Manchester United’s upturn in form has coincided with the brightest football of Anthony Martial’s career under Jose Mourinho. The winning goal against Burnley on Saturday bore all the hallmarks of a player with confidence. All throughout the game, the rest of the United team sought the Frenchman as the chief source of inspiration.
The 22-year-old has begun to show the consistency demanded by Mourinho last season when the Portuguese was close to permitting Martial to join Sevilla on loan. It’s hard to believe right now that Martial was ever so far from Mourinho’s reckoning, considering his centrality to United’s cause in a spell where he has contributed a goal in each of the club’s 2018 Premier League outings.
Mourinho is not a manager who has shown much patience with young players throughout his career. He has always preferred to work with men middle-aged or even old in career terms and it has served him well.
Success has come everywhere for Mourinho thanks in large part to performers who have been the right psychological fit and who have had the requisite experience and nous to take on board his messages. Where he has never sought to emulate his rivals Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola is in the development of young players.
If fortune dictated that he got hold of one early in their career then it has usually been a case of if they’re good enough they’ll play. Careful nurturing when things aren’t going so well has never really been part of Mourinho’s repertoire as a coach.
And so it has proven at Manchester United, with Martial and with Marcus Rashford.
The acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the start of last season set the template for United’s double trophy win. Zlatan set the tempo for how United would attack and he dominated all who came into his orbit. Mourinho made it clear that he would prefer to work with Zlatan at the age of 36 then take a chance to round off Marcus Rashford as a top-quality starting striker.
Last summer, with Zlatan injured, United decided to go in for Romelu Lukaku, young by Mourinho standards but still a six-season veteran at Premier League level, who is now closing in on 100 goals in the division. With his arrival, a window closed for Rashford to stake a claim to be United’s centre forward.
Mourinho doesn’t always load his attacking players with an abundance of instruction. He has admitted that he likes them to work it out for themselves. In that sense, he favours that little bit of intuition which comes naturally to players like Zlatan and Lukaku but must be learned by a novice like Rashford. He was therefore condemned back to the wing. And out there it’s not going well.
He has played plenty of minutes for United this season but there is no questioning that Rashford is a player out of form. He has been unable to carve a niche out under Mourinho and has only four league goals to his credit to this point. He is enduring long, barren spells with not much going his way.
Now he can only watch helplessly as Martial takes the plaudits – from the manager and the fans – and Rashford's prospects are not going to get better any time soon due to the purchase of Alexis Sanchez.
The boy wonder is at a crossroads.
Mourinho once compared Martial’s work unfavourably next to Rashford’s. The England man’s star was rising and he was giving Mourinho what he wanted. If Martial was going to have a future at the club then he was going to have to buck up his ideas.
The roles have now been completely reversed.
Against Burnley, Rashford was introduced late on. He immediately set about beating a player before losing the ball. It continued like that; a flash of skill here, a dispossession there. The last few weeks have left Rashford in a funk that he currently looks incapable of arresting.
From now to the end of the season, he is likely to be on the bench for all but the most winnable of games as Martial, Romelu Lukaku and the new man Sanchez take centre stage.
Jose has managed to buy his way out of solving the Rashford problem by adding Alexis. There will be little or no chance for the youngster to win back his manager’s esteem.