The Transfer deadline day in Europe. Everybody braces for a late surge of activity, including some blockbuster moves to cap an exciting Summer across the continent. Most of England’s big clubs still seem a bit short in some key positions.
Manchester United perhaps seem the most vulnerable, having been beaten by Swansea the previous weekend. Their current crop of strikers have yet to score in the Premier League this season, including Wayne Rooney, who has gone 10 games without a league goal. It was widely expected that a top class striker would join the Old Trafford club.
Then news broke out that United made a large bid for a relatively unknown French player among Premier League fans. The forward’s name is Anthony Martial. The price tag caught the world by surprise. Less than a fortnight after opting out of a deal that would bring Pedro to Old Trafford for £22 million, Louis Van Gaal approved nearly twice as much for the French teenager from AS Monaco.
So who is this young forward and why did United decide to spend so much on the 19-year-old?
Martial’s story begins in the Parisian southern suburb named Massy (also the birthplace of Arsenal’s Yaya Sanogo), where he was born in December 1995. His elder brother Johan took up football when Anthony was only two, commuting daily to nearby Les Ulis. At the time the little suburban town and their local low-league club were not famous yet, but by now it’s well known that the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrice Evra started their careers here.
Anthony was soon to follow in his brothers footsteps, joining the same club, where he would get the nickname ‘Toto’, similar to Henry’s ‘Titi’. Comparisons between them would by no means stop there, but we’ll get back to that later.
Anthony Martial would spend eight years at his childhood club before being spotted by another former Arsenal man, Remy Garde, who at the time took care of Olympique Lyonnais’ academy. He instantly recognised his potential and took the 14-year-old to Gerland.
The four years spent at Lyon transformed Anthony from a gifted kid into one of the finest French talents of his generation. After greatly improving his technical abilities as a boy, he grew up fast and by the age of 15 he had it all – pace, strength, skills and the right drive and mindset to succeed.
Soon he got call-ups to the French youth sides (just like his brother before him – Johan was U19 European champion in 2010, but he failed to progress and recently he was let go by French Ligue 2 club Brest), quickly making his mark. From U16’s to U21’s Anthony would amass 51 appearances for Les Bluettes, scoring 25 goals.
Even before his 16th birthday he joined Lyon’s U17 side and in his first full season he led them to the national title: his hat-trick in the 4-3 final victory over OGC Nice got him to 32 goals in 21 games. From then on he would always perform beyond his years. In 2011 he paid a visit to Manchester City’s international camp along with Adrien Rabiot.
His first team debut came in the Europa League against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, just a day after his 17th birthday, and by the end of the 2012/13 season he played in three league games as well. In June 2013 Juventus came knocking, but Monaco swooped in, paying Lyon 5 million euros for the young forward.
“If you had stayed with us, you would have exploded this season and been the surprise of the 2014 World Cup”, texted the heartbroken Garde to his disciple after the transfer went through.
A few weeks later, Martial was the youngest squad member on the French team that got to the U19 EURO finals, losing to Serbia. He was voted into the Team of the tournament, alongside other big names such as Predrag Rajković, Miloš Veljković (Spurs), Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, Monaco’s Bernardo Silva, Newcastle’s bad boy Aleksandar Mitrović and his teammates Eymeric Laporte, Adrien Rabiot and Yacine Benzia.
By then, the comparison with Thierry Henry became all too obvious – they both grew up in the same neighborhood, started at the same club, and got their big shot at success in the Principality. It was no different on the pitch, both were pacey two-footed dribblers with a great goal-scoring ability and a keen eye for an assist. They also both preferred to use their right foot from the left wing and were able to play facing the goal and with their back to it.
At Monaco Martial was at first a bit frustrated with the lack of opportunities, but he should have expected it knowing that he’d fight for place with Radamel Falcao. But when the Colombian suffered a long-term injury, the young Frenchman was ready to seize his chance. He made is full debut against Caen five days before his 18th birthday and managed to score. In the following two weeks he would add a goal and an assist to his record.
“Believe me, that player will be talked about soon because he is very strong. He has all the physical, technical and mental attributes to do great things. I strongly believe in him”, said Claudio Ranieri of his new starlet.
But instead of getting the opportunity to shine, he would soon be back on the bench after the club decided to sign Berbatov in January 2014. Martial would play another eight games but without a single goal to his name. By the end of the season he had fallen out with manager Claudio Ranieri and was prepared to leave with interest from Lyon, Juventus and Schalke.
Over the Summer of 2014, Martial spent time with French U21 team, together with the likes of Kondogbia, Zouma, Thauvin and childhood-neighbor Sanogo. Back at Monaco, Ranieri was replaced by Jardim, but before it got better for Martial, it got a lot worse. In August he nearly quit the club after the Nantes game, where he was picked as a second half sub, only to be replaced minutes before the end.
By now clubs across Europe were willing to pay Monaco quite a lot for the starlet, with Arsenal and Bordeaux declaring interest. Wolfsburg, Valencia and Atletico also offered over €20 million for his services. However, club’s Russian president Dimitri Rybolovlev decided to keep him at the club and he would soon be rewarded.
A glimpse of what would come in the spring was on show in the game at Parc des Princes in October, when Martial’s goal in added time saved a point for Monaco. The turning point came in early March, when a goal against Evian opened a sequence of six games with seven goals. He ended the season with nine goals to his account, becoming the highest scoring teenager in the Top 5 European leagues.
By this Summer, Spurs were interested in him, and before opting for Pedro, Chelsea had offered 30 million pounds for Martial. But the timing wasn’t right, as Monaco were hoping to get to the Champions League. By the end of August that hope was gone and Ribolovlev and AS Monaco finally decided to cash in, earning ten times what he initially paid for the young forward two years before.
Yet somehow, most of the general public (and some of Martial’s new teammates) missed all these developments on and off the field. So when on Monday, the Martial deal was announced, 77 percent of the Daily Telegraph’s readers declared they had never heard of the youngster before this week.
They will have a chance to watch him twice over the next seven days, as he was called up to the French senior national team for the first time. Les Bleus will travel to Portugal on Friday, before hosting Serbia in Bordeaux.
His last game at Monaco was the loss against PSG, marked by Angel Di Maria’s beautiful assist to Lavezzi. Martial made 7 appearances with a goal and two assists this season, bringing his career total to 64 senior games. He was one Monaco’s best players during the UCL play-offs, following up on his brilliant display at the Emirates this March when he helped Monaco beat Arsenal 3-1 and get through to the UCL quarterfinals.
At Old Trafford, Martial was given the number nine, which should mean that the club have long-term plans for the Frenchmen. Oddly enough, his two former Monaco teammates – Falcao and Berbatov – wore the same shirt during their respective stints in Manchester.
The details of the deal suggest that it was all but a panic move: it’s a well structured contract, that earned Monaco 30 million euros on Tuesday, followed by four payments of €5 million each year in July. The add-ons include €5 million each time Martial is the top scorer in the Premier League, to a maximum of €15 million; €5 million if Martial wins Golden Boy; and €10m if Martial wins the Ballon D’or while at Old Trafford.
Getting a relatively unproven teenager, though immensely gifted, for such a large amount of money represents considerable risk and gives a sense of despair on United’s part. However, if Martial manages to do everything he needs in order to bring the transfer fee to the maximum €80 million (£56 million), it would probably be considered a great bit of business.
Martial’s probable baptism of fire in the new club will be a fitting one, as United’s next competitive game is the Northwest derby versus Liverpool on the 12th September.
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