Jose Mourinho has spoken a lot of a shortage of luck in recent weeks, but what his Manchester United have arguably missed more is composure in the final third. It might be more convenient for a manager to claim that his side are doing everything they can to gain results, but if they are not making the most of good situations then there is more than misfortune at the heart of the problem.
Last season it was Anthony Martial who often found a way to bail out Louis van Gaal when his iteration of United were struggling to convert their chances, but the Frenchman’s form in 2016-17 has not been sufficient to even win favour with Mourinho let alone put his club on the right track.
As United were failing to break a 1-1 tie against West Ham United in the Premier League on Sunday, Martial was sat in the directors’ box, unable to do anything but watch as the Reds threw away another two points. On Wednesday he showed he has still got it though, scoring twice in the second half to drag United out of their latest tricky spot and secure a 4-1 EFL Cup quarter-final victory over the Hammers.
It is inarguable that Martial has not been himself for much of this term. He has not found himself in goalscoring positions nearly as often as he had done under Van Gaal, and even when he had he seemed not to be as confident of delivering the killer blow. Mourinho even went as far as to suggest last week that Martial was simply more suited to the more measured style of play championed by the Dutchman and that the 20-year-old must work hard at making himself more of a Mourinho type of player.
After a first half in which Martial flickered without dazzling, United went in at the break level with West Ham; Ashley Fletcher had pounced on a David de Gea error to cancel out Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second-minute opener. But the second period belonged to the Frenchman.
First he lashed home from Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pull-back after Antonio Valencia’s back-heel had sent the Armenian racing towards the West Ham goal. Then, on the hour, he was on hand to tap home after drifting off his marker to meet Valencia’s square pass. It really was exactly the kind of performance and goal-scoring return he had desperately needed.
When he left the field with four minutes left on the clock the only thing louder than the crowd’s appreciation for Martial’s display was there ovation for the returning Bastian Schweinsteiger, who took his place for his first appearance of the season. Moments later the fans were celebrating a second for Ibrahimovic in injury time to cap off a great evening.
This is obviously just the first step for the Frenchman. He will want, and need, to show he can turn United’s opportunities into goals on a more regular basis in order to win Mourinho’s permanent faith. But the Portuguese knows who to thank for the place his team now take in the semi-final draw.