New Manchester United top gun Anthony Martial has been lauded as the next ‘Thierry Henry’ by many a journalist and footballer in France. How far do comparisons endure beyond the superficial?
Well, if we trace the development of both at their early ages, it is undeniable Martial has a chance of becoming like Henry. Yes, one footballer’s career cannot be evaluated in comparison to another simply on the basis of age – different footballers develop differently at different times in different situations; yet age remains an indicator of ability and potential, even if not conclusive.
Let us start with obvious comparisons.
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He has the Martial arts needed to succeed, sharing Henry’s pace; dribbling; technical nous as well as spiritual self-confidence and competitive fortitude. Well-versed he is in the mystic science of Va Va Voom; he possesses that similar running style; so languidly elegant - yet supersonic.
It’s all there. Arsenal heralded Héctor Bellerín as the fastest ever at the Club, quicker than the great man himself over 40 metres, yet in Arsenal’s European first leg tie against Monaco at the Emirates last season, Martial outpaced him; despite having the ball at his feet.
He has that long-legged physique, and boundless energy. Martial’s playing positions also affirms the comparisons. A winger-forward, even if he starts centrally, Martial magnetically drifts to the left only to then cut inside to shoot or pass with his right – à la Henry at Monaco. It also tells you just how pseudo a lot of the new game concepts are. Thierry Henry was doing the whole ‘new breed of forward’ Inside-left role a decade ago.
There’s more. Henry scored 28 in 148 appearances for Monaco at 0.19 goals per game. Martial scored 15 in 68 for Monaco at 0.22 goals per game. Henry aged 20 scored ten in 48 for Monaco, and 11 in 44 the next season. Last season, aged 19, Martial scored 12 in 46, scoring more than any other teenager in Europe in a French league not exactly bereft of any quality either; with PSG’s stars and Lyon’s youthful, attacking roars. Statistically, Martial has a better overall goal scoring average than Henry at a similar age, with both having played similar positions. Their goal scoring ratios also shares striking resemblances.
Of course, Martial has played far fewer games than Henry had by then for a fuller comparison even at a similar age. Henry himself states how Martial has not played enough for us to be decisive about his prospects yet. There are reasons for this. Despite Henry having played a decent number of games by then, breaking the ten-goals-a-season barrier twice at Monaco, Henry later endured a relatively unsuccessful time both in his last season at Monaco as well as at Juventus where he was later transferred for only a season.
He only scored four goals in 38 games during that period. It was only at Arsenal and for the French national team where Henry really began to excel. Therefore, career progression is not necessarily a linear concept in World Football. However, given Henry did eventually fulfil the potential evident in his early stages, we can be confident that with Martial, the good indications remain.
Despite the glaring similarities, Martial differs from Henry in some aspects. Martial at Monaco also had a predatory, penalty box presence. In contrast, Henry generally preferred to make those domineering runs into the box. Martial is also more compact than the 6”2 Henry, at just under six feet. Henry later became the perfect confluence of a ballerina’s delicacy blended with the bull-like power of those Olympic-class 100 metre sprinter-strikers of the 1990s, such as the phenomenal Ronaldo.
Martial has the body-type, potential and time to become even more of a physical presence, given he is not yet of that ilk. Don't expect him to shoulder past big centre-backs just yet. Combine tactical trickery, fleeting feet and swiftness of mind to manoeuvre around tight situations he will, as well was turning on the accelerator to ghost past people when presented with any space on the wings or through the middle.
In that sense, he has an element of the Neymar about him; not the largest by any means, but possessing of flair and efficiency. Also, like Neymar, Martial is the type of player who although capable of the spectacular, can also score off scraps, taps and beat off-side traps. In time, he will bulk up like Cristiano Ronaldo did to adapt to the physical challenge of the Premier League, and then he will reach one step closer to completion as the ultimate forward.
Another area where he resembles Henry is in his bullet right foot. Based on goals he has scored so far, it is evident that like Henry, Martial likes to hit first-time volleys and pull the trigger after only a few touches. His shot is also direct, and ping-like; full of nothing more than bad intentions.
Having said all that, one thing we must realise is that Thierry Henry became King only later, after moving to Arsenal aged 22. It was there where he became that 20-goal-a-season man, registering 26 in his first year. Arsene Wenger transformed him into a striker that also absolutely barbecued the wings. The onus is on United to also develop Martial the same way, especially in terms of sharpening his box penetration and finishing, and thus he needs to be given time.
It remains deep praise that Martial is hailed as the next great French hope. In that regard, we must not view Martial in a vacuum. Too many are writing off Martial based on the individual, forgetting where he fits into the wider context. Martial is part of the new French Vanguard of immense talent that can mount a revolutionary challenge in International tournaments over the next decade or so.
The youth of the current French generation is arguably rivaled only by Germany and Spain in the entire world. Therefore, Martial should be considered both as an individual and within the collective. He is placed alongside Raphael Varane; Kurt Zouma; Aymeric Laporte; Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann – all having world class potential.
This knowledge should only ease our concerns, bolster our confidence and our expectations that he will also go on to fulfil his billing like the others will as well. It is a generational thing with Martial, as much as a personal one. Interestingly, Griezmann, now a 25-goal-a-season man with Atlético Madrid at Martial’s age had only scored six goals in 40 games from the wing.
After this season, Euro 2016 will take place. Many will remember Thierry Henry during the 1998 World Cup, where he broke through the world stage. He scored three goals that tournament, being France’s top scorer. History may be repeating itself.
In 1997, Henry, impressing for Monaco, was called up to the French Under-20 team for the Youth World Cup that year similar to how Martial represented France at all youth levels. The French manager at the time, Aimé Jacquet also called up Henry for a senior game against South Africa that same year, where although he did not score, Jacquet saw so much potential in him that Henry was selected for the World Cup, which France won. Henry was only 20 then.
The same age Martial will be next summer. These events profoundly mirror how highly Didier Deschamps, captain of that same French winning team of 1998 now rates the young Martial, calling him up to the senior team for the recent friendlies against Portugal and Serbia.
Time will tell whether Martial will shine at Euro 2016 like Henry did in France 1998. However, the stage is set for him to do so; Martial has a golden chance to start for France, given Olivier Giroud is currently off form. Therefore, if Martial can marshal himself and impress this season for Manchester United, he will be the first soldier in line to replace the Arsenal frontman, and fate will be at his feet.
When looking at Martial, it is without a doubt that the indications are there; but the industry is not – just yet. Martial’s coup d’état, remains a work in progress, and is clouded by conspiracy. Will he make it? Will he take over? Will he fail? From the majesty of King Henry and his Arsenals, will we witness Red, Martial Law under a United Van Gaal’d (get it?)?