Anthony Martial performance shows how wrong Man United were to sign Alexis Sanchez
This was about as good as it has been for Manchester United this season.
Against Everton at Old Trafford on Sunday, Jose Mourinho's side recorded a 2-1 victory. It wasn't a vintage display by the standards of the past. But this was possibly United's best performance of the season.
For spells of the game, the home side played with a tempo and purpose that has been lacking during this campaign, particularly at Old Trafford. Yet, they still spent the final seconds defending a corner-kick.
Juan Mata, Fred and Luke Shaw - three players who have been out of favour at different times under Mourinho - all acquitted themselves well. Paul Pogba, other than two nonsensical moments, played very well and Anthony Martial was excellent.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) October 28, 2018
The French forward, who reportedly wanted to leave the club during the summer, was at the heart of United's most threatening moments.
He won the penalty that eventually led to United opening the scoring. Pogba missed the kick after a ludicrous run-up with took over 20 seconds. But he tapped in the rebound.
The two combined for the second goal of the day. Pogba found Martial with a short pass at the edge of the Everton penalty area.
His task was made easier by Theo Walcott, the 29-year-old Everton forward who still doesn't seem to understand that it's not a good idea to leave his full-back exposed. But Martial still took his chance.
He whipped in a wonderful curling effort from the edge of the box, using Seamus Coleman to block Jordan Pickford's view in the Everton goal.
Gylfi Sigurdsson reduced the deficit with a penalty of his own 13 minutes before full-time, with an assist from Pogba's mishit scooped pass in midfield and Chris Smalling's clumsy challenge.
However, United held on for a win that they deserved, despite the moments of luck, an inability to finish off Everton and late pressure from the visitors.
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) October 28, 2018
For the home side, there were a couple of things those watching would have learned. Firstly, United's issues at centre-forward are perhaps systemic more than individual.
Romelu Lukaku dropped to the bench after eight games without a goal, and watched his stand-in mirror almost his performances this season.
Marcus Rashford only had 25 touches in his 64 minutes on the pitch. He only managed one shot and was dispossessed more times than any other United player (3).
Jose: "In last nine matches Lukaku and Rashford have scored one goal."
— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) October 28, 2018
Yet, Rashford did at least pose some problems with his movement, something that cannot be said about Lukaku this season.
United's forward three was more fluid than in previous matches. But the central player in this triumvirate is still isolated. This arguably goes back to the manager, who seems intent on having a fixed-point up front, rather than deploying a flexible front-three that inter-change positions.
Whether it is Lukaku, Rashford or Alexis Sanchez, United struggle to get their centre-forward involved in the game. The same can't be said of Martial, who arguably proved his manager wrong.
If numerous reports are to be believed, the 22-year-old wanted to leave Old Trafford during the summer, and Mourinho wouldn't have stopped him.
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) October 28, 2018
If the Portuguese coach had got his way, Martial could be playing for Tottenham now. Instead, he is United's best player at the moment. He scored in the comeback victory over Newcastle United earlier this month, netted twice against Chelsea last week and was brilliant once again against Everton.
Martial has made a mockery of the decision to sign Sanchez at such a large cost to the club and the development of others in the team.
Sanchez went straight into the starting lineup when he joined from Arsenal in January. It took nine months for Mourinho to see the light and return Martial to the left side of United's front three. The Chilean has dropped to the bench and there is no reason why he should return to the team anytime soon. It would, once again, disrupt Martial's progress and weaken the team.
With Martial and Rashford in the squad, there was arguably no need to ever sign Sanchez.
Yes, he had been excellent over the past few seasons, and it was a chance to get one over Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, but was he ever worth such an outlay?
It appears not. Especially when one considers that Martial was already in the squad.
In the second half, Coleman had a chance in United's penalty area, but was put off by Martial who had tracked back to put pressure on the Everton full-back.
This conveyed that Martial is perhaps prepared to listen to his manager, to put in the effort Mourinho demands from his forward players. He appears to be developing into the complete forward. He certainly has the talent to.
"He has the same talent, the same natural talent he had one year ago, but he’s improving his way of thinking football, thinking training too, and thinking his role in the team," Mourinho said about Martial following the match.
"So I’m really, really happy with him, with Luke Shaw, with boys who are improving, and difficult periods for them, difficult periods for myself because I want more for them and I took them to the limit, but at the moment Anthony is able to do things that he was not able to do before. So I’m really happy with Anthony."
Ironically, if Mourinho had just persisted with the Frenchman last season, if he had have shown Martial the faith his talent warranted, then he may have had the funds to address the problem areas in his squad during the summer.
If United had not spent so much on the financial package to land Sanchez, the club may have been more receptive to landing Mourinho's preferred targets in central defence during the transfer window.
If that had happened, they may not have started the day with a minus one goal difference in the league.
Rather than seeking quick fixes, Mourinho would have benefitted from giving Martial the time to find the form he is now showing.