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Has Anthony Martial Lived Up to His £36M Manchester United Price Tag?

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2016

Martial celebrates his goal against Leicester City at Old Trafford.
Martial celebrates his goal against Leicester City at Old Trafford.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Anthony Martial's arrival at Manchester United was confusing. The Red Devils had spent all summer being linked with huge global stars such as Thomas Muller, Neymar and Gareth Bale in the Daily Express, among others.

Then, when push came to shove, in what was widely perceived to be a move born of desperation, they spent an initial £36 million on a teenager. A teenager only those most closely following European football were familiar with. A teenager with whom they had not previously been linked.

A teenager who, as it turns out, has been worth every penny.

Martial's immediate arrival on the United stage could not have been more perfect. Red Devils boss Louis van Gaal played down expectations, saying he was a purchase designed for the benefit of the "next manager," per Sky Sports.

Martial celebrates his debut goal for United.
Martial celebrates his debut goal for United.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

However, when the France international skipped on to the Old Trafford turf as a substitute against archrivals Liverpool in September, it became abundantly clear the benefits of Martial's presence would be felt in the short term too.

After taking a few minutes to hit his stride, having been a little isolated at first, he picked up the ball on the left, danced through Liverpool's defence and brushed a side-footed finish into the far corner of the net.

Martin Tyler, commentating on the game for Sky Sports, struck the perfect tone. With genuine excitement, he exclaimed (h/t the Daily Star): "Ohhh yes! Welcome to Manchester United! Anthony Martial!" In an instant, the value-to-price ratio of his transfer fee began to look a lot more favourable. 

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Perhaps this was not a hastily scouted, desperate roll of the dice on a player who, up to that point in the season, had managed one shot and none on target in three appearances for AS Monaco. Perhaps United had got this one right.

Squawka Football @Squawka

No U21 player has scored more Premier League goals this season than Anthony Martial (10). Golden boy. https://t.co/O0fwMWqJFJ

What followed has been as close to definitive proof of the latter as one season can be. He sits on 17 goals in all competitions. When he signed, as a classic one-for-the-future purchase, that would have seemed a superb return.

Even after his early impact—scoring four times in his first four games—20 goals seemed a realistic target, and he will at least come close to hitting that. 

All of this has been achieved in spite of the fact he has played at centre-forward a lot less often than would have been assumed after those first few weeks.

He played a lot of games on the left to accommodate Wayne Rooney at No. 9, though there were also games in which the United captain played at No. 10 behind him. However, following the emergence of Marcus Rashford in February, Martial has started on the left as a matter of course.

Rashford and Martial have formed an impressive unit.
Rashford and Martial have formed an impressive unit.Ian Walton/Getty Images

It has not stopped him from having a huge impact. Indeed, his end-of-season form is even better than his initial burst.

He has four goals and an assist in his past three games, with seven goals and two assists in his past 11. And he scored the goal in injury time that fired United to the FA Cup final for the first time since 2007.

And while the Red Devils look likely to miss out on a UEFA Champions League place thanks to their loss at West Ham United on Tuesday evening, Martial did his level best to help his team's cause. He scored a brace, finding the net from his only shots of the evening.

Indeed, his record is even more impressive when United's lack of attacking output as a whole is taken into consideration. He has 11 league goals, just under 24 per cent of the club's total in the league. Given he has spent much of that time playing on the left, with plenty of defensive duties to attend to, that is a remarkable achievement.

It is also remarkable given how few shots he has had. He has averaged just two shots per 90 minutes of league football. Harry Kane, the division's leading scorer with 25, is averaging 4.2. Riyad Mahrez, the only player in the division's top five scorers who is not an out-and-out centre forward, is averaging 2.6.

Mahrez adds another shot to his tally.
Mahrez adds another shot to his tally.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

He has scored six more goals than Martial, having taken 29 more shots.

So in purely numerical terms, it is clear United's latest French centre-forward has been a successful signing so far. But there is more to it than that. For large stretches of the season, he has been pretty much the best reason to watch the Red Devils play.

In a side that has been characterised by an overly rigid, excessively structured approach to attacking, he has been the one given licence for some improvisation. So often he has carved out opportunities for himself by beating defenders with the ball at his feet.

His speed is an asset when it comes to taking on an opponent one-on-one, but his tip-toed dribbling style is based on much more than his physical attributes.

As he showed with his first United goal when getting past Martin Skrtel, he is able to exert phenomenal control over the direction of the ball at close quarters, convincing defenders it is going right when it is in fact going left.

Martial with the ball at his feet has been a joy to watch this season.
Martial with the ball at his feet has been a joy to watch this season.Jon Super/Associated Press

And he has dealt with the Old Trafford spotlight better than many in their debut seasons. Witness Luke Shaw's struggles or Memphis Depay's difficulties in their respective first years. Martial shows no such reticence, appearing to thrive on the big stage.

Of course, one good season cannot justify a transfer fee, just as in neither Shaw's nor Memphis' case does one poor season mean a player with a big price has definitively flopped. Transfer fees are an investment, the benefits of which are designed to be reaped over multiple years.

From a purely financial point of view, Martial is becoming a star for United, and there will be a commercial upside to that—expect to see plenty of "Martial 9" shirts at Old Trafford next season.

A name and number that has the potential to become iconic at Old Trafford.
A name and number that has the potential to become iconic at Old Trafford.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Also—and it is testament to how well he has done that United fans will not want to consider this—but his resale value must also be considerable.

In the hypothetical case he was sold this summer—and that would be a disaster for United—the club would surely make a profit on the fee they paid for him.

Such has been the promise of his first season in a red shirt. Such has been his evident suitability for the top level of the game.

His coolness under pressure was never more clear than when he broke into Everton's box at Wembley Stadium in the 93rd minute of the FA Cup semi-final thanks to Ander Herrera's toe-poked through ball. Martial had missed a one-on-one in the first half but did not repeat his mistake.

With the curled inside-of-the-boot finish that has become his trademark, he sent United into the final. United fans made their feelings about him known on the concourses around the ground. The song they sing for him contains a reference to his reported transfer fee and its value.

"Fifty million down the drain, as Tony Marshall [sic] scores again." The transfer fee might not have been that much, but the point stands.

"Tony Marshall scores again."
"Tony Marshall scores again."ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

Martial is living up to his price tag, but he may well turn out to have been a bargain.

All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.

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