The first rule of Anthony Martial Next-Premier-League-Superstar Club is, of course, don’t talk about Anthony Martial as the Premier League’s next superstar. The second rule is probably more of the same. Although perhaps with a few more references to the career trajectories of Federico Machedaand David Bellion, plus the fact poor old Virgil van Dijk, the Southampton centre-half danced into the ground during Martial’s match-winning performance at St Mary’s, appeared to have all the natural spring and speed off the mark of a solid-walnut late-Victorian writing bureau.
At the end of which there has once again been a strange duality in the response to a thrillingly young, thrillingly talented player making an instant impression in English football. It is a familiar mix. Standard issue back-page hype on the one hand; and a furiously censorious aversion to any kind of hype whatsoever on the other.
Don’t build them up. Don’t destroy, undermine, and generally jinx exciting young talent by pointing out that it is, in fact, exciting young talent. In this vein, one of the oddities of the rise of Raheem Sterling has been a relentlessly aggrieved counter-commentary across the usual internet platforms that “the media” is largely responsible for his acrimonious transfer, inflated salary, uppity agent and no doubt also the fact he’s only scored two goals since March.
There is a kind of truth in both these extremes. Excitement about Martial is entirely logical. He is, after all, exciting. Already a fine prospect as a left-sided attacker with Monaco, the world’s most costly teenager has turned out to be even more compelling as an unexpectedly adept and natural-looking centre forward in the surging, buffeting hullabaloo of English football. To date nothing in his physique, range of skills or obvious competitive bravery suggests anything other than a hit. Do not adjust your hype-tinted spectacles. Perhaps slightly by accident – and certainly ahead of schedule – Manchester United really do seem to have signed a Manchester United player here.
Beyond this it might also be time to accept that this kind of thing is simply what English football does best now. The Premier League has always been a league built for hype, for bold storylines, for minting new stars, for eating spectacularly its young. What else do we really think it’s doing here? Certainly it would be stretching credibility to portray it as an elite finishing school, an exercise in reason and scale and the subtleties of team building.
Much better instead to see in the Premier League’s moneyed but compelling short-termism as a version of the old Hollywood star system, with the top clubs like studios ready to hoover up, over-promote and every now and then propel to glorious superstardom a great, groaning, glitzy natural wastage of youthful talent.Kevin De Bruyne’s in! Kevin De Bruyne’s out! Wait! Get me Kevin De Bruyne again!
The Premier League does this very effectively. There is no way of knowing if Martial really is destined for greatness, or even very-goodness as an all-round centre-forward. But looking back at other Premier League early-bloomers there is also a case to be made that sometimes those early years of overexposure, of burning yourself gloriously into the ground, can also be simultaneously the best years. The best of Wayne Rooney, the bit that will define what was a gloriously explosive talent, came before he turned 25. That was when Rooney was great, and when he was rightly celebrated, assailed and generally waved about the place in cartoon effigy form, before injuries and a physique unsuited to the long run dead-headed his influence.
Similarly the first flush of Michael Owen, that period when the Premier League swept him up and ran him thin, remains the best part of Michael Owen, an unforgettable sun-drenched splurge of talent and spent youth. This is just what the Premier League does best, just as the spectacle of Kelechi Iheanacho scoring the winner against Crystal Palace was a piece of glorious schlock, and just as the precarious talents of players like Hector Bellerín, John Stones, Delle Ali and Luke Shaw seem all the more prodigious and risky and compelling in a league that will always singe a little at the edges.
It may or may not be better to burn out than fade away. But in a league made for and by television, whose success is based around selling itself, hard, as a quick-fix entertainment product, you won’t be left wondering.
So, good luck with that then, Anthony old boy. On the other hand, and all hype aside, Martial does already look to be a fine player in the right place at the right time, perhaps even a slightly flukish masterstroke. It is already clear certain things he does naturally are just what this United team need. He likes to drift wide and take the ball into the space behind the full-backs, as he did against Liverpool. This is potent territory in the Premier League, where full-backs tend to point forwards and where the best form of defence often appears to be storming blindly upfield as an auxiliary winger. As his manager has noted, Martial has also helped United’s tight-knit midfield simply by forcing opposition defenders to take a step back, space created just by the threat of speed.
Above all he seems to have a genuine method in his finishing, each goal to date involving a brief preparatory moment of rejigging his body – opening it out, twisting to face the other way – before calmly and with little backlift side-footing into the space created.
There had been some rumbling about Martial’s pre-United goal record, a question of whether he really is a “natural” scorer, but this has all looked pretty easy. Look a little closer and he only started playing regularly as a central striker in March, scoring eight goals in his last 15 matches for Monaco last season. There is nothing obviously missing here, no dramatic new skill set to be acquired. Just a sense already of an alluringly talented footballer whose future at a club that has always been intoxicated by youth – from the days of Jimmy Murphy through the stream of bandy-legged ball players in the early Ferguson years – looks pretty much wide open.