This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of WGM.
The £36 million investment in Anthony Martial, a teenager who was largely untested before his big money move from Monaco to Manchester United in September, now looks like it was worth every penny. With four goals in his first four games for the Red Devils – including one on debut against bitter rivals Liverpool – Martial has quickly exceeded the wildest expectations of the Manchester faithful and earned comparisons with such footballing royalty as Patrick Kluivert and Thierry Henry. Wearing the famous number nine shirt, Martial looks confident, calm and lethal – United’s big gamble on their future already a great success.
Paying big money on an untested teenager is always a gamble. When Alex Ferguson paid £26 million for a youngster named Wayne Rooney in 2004 – a hefty fee even by today’s standards – Ferguson was so nervous he called Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and said, “You won’t believe the crazy money I just paid for an 18-year-old boy!”
The deal turned out to be one of United’s wisest investments. Now captain of the team, Rooney not only broke Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals for the England national team but is also closing in on his 249 goals for United.
With the departure of Robin Van Persie in the summer and the failure of Radamel Falcao last season, it was evident that United needed a genuine number nine up front. While Rooney was lethal in his prime, he prefers to play number 10 these days and hasn’t led the line for three years. Unsurprisingly, the Red Devils were linked with some big name strikers during the summer including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and PSG’s Edinson Cavani – both well established players in the prime of their careers. So when news broke on deadline day that United’s new goal-scoring man was instead 19-year-old Martial – and at a record fee for a teenager – more than a few eyebrows were raised.
Without a proven scoring record at the top level and having yet to learn English – a common barrier for young players looking to settle in overseas – Martial didn’t appear to be the instant goal-scorer United’s stuttering attack needed. After all, their 62 goals last season left them 11 goals shy of champions Chelsea and 21 behind runners-up Manchester City respectively. Twelve months earlier their 64 goals was a staggering 38 fewer than City and 37 less than Liverpool.
The attraction to Martial may have come down to the difficulties in attracting those elite strikers. It was reported in England that United had tried and failed to sign Thomas Müller, Sergio Ramos and Benzema despite offering huge money. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern Munich’s CEO, blasted United’s transfer tactics as “naive”. And so, having wasted the summer negotiating with unrealistic targets, their splash on Martial on the final day of the transfer window looked like their last desperate move.
It was also pointed out that if United was looking to scout a teenager in France, the obvious target would surely have been Alexandre Lacazette. Another product of Lyon’s famed youth system but four years older and already a member of the French national team, Lacazette was top scorer in Ligue 1 last season with 27 goals. Ironically, with Europe’s big clubs circling, Lyon had announced a minimum transfer fee of €50 million (£36 million) – almost exactly the amount United later paid for Martial – and although some experts have proclaimed Martial the more naturally talented of the two, Lacazette seemed the “ready-made” option they were looking for.
As it turns out, United’s scouts are having the last laugh. In his first outings for his new club, Martial exhibited an incredible talent for both scoring and creating goals. His man-of-the-match performance in a 3-0 win over Sunderland not only won universal praise, it also produced an incredible statistic – only Juan Mata had created as many clear-cut chances for Manchester United all season as Martial did in the second half alone!
Manchester United look set to win big on their Martial gamble, however by paying well above his market value they may have avoided paying much more had they waited a few years for him considering the hefty fees for fellow young guns Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne. Top players tend to become increasingly expensive once they reach their early 20s due to the inflation of the football market so in fact we may one day look back at the Martial deal as a shrewd one.
Super clubs like Manchester United are entitled to gamble on teenagers and can afford to lose out from time to time if it doesn’t work out. But they usually get it right. Of the top 10 most expensive teenagers in history, four of them have been Manchester United purchases with three seeming success stories. Topping the list is Martial, who still has a long way to go but is certainly looking the goods so far. Luke Shaw moved from Southampton for a then record £31 million in 2014 and although injury has hampered his progress so far, he has looked every bit a top defender during his time on the park.
Rooney still sits fifth on the list of most expensive teenagers after moving from Everton in 2004 and will go down as one of the greats, which leaves only Brazilian midfielder Anderson – a £22 million purchase from Porto in 2007 – as an experiment that failed to fire. Anderson played only 10 games for United in his last two seasons and with injury regularly marring his progress became little more than a bit-part player before finally departing for Italy in 2014. He joins the likes of PSG flop Lucas Moura and Barcelona’s Javier Saviola as teenagers who have failed to match the hype.
But the benefits are huge when a gamble pays off. For starters, teenagers are usually cheaper than proven players in the market. Raheem Sterling, for example, has long been regarded a special talent yet go back two years and he would have attracted a fraction of the £49 million Manchester City paid Liverpool for his services this season. Secondly, when a teen prodigy develops into a genuine superstar he can either become a long-term talisman in the mold of Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos or a cash cow when sold for a much higher price like Sergio Agüero, who was purchased by Atletico Madrid for £17 million and later sold to Manchester City for £35 million. In Martial’s case, it seems Manchester United may have uncovered a real gem.