Frenchman fitter, happier and more productive than a month ago, as it showed in 2-1 win over Everton on Sunday night
Jose Mourinho right to be pleased with Anthony Martial's development into key Manchester United player
Old Trafford relaxed a little when Anthony Martial put his side 2-0 up against Everton with a beautiful shot from the edge of the area which curled between Jordan Pickford and his outside post.
“Tony Martial, he came from France,” the Stretford End sang as he celebrated with fellow Parisien Paul Pogba. “English press said he had no chance. Fifty million down the drain. Tony Martial scores again.”
Given United had not won a home game by two clear goals since February 2, they had reason to celebrate. Everton would pull a goal back, but United held out for only a third home win in seven home games this season.
It was Martial’s fifth goal in seven Manchester United starts this season. It really should have been six four minutes into time added on when he sprinted forward onto a Fred pass with only Pickford to beat. Everton’s goalkeeper saved with his legs, but, not for the first time, Martial is finding his feet in this United side.
Martial started in only one of his team’s opening six league games, the August abomination at Brighton. And while he floundered in a misfiring team, even the most ardent Martial fan wondered whether he had a future at the club which he had wanted to leave for most of 2018.
A month on, the outlook for the 22-year-old Martial is much, much better. He has been United’s best player, good enough to score twice at Stamford Bridge where United came within a minute of being the first team to beat Chelsea this season. Martial got the key equaliser himself in the previous game against Newcastle.
But it is not just about goals.
Old Trafford comes alive when Martial gets the ball; he gives United fans something they have not seen enough of in recent years with his direct attacking intent, his runs at opponents and tricks. It does not always come off, but the risks are worth it.
Martial covered less ground than any player who started and finished Sunday’s game. He made only one cross, yet of the nine key United passes in the match which either led to a goal or a direct goal scoring chance, Martial made four of them.
Jose Mourinho dropped Romelu Lukaku for the first time this season after his main striker had gone eight games without scoring. He was replaced by Marcus Rashford who worked hard but found life as tough as Lukaku. There were encouraging interchanges between Martial and Rashford and United’s attack had more pace without the ponderous Lukaku.
Martial also won the penalty, which Paul Pogba eventually converted to put United ahead. He went down heavily, but it was his quick feet which had sucked Idrissa Gueye into making the foul. Everton captain Seamus Coleman has had easier afternoons than facing Martial.
Martial is fitter, happier and more productive than a month ago. His club never had any intention of letting him go for they knew his talents could blossom at the highest level, just as they had done at Monaco to entice United into paying so much for him over three years ago.
Asked about Martial, Mourinho said: “When the players are playing bad it’s my fault, when the players play well it’s my responsibility! Let’s go half way and say it’s always half me and half the player.
“He coped well with his development process. He took quite a long time to understand what we want from him. Took quite a long time for his brain and also his body to be ready to be able to play how we want him to play.
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“In this moment he is solid, he’s playing very well.Even if he doesn’t score, even if he’s not in his best days to create the way he’s creating, his performance is a solid performance for the team. That’s what we need so I’m very happy with Anthony.”
Asked to elaborate on how Martial has improved, Mourinho added: “Positional. It’s not just about the defensive action itself, it’s also about closing the spaces and being compact with the midfield player and knowing how to be in relation to the ball’s position.
"He’s understanding now things that he didn’t before. He wants to play. He knows that to play and be consistent in the team he has to find a certain direction. His performance today without the goal would be a good performance.
"What I want from him is exactly that. You cannot score every time you play. You have matches where you are not going to score, where your creation is not at a high level, but you have a certain balance to your performance.
"That is what’s going on.”
This was no vintage United performance, but then it was a game between two mid-table teams, Everton having won their three previous matches to rise two places above United to eighth. Victory saw United leapfrog over them.
Mourinho said that he believes his side will be in a completely different position in the league by the end of December. Three points against Everton helped United moved up to eighth, but they are still five points off the top four.
United’s next three matches? Sixth-placed Bournemouth away, Juventus away and leaders Manchester City away. They will feel better going into those with Martial in form.
As Everton manager Marcos Silva, who felt hard done to, correctly concluded: “Martial made the difference.”