There are few players who have the capacity to decide big games. Those who can command the highest value, because the big games tend to decide the big prizes. Saturday’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester United was undoubtedly a big game and had it not been for a stoppage- time equaliser, and some slack defending from his teammates, Anthony Martial would have decided it.
Of course, the Frenchman’s ability to decide a game has been known for some time, from the moment he skipped through the Liverpool defence to guide a finish into the far corner of the net on his Man Utd debut. But those moments have been too few and far between.
Martial has hit a vein of form of late, bagging a brace against Chelsea and a crucial equaliser against Newcastle before the international break, but what about his form before that? At what other time this season, or even the season before, has the Frenchman marked himself out as a match winner?
Man Utd have had players like this before. More than once, Martial has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo, as all tricky wingers are at Old Trafford. So far, the Frenchman has lacked the consistency to truly measure up to the legendary United number seven, much like another winger who not so long ago was compared to Ronaldo.
Just like Martial, Nani had the ability to decide a game all on his own. In fact, the Portuguese winger made a habit of coming up with stupendous moments of brilliance on the big occasion – see stunning goals against Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and his first ever Man Utd goal, a drive from 25 yards out against Spurs.
Nani scored 41 times over eight seasons at Manchester United, winning the Premier League four times, the League Cup twice and the Champions League in 2008, also starting two more Champions League finals. In hindsight, Nani was a better player than many gave him credit for at the time, but nonetheless, he left Old Trafford in 2015 a largely unfulfilled talent.
He has since suffered a career decline which now sees him back at Sporting Lisbon.
Unless Martial finds consistency to his performances, he will follow a similar trajectory. At just 22, the Frenchman certainly has time on his side, but these formative years are when habits of a career are established. It was around this time that Ronaldo shook off the inconsistency that dogs all young players, when he morphed into something resembling the player he is today.
Martial has still to show that he will grow and develop over the course of his career. His stagnation is a concern.
Some will argue, with good reason, that Jose Mourinho’s appointment at Man Utd has only served to stunt Martial’s growth. After all, the Portuguese coach isn’t exactly known for his liberation of forward players – just look at how Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and others have all struggled at various times under his stewardship. But Martial must take some personal responsibility for his own form. He hasn’t done that enough over the past two and a half seasons.
It seems that Martial is starting to earn the trust of Mourinho, a manager who, according to reports, came close to forcing the winger out of the club during the summer. They deny that any tension has ever existed between the two figures, but it’s undeniable that up until this point Martial and Mourinho have been somewhat incompatible as a pairing.
In Nani, Martial is presented with a precedent to avoid. There are parallels to be drawn between the two, emphasised, not played down, by what happened at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Man Utd have already had one mercurial winger with the ability to define a game, but not a season, in the not so distant past. They don’t need another one.