BURNLEY, ENGLAND – In the battle to save his Manchester United career, Anthony Martial will at least go down fighting.
His third goal in as many consecutive Premier League outings helped Jose Mourinho’s side extend their unbeaten run to seven games with a 1-0 win over Burnley on Saturday.
With the writing seemingly on the wall for the France international, he offered a timely reminder to his manager why Alexis Sanchez’s impending arrival should not spell the end for him. The Chilean’s move from Arsenal comes at the direct expense of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but it is a man who remains at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ that is set to suffer.
Sanchez will invariably usurp Martial on the left-hand side of the Red Devils’ attack, all but condemning their former record signing to surplus as much as it will prove Mourinho’s lack of faith. This was Martial’s last chance to prove that he could still deliver. In the first half, he barely offered that; regularly losing an unwinnable battle chasing stray balls.
But Mourinho already knows the perils of writing off players before their time; three of his cast-offs ultimately found themselves back in favour in his current United tenure. Often, there is an unseen method to his madness; its purpose in Sanchez’s case is the long game. United are not building for the interim in poaching him for a contract stalemate at the Emirates Stadium as it gears towards the assembly of a legitimate title challenge. One-upping Pep Guardiola in the process is more than a happy coincidence.
“In this moment there is no competition for places,” Mourinho said post-match.
“We have four attacking players for three positions: three are starting, one is on the bench. Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] for the whole season was not available.
“You look to central defenders, we played [Phil] Jones and [Chris] Smalling. [Marcos] Rojo was on the bench, Victor [Lindelof] was in the stands. Eric Bailly was injured.
“Look to midfield, there was [Marouane] Fellaini, [Ander] Herrera, [Scott] McTominay on the bench, [Michael] Carrick in the stands.
“We need that extra, internal competition but [also] more solutions for us.”
Not everything in the Mourinho’s mind is as easily explicable. Take the decision to drop Luke Shaw barely a day after claiming there may not be many better left-backs. His selection of Ashley Young, a winger by trade, told a very different story entirely.
Few players have managed to leave a lasting impression on Martial’s compatriot Paul Pogba. So accustomed to administering footballing lessons rather than receiving them, the French midfielder found himself in uncharted territory as Burnley’s Scott Arfield turned the tables here.
Pogba may not remember many of the finer details behind the Red Devils’ win at Turf Moor, but Arfield’s return for the Clarets, making a first appearance here since picking up a hamstring injury earlier in the month, will definitely linger in the Frenchman’s memory.
Burnley’s place in the global game may remain as humble as their surroundings but there is little that is quaint about the work currently being undertaken by manager Sean Dyche.
Less than 30 miles north of Manchester, a man schooled under the tutelage of Bran Clough at Nottingham Forest has assembled a side that is continuing to breathe down the necks of the Premier League’s old order despite boasting relatively modest resources.
For a very brief spell, they basked in the dizzying heights of a Champions League qualification place. Central to that rise has been the influence of Canadian international Arfield, who again exuded his influence as he dispossessed Chris Smalling early on and regularly bested Pogba to belittle his previous status as the world’s most-expensive player.
“You’re playing against one of the top sides in the division and I thought we at least matched them and, at times, went beyond them,” Dyche said.
“Really, the defining moment is a fantastic moment of quality it must be said. I think he [Martial] sees the gap and whips it in the corner. That’s a great moment of quality. Other than that, I thought we gave a very good account of ourselves.
“You can have a tough run in the Premier League that we’ve had and lots of different margins can define a game: decisions, we’ve had a few injuries, et cetera, et cetera.
“But when you perform like that, that’s the key to it – continuing to perform like that. We haven’t had too many dips but that’s a very good performance.”
Mourinho’s expectancy that Sanchez would become a United player “soon or never” will set the wheels in motion for his usual habit of cutting loose players who have returned to haunt him. This season alone, Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah have both cast a shadow over his side with Manchester City and Liverpool respectively.
Repeating the pattern with Martial really would be, to paraphrase a popular Old Trafford chant, £50 million down the drain.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Burnley’s Turf Moor stadium.