Wasn’t that the perfect week in a very long time for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho? Or is it too little too late?
Either way, you would struggle to write the script if you tried. Following the trouncing of Chelsea and a nail-biting finish in Europe, United win a Premier League game without hassle on a weekend for a change, when their rivals for a place in the top four failed to improve on their current points tally.
It was comfortable and controlled in end, came with all the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho side away from home. But United were in danger of being stretched to their limits after injuries to almost four first-teamers in recent weeks and if anything, Sunday was a good reminder of the strength in depth and harmony of the squad at Mourinho’s disposal – which is always vital at this stage of the season when some of their immediate foes could do with a bit of both.
That United were able to replace their top scorer with a player they spent over £50m on (including bonuses) speaks volumes about the gallons left in their tank. And also, the fact that there is a wealth of experience and a record number of goals waiting on the wings to get involved at the business end only goes on to reinforce that idea.
Speaking of Anthony Martial, it could not have been any better of a re-introduction. The Frenchman, United’s best outfield player last season by a country mile, was almost frozen out of the side this campaign, with a lack of opportunities for reasons only Mourinho could explain.
Louis van Gaal may have said and done many ludicrous and vine-worthy things during his two-year spell at United but it was hard to argue with him when he opined that the ex-Monaco youngster was bought for his successor and a Manchester United side built around the likes of Martial definitely made an awful lot of sense. But things have not gone to plan as his successor and protegé, the Portuguese Jose Mourinho, has not been able to extract the best out of a player he also rated very highly.
With Martial’s match-winning performance at Turf Moor, things are finally looking up as they should. The 21-year old, who has been dealing with personal issues that an average 21-year old may not even be aware of, looked to have finally broken the shackles as he slotted the first goal in – a culmination of a fantastic counter-attacking move started by himself – scoring his first away goal in the Premier League, in almost a year.
Mourinho, speaking after the game, praised Martial for the attitude and desire he showed on the pitch while acknowledging the qualities he possessed. He said,
“He has to understand what we need from him but it’s not just for us but it’s also for him. If he wants to become a very special player – he can do that – then he has to go in a certain direction and today he showed this attitude and appetite. We are happy because we have a new player until the end of the season.”
Martial’s response to Mourinho’s call of duty was emphatic indeed. But the Frenchman should now take the responsibility and carry it until the end of the season. It is incredulous that the 21-year old has only started 13 games in the league this season (17th highest number of minutes in the squad) despite maintaining his fitness for most of the time he’s been overlooked.
But Mourinho’s treatment of the youngster was once again vindicated and he could look back on the Burnley performance in hindsight and point to it as the game that flicked the switch at United. Against Burnley, Martial was intelligent and worked hard when not in possession by taking up several positions on the pitch, stretching the opposition defence and unsettling an otherwise rigid Burnley back four (often a back eight).
But on the ball, he managed to be even more impressive and efficient. Setting up the second goal for Rooney, he tormented the home side with his darting and direct runs (10 dribbles completed) and opened the account by scoring a goal that cost United a sum total of £8.4 million due to it being a landmark goal – his 25th in his Man United career.
Ahead of another tantalising Manchester derby gameweek, the Red Devils have momentum in the form of an almost six month unbeaten run in the league on their side and the opportunity to break into the top four has never been more ripe.
Knowing that a repeat of last season’s result at City would have a ripple effect across that top six at a crucial period in the campaign, the objective is not obscure any more at United, probably for the first time in a long while.