Monaco were so sure Anthony Martial was destined for the top that when they allowed the 19-year-old striker to join Manchester United for an initial €49 million in 2015, they included a clause guaranteeing an extra payment of €10m if he made the Ballon d'Or shortlist. Six-and-a-half years later, however, Martial has been frozen out at Old Trafford as he has made it public that he wants to leave in the January transfer window. His promise remains unfilled, and that Ballon d'Or bonus remains unpaid.
It has reached the point that, when he was left out of the squad for the 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round on Monday night, nobody bothered to ask why. The MUTV presenter who quizzed interim manager Ralf Rangnick ahead of kick-off was more interested in the whereabouts of defender Phil Jones, who has played once in the past two years.
On Saturday, Martial was left out for a repeat trip to Villa, this time in the Premier League. Rangnick said it was because Martial didn't want to be part of the squad, which Martial emphatically disputed. "I will never refuse to play for Man United," he wrote on social media. In another news conference on Tuesday, Rangnick said that after clear-the-air talks between the two, the matter was now resolved, and he didn't rule out offering Martial another chance. He has already burned through plenty during his time at Old Trafford.
It had all started so well for Martial at United, as he came off the bench to make his debut against Liverpool and scored in front of the Stretford End. Alongside a last-minute Wembley winner against Everton in the FA Cup semifinal later the same season, it remains one of only a handful of highlights from an otherwise underwhelming Manchester United career.
And yet, still only 26, there's a nagging feeling there's an untapped player in there somewhere. Sources have told ESPN that United have not ruled out letting Martial leave this month, but there remains a worry that if everything clicked into place, it could be one of those transfers that ends up causing embarrassment down the line.
Martial has all the skills an accomplished forward needs. Both former managers Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer considered Martial to be the best finisher at the club, and for some at Old Trafford it remains a mystery as to why he hasn't been able to deliver on all that potential. More than one former United teammate remembers him being a "distant" character in the dressing room, whose performances in training and games could depend on whether or not he had come to work smiling or not.
When Mourinho took over in the summer of 2016, it took him until September to decide Martial lacked the necessary attitude and focus. Sources close to Martial insist Mourinho didn't help matters by allowing new signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to take the Frenchman's No. 9 shirt without consultation. It prompted speculation he was looking to leave -- something that annoyed Mourinho.
"Anthony has to listen to me and not his agent," Mourinho said in January 2017. "He has to listen to me. He has to listen to me in training every day, in every feedback I give to try to improve players."
Mourinho eventually lost patience and, in the summer of 2018, told executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward that the club should look to move the striker on and raise additional funds to strengthen other areas of the squad. Woodward declined, leaving Mourinho convinced the decision was taken because owner Joel Glazer had once said Martial was his favourite player.
Ogden: Sancho makes Man United much more formidable
Mark Ogden says Jadon Sancho is exactly the type of player Man United need.
Solskjaer tried a different approach, making Martial one of his key players and giving him back the No. 9 shirt when Romelu Lukaku left to join Inter Milan in 2019. It had seemingly worked and Martial scored 23 goals in all competitions during the 2019-20 season as Solskjaer's first-choice centre forward. Injuries and suspension disrupted last season, but sources told ESPN he returned to preseason training last summer fit and focused -- only for Cristiano Ronaldo to re-sign for the club a few weeks later which, alongside the €85m arrival of Jadon Sancho, pushed Martial to the fringe again. Some members of the coaching staff reported a stark shift in Martial's behaviour after Ronaldo's addition.
Fast-forward six months, and Martial hasn't played for United since early December. Just before Christmas, he told Rangnick he wants to leave. He hasn't been in the squad for any of the past eight games and a loan offer from Sevilla has been rejected. United are demanding a loan fee and for all Martial's wages to be covered, a request that's problematic considering he earns more per week than Liverpool's Mohamed Salah. He has a contract at Old Trafford until 2024 with the option of another year, and the club are not willing to let him go cheaply regardless of whether or not he wants to be there. Sources have told ESPN his preference is to move to Italy or Spain, but so far interest has been minimal.
The worry now is that a player once compared in playing style to Arsenal legend Thierry Henry ends up slipping back into obscurity as the subject of one of those "whatever happened to" stories. After all, Martial was so unknown in England before his move to United that when the news of his arrival was first broken, Wayne Rooney spent a flight back from a game at Swansea googling Martial's name and asking his France international teammate Morgan Schneiderlin for information.
Sources have told ESPN that Rangnick is willing to welcome Martial back into the squad once his future becomes clearer, and there is still a chance he could play an important role during the second half of the season. It would be another turnaround in a career that has already had plenty of ups and downs. But time is running out to prove he can be as good as United -- and Monaco -- had banked on.