Manchester United probably needed the three points more than the blistering performance against Watford on Saturday but Anthony Martial helped them to deliver both as they turned in their best display under Jose Mourinho to win 2-0 and climb to fifth in the Premier League, keeping the hopes of a Champions League spot alive in the process.
Martial had missed four of the last five games amid claims from his manager that he hadn’t done enough to earn a regular starting spot, but his response was to score one and assist another in United’s most convincing performance in quite some time.
His last start against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup saw him set up two goals, but Mourinho insisted that it had only been enough to earn him a spot as a substitute in the subsequent fixture against Hull City. But this time around there can be no doubting that Martial did enough to be considered a sure-fire starter when the Portuguese next draws up his starting XI.
The only regret about the afternoon has to be the fact that United didn’t score more goals, with their phenomenal forward play worthy of far more. Their front four interchanged superbly on numerous occasions, creating a multitude of chances which would have produced more goals were it not for a mixture of great goalkeeping, wonderful defending and erratic finishing.
This was United at their best. Martial was a constant threat on the left after his recall in place of Marcus Rashford, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s runs caused all sorts of problems, while Juan Mata turned in his best showing for some time as he drifted into positions the Watford defence simply couldn’t handle and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s movement ensured the Hornets were always playing catch-up.
Mata got the goal he deserved after a Martial raid down the left, and the Frenchman later added a second after leaving the Watford defence flat-footed following an Ibrahimovic pass. It looked at one point as though United could score goals from every possible combination as they made opportunities from all angles and through just about every pair of feet.
There were other opportunities for Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera as United’s fluid movement opened the kind of space that United have rarely been afforded at Old Trafford this term. As much as Walter Mazzarri’s side attempted to remain compact, they couldn’t help but be bent out of shape by United’s attacking intelligence.
It is only five days before United host Saint-Etienne in the first of four cup games in a 10-day period which will no doubt test the depths of Mourinho’s squad, but if the manager decides that the Europa League task requires his strongest starting line-up then it will be very hard for him to leave anyone out of the XI from those who saw off Watford with a bit to spare.
Chief among them is Martial. While the idea of having a fixed starting line-up is an archaic one in these times of constant squad rotation, the 21-year-old has to be considered as the current choice pick among left-sided options. With Rashford naturally showing some inconsistency at the age of 19, Martial needs to make the spot his own.
Today was definitely step one on the road to proving he’s got the character and the drive to make the position his own. When he was substituted late on, he was greeted with a high-five and a hug from his manager. It was all the evidence he needed that he was back in Mourinho's good books.