In all the talk of Manchester United’s various issues up front relating to the form of Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Marcus Rashford, one man who has quietly gone about playing himself into arguably the best form of his United career is Anthony Martial.
And while Lukaku’s demotion to the bench in favour of Rashford at the heart of the attack was the big news pre-match, it was Martial who did all the damage as United beat Everton 2-1 in a much-improved performance on Sunday.
From very early on in proceedings there appeared to be a different life about United’s play on the ball. Without being overly penetrating they did look dangerous, forcing Everton onto the back foot in their defensive third on many an occasion.
Key to that was Martial. Appearing to revel in the presence of a more dynamic foil in Rashford at number nine who was more prone to drag defenders away from his channel than Lukaku, the Frenchman was able to exploit areas he has too often been forced out of in previous outings. For a man who could easily have been sold in the summer, this was a reminder of just how magical he can be on his day.
It was his cross from a standing start which found Juan Mata in space to turn a free header towards goal early on, and moments later he cut inside to unleash a magnificent drive which stung the palms of England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
When he ran at Idrissa Gueye in the area and induced an unwise challenge which had referee Jonathan Moss pointing to the spot it was merely the latest in a string of moments that highlighted his danger to the Toffees back line.
Paul Pogba’s initial spot kick was saved well by Jordan Pickford but the midfielder was able to follow it in with time to spare, but there was no let-up from United at 1-0.
Martial continued to cause problems, and just four minutes into the second half he finished superbly to give the home side the two-goal cushion they craved.
As Pogba looked to regenerate an attack which had momentarily stalled he fed the ball wide to Martial on the left. Immediately spotting space inside his marker, the 22-year-old took a half-step which allowed the ball to meet him in perfect stride before arching a magnificent shot just inside the far post and beyond the helpless Pickford.
It naturally sent the Stretford End potty and instigated the latest chorus of the chant which ridicules the suggestion his near-£50 million transfer fee in 2015 was a waste of United’s money.
In Martial United have a player who is the exaggerated personification of this squad as a whole. United can be very good on their day but drab when they’re not on it, and the former Monaco man can be every bit as head-shakingly anonymous as he can be mouth-wateringly magnificent.
Today he was the latter, banishing memories of the run of form which saw him go eight months without a goal following Alexis Sanchez’s January signing until he netted against Young Boys in September. He has since scored five times in seven starts and is without doubt United’s form player.
Drill down on Martial’s stats and they don’t always cover him in glory. Even in being the game-winner against a tough Everton side he covered less ground than any other player who spent the same amount of time on the pitch, in many ways underlining why Jose Mourinho doesn’t always think he can rely on Martial to do what he needs in front of Luke Shaw on the left side. He also missed a sitter when clean through on Sunday, a chance that was probably easier to score.
But his flashes of brilliance can make the difference, and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late penalty which made things tense in M16 only went to emphasise how important Martial’s contribution in the attacking third had been.
And on this form Martial should be the first name on the teamsheet in all three matches. If United can begin to get this sort of performance out of him more often they will solve half of their attacking issues in no time at all.