If Jose Mourinho had got his way last summer, Anthony Martial might not be playing for Manchester United right now. The Portuguese boss had his sights set on four new signings at Old Trafford, with Ivan Perisic the final piece in his jigsaw puzzle.
But the United board failed to persuade Inter to part company with their Croatian winger and Mourinho was left having to make do with what he already had. Thankfully, though, the left wing position has been ably filled between Martial and Marcus Rashford so far, and the Frenchman’s immense form of late has been worthy of particular note.
The very fact United head into Sunday’s huge Manchester derby within eight points of neighbours City is thanks in large part to Martial’s dazzling forward play in recent weeks. While he has had to bide his time for a regular starting place, his form of late has demanded a spot in the XI.
There were grave concerns over the former Monaco star’s future not long ago, with his return of just eight goals in 42 appearances in 2016-17 prompting Mourinho to drive a hard bargain before handing Martial a starting jersey. It had been a tough second year in Manchester for the player, with the loss of his place having come on the back of a long summer away with France at Euro 2016 and a rather high-profile split with the mother of his child soon after.
For a guy still not yet 21, such an unforgiving spell had seemingly been too much for him to put to the back of his mind when stepping onto the pitch. But Mourinho was not about to give him a regular spot out of sympathy alone.
“Do I think Anthony is a player with great potential? Yes,” the manager said in April. “Do I think he can play successfully for me? Yes. But he needs to give me things that I like very much. We are together for almost 10 months and I know the players much better now, they should know me much better now… Anthony has to give me things that I like.”
Following a promising run in pre-season after a proper summer break, Martial hit the ground running at the start of the current campaign. It might not have immediately led to him ousting Rashford from the first XI, but Mourinho was not about to let his improved performances go unnoticed in light of his failed tilt for Perisic.
“I have faith in him,” Mourinho said ahead of August’s trip to Swansea City. “Probably, the player I was looking at [Perisic] was not a pure winger, because I have pure wingers.
“The player I was looking for would allow me to play three at the back and do the wing-backs. As a pure attacking player, Martial is a good player.
“He is one of the players who will have a better season than last season. I look at my players and I am sure some will be better than they were last season, and Anthony is one of those, for sure.”
While Martial continued to impress, he still hadn’t done quite enough to win a regular spot and only three of his first eight appearances this term came in the Premier League as Rashford began to form a compelling link up front with Romelu Lukaku. And being a regular substitute was not what Martial had in mind for his third campaign at Old Trafford.
“It’s easier to start the game,” Martial told SFR Sport in November. “When you come off the bench, the other players are warmed up and are completely in the game, whereas you have to get into it straight away. I prefer to start the game, that way I have more time to get myself into the game.
“I have faith in my qualities, and I think the manager has confidence in me too. So it’s up to me to continue putting in good performances, and if I do that I think I’ll play a bit more."
Eventually, he has made that count. Mourinho gave the 22-year-old the nod to start against Newcastle in November and was rewarded with a first-half equaliser and a scintillating performance in the 4-1 victory. It would be the first of five straight starts for Martial – a personal best for the France international since Mourinho took charge at the Theatre of Dreams – including game-defining moments in pivotal away wins against Watford and Arsenal.
While he was given a rest in midweek, coming on for the final 16 minutes of the 2-1 Champions League success over CSKA Moscow, he is a decent bet to regain a spot in the first XI for City’s visit on Sunday as he is arguably United’s most in-form player.
Such has been his performance level this term that he drew very high praise indeed from his team-mate and compatriot Paul Pogba recently.
"Anthony is a big, big, big talent. He’s a talented player – one of the best players I have ever seen or trained with,” said the £89.5 million midfielder. “He is still young and is going to improve. He will improve a lot and you are going to see even more of Anthony, I am sure.”
And now we are truly starting to see the best of Martial once more. After a lightning first season following a big-money move from his homeland, the sophomore slump is now old news. He has already matched his goals tally of last term, and has arguably delivered a greater number of stand-out performances already than was the case over the preceding 12 months.
“I see great improvement in the person, in the moods, the face and in the body language,” Mourinho said of Martial earlier this term. “What I see? In a word: happiness. He is a happy guy, working extremely well. I’m very pleased with his attitude overall, and then it is easier to play well.”
Anthony Martial is happy again, and Manchester United fans are reaping the rewards.