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There’s a feeling at Manchester United, not least from Jose Mourinho, that we are starting to see the best of Anthony Martial once again.
The Frenchman was given the chance to impress from a starting berth ahead of Marcus Rashford against Watford on Saturday, and he duly responded with a goal and an assist.
His match-winning contribution earned him a Man of the Match award, while a badge-thumping celebration appeared to emphatically quash any speculation over his future.
Mourinho’s celebration shouldn’t be ignored, though. The Portuguese coach’s intense release of emotion on the touchline was telling.
Mourinho was expressing his delight at seeing the devastating attacking force United supporters marvelled at following his arrival from Monaco last season.
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Allaying fears of being the next Depay
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba’s hogging the Old Trafford limelight coupled with a string of inconsistent performances has seen Martial’s confidence plummet this season but there’s enough evidence to suggest his future belongs on the Old Trafford flank, terrorising defenders and forming an integral part of Mourinho’s attack.
For a while, Martial’s situation was not entirely dissimilar to Memphis Depay’s; a couple of expensive attacking recruits that found themselves under scrutiny and out of favour.
While Depay had simply failed to deliver time and time again, Martial’s plunge from an exhilarating debut campaign served to heighten the sense of bewilderment among United fans.
The issue was confidence, not a lack of ability. Confidence is so often the issue with precocious attacking talents of tender years, but there’s a key difference between Martial and Memphis; the former has fought hard to enjoy his football once again, while the latter decided he wanted to leave.
It’s a critical difference in personality and attitude that has enlightened Mourinho. While Memphis may indeed be a lost cause, Martial can still establish himself as one of the Premier League’s most consistently dazzling performers.
Mourinho’s assessment of Martial’s rejuvenated work-rate post-match was particularly revealing. “I'm happy with Anthony's last two weeks of work,” said the boss to MUTV.
“The way he faced the work, hard work, with more concentration and more determination.”
Concentration and determination – they’re not exactly words you can naturally associate with Memphis’ time at United.
While the enigmatic Dutchman, according to Mourinho, expressed a desire to leave Old Trafford several weeks long before departing for Lyon, Martial has been prepared to prove his worth with graft on the training ground.
“That's why I gave him this gift, to start this game. Normally, after Leicester, I'd start with the same players and keep Marcus [Rashford] in the team.
“I just felt Marcus doesn't need a boost because he's playing all the time. Anthony was maybe feeling a little bit down and needed a gift. He answered in the best way.”
Mourinho wants Martial to succeed
If we analyse Mourinho’s comments a little deeper, there lies a clear demonstration of the coach’s method for dealing with the winger.
“I think he is still missing a bit of his confidence. I kept shouting at him to attack the defender and go to the one-on-one as he needs that confidence but he's working very well. Anthony needs to feel that I am looking at him and that I know what he did in training and the effort he put in.”
Martial’s recent performances have demonstrated his renewed appetite. In his last five performances across all competitions, the 21-year-old has struck three goals and added as many assists.
But his intent was perceptible from the outset, setting out immediately to unsettle ex-United defender Craig Cathcart, alternating between taking him on in a straight race and cutting inside.
When low on confidence, Martial can often be predictable in his movements and largely ineffective but proved elusive for the Hornets on Saturday with an explosive display from the left, combining cleverly with Juan Mata, Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Taking a leaf out of Mkhitaryan’s book
Speaking of, when Mkhitaryan was withdrawn at half-time during United’s defeat to City earlier in the season, the Armenian playmaker’s confidence had dissipated.
However, with the former Borussia Dortmund man, Mourinho knew he had an experienced player who simply needed time to adapt to the English game.
His patience was rewarded, and Mkhitaryan has duly blossomed into one of United’s most effective attackers.
With Martial, though, Mourinho needed to keep a closer eye on him.
Martial is the type of footballer who, sometimes, needs an arm around the shoulder and, sometimes, a kick up the back side. Mourinho has recognised that Martial is a prospect who requires nurturing, refining and a healthy dose of encouragement.
It hasn’t always been the smoothest of learning curves. Martial has been made to wait for starts and his frustration at staying on the bench during recent games against Hull and Leicester would have certainly been understandable.
But it’s all been part of Mourinho’s school of tough love. It isn’t an enjoyable educational programme but, crucially, it seems to be working, and with the return of the Europa League and the League Cup final on the horizon, it’s working at the perfect time for club, manager and player.