Man U stayed in touch with the leader board with a 2-0 win over a dangerous Watford side.
The Guardians Richard Jolly wrote: “José Mourinho can appear to have unlikely allies. Anthony Martial is a footballer who, the Portuguese said this month, had only done enough to be on the bench. Mourinho shares initials with Juan Mata, but seemingly little else. However, Manchester United’s revival continued here courtesy of a player he dropped and sold at Chelsea along with another who has been subjected to his policy of confrontational leadership. The pair’s excellence meant Mourinho was content to exchange censure for superlatives.
This was a rout in everything bar the scoreline and United’s dominance in every other aspect bodes well for their chances of returning to the Champions League. They are mounting their longest undefeated league run since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. “Sixteen games unbeaten is an amazing record,” Mourinho said, and this was a ninth win. Satisfied by victory, even his hints at a persecution complex came couched in compliments for his charges.
The first-half display, he said, was “the kind of football that if, instead of being a Mourinho team, it is somebody else’s team you would say [it is] art. But because it is my team you just say it is very good.”
Style was allied with substance, courtesy of the scorers. Briefly, this threatened to be another of those occasions when Mourinho laments United’s profligacy and bemoans lost points in an avoidable draw. Mata ensured otherwise, a smiling talisman scoring his ninth goal of the season. Tellingly, United have won eight times when he has struck. The Spaniard brings precision and vision, a delicacy of touch and an elusiveness. Watford packed their side with defenders, including four who are centre-backs by trade, but they were not primed to stop a player who roams between the lines.
Nor did Craig Cathcart, the central defender used on the right, fare well against Martial, who accelerated past him at will. “I kept shouting at him to attack the defender,” Mourinho said. It was an illustration of the extra dimensions Martial’s pace and width bring United. Their front four brimmed with menace and, recalled for the first time since he recorded two assists against Wigan, Martial added another in addition to his goal.
Such productivity should endear him to Mourinho and proved useful as Zlatan Ibrahimovic endured an off-day in front of goal. He assembled a compendium of misses, miscued volleys bookending the game and the strangest miss coming at the end as he hooked the ball away from goal when it appeared easier to head it into the net.
He was a reason why United had 14 attempts before the break yet this threatened to be a familiar tale of frustration. United applied pressure but squandered a series of chances and then took a fifth opportunity in six minutes. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the main culprit, contriving to sky a shot towards the upper tier. Watford’s defiant goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes denied Paul Pogba and, with a point‑blank block, Ibrahimovic. Then Mata released Martial and, when Ibrahimovic missed a flick at the winger’s cross, he was on hand to complete a one-two by tucking in his shot.
Martial’s incisiveness long promised to bring a second. Shortly after half-time he snaked past Cathcart and angled a shot wide. That channel nonetheless proved profitable in a crisp, clinical move. Mkhitaryan combined with Ibrahimovic and the latter supplied the defence-splitting pass. Martial advanced and picked out the near corner of Gomes’s net.
He had been restored to the side, Mourinho suggested, to improve his morale; the demoted Marcus Rashford, he said, did not require the boost selection confers. “Anthony needs that confidence,” he said. “He has worked harder than ever in the last two weeks in the way I like: silence but hard. The Anthony Martial I want is the Anthony Martial of the last two weeks of training.”
The renaissance of Martial came at Rashford’s expense but, also like Mkhitaryan’s, to the detriment of the captain, who was confined to the bench. The Armenian looks now to have been installed as Mourinho’s preferred No 10. Wayne Rooney’s reign as an automatic starter ended after the defeat against Watford in September and the reverse fixture was another indication of an unused substitute’s decline in status. United flourished without him.
“We started well,” Watford’s manager, Walter Mazzarri, said. They twice threatened to lead, José Holebas coming close with a viciously swerving shot struck and Mauro Zárate attempting an audacious overhead kick.
The Argentinian later tested David de Gea with a curling free-kick, but United kept a fourth consecutive clean sheet, became the first team to chalk up 2,000 Premier League points and left Mourinho enthusing more about the manner than the numbers.
“When I got the job they were saying at Manchester United you need to play the football in a certain way and I agree,” he said. “In the first half, the football was fabulous.”