his tenure at the club sinks or swims. Either United drastically close the gap on City at the top of the Premier League or Mourinho combusts, as is often the case in year three. If the latter comes to pass, next season or thereafter, Jose will not go quietly into the night, instead setting fire to much of what is around him. He has already picked fights with his own players, as he did at Real Madrid and in his second stint at Chelsea, in contrast to the all for one, one for all approach that brought him initial success at Porto, Chelsea and Inter.
The question, subconsciously or consciously present in this debate, is that if Mourinho implodes what will he leave behind for the next man? There has always been a sense of comfort that if the worst happens a core of young talent will remain at United for the benefit of his successor. Martial, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly would offer a terrific core to build around and yet the futures of four of the five under Mourinho are in question. Reports have suggested that Rashford may be unhappy with his game time, progression and management under the Portuguese, Pogba has a fractious and seemingly time-limited relationship with his manager and Bailly was rendered persona non grata for two months at the end of last season, reportedly for being ill on a match-day. Were it to come down to a straight choice between the players and their coach it would be a brave man who chooses the latter.
The fear then is not just that selling Martial, if that comes to pass, will see the club lose a potentially world class player, but also that a little portion of the hope for the post-Mourinho nuclear winter is also being lost. That trust in youth that Sir Alex recreated at United also feels as if it has been lost, a shame for traditionalists. Lamboley’s words may still prove to be simply a negotiating tactic, but few could blame the player for wanting to leave. Like Memphis Depay before him he needs a new start at a club that plays less pragmatic football under a more trusting, patient manager. Manchester United have briefed that the Frenchman is not for sale, but Mourinho has previously stated that any player who wishes to leave will be allowed to do so, even if it risks a repeat of his experience with Kevin De Bruyne. United fans are split on whether this should be allowed to happen, even though Martial’s contract is a year from its expiry, with a further year which can be triggered by his club.
Those who are against a parting of ways are desperate not to lose a prodigiously talented young player who they feel has been poorly treated by their manager. For some the strength of their protest is driven by more, as United enter Mourinho’s historically terminal third season. It’s glory or disaster time under the Portuguese, and many are wondering just what will be left behind if history repeats itself.