Last season, 13 Manchester United players – including the perma-crocked Phil Jones and the semi-retired Michael Carrick – featured for more Premier League minutes than Anthony Martial. Only the much-maligned and now-departed Wayne Rooney split Martial and Jesse Lingard in 16th, while Ashley Young was marooned down in 20th, with Luke Shaw the only senior player pushed further into the freezing cold by Jose Mourinho.
On the opening day of this Premier League season, the hierarchy remained intact; Martial was the 13th man used against West Ham with ten minutes off the bench into which he managed to squeeze both a goal and an assist, while Lingard was given three minutes, five touches and an estimated four miles of running; Ashley Young was not in the 18-man squad, officially injured but unofficially forgotten.
Just over three months later, Martial, Lingard and Young all started against Watford on Tuesday night and all three scored in excellent performances as United shook off the lethargy that had plagued them against Basle and Brighton. A few early, sloppy touches aside, Martial was effervescent and dangerous in a more central role, Lingard was that special combination of tireless and terrific that makes you occasionally believe he could be brilliant, and Young combined defensive excellence with his first Premier League goals in 18 months.
While players at other clubs have been “fuming” about their bit-part roles and at least one fringe player at Manchester United regularly leaks his own displeasure to the press, Tuesday’s goalscorers have worked and listened and worked and listened. They are grateful to be at one of the world’s biggest clubs, playing under one of the world’s most successful managers and with a very high chance of adding to the two/three (delete according to your allegiances) trophies they won last season.
It was a formula that certainly worked for Sir Alex Ferguson, who engendered tremendous loyalty in players like John O’Shea and Ji-Sung Park, who could have played more regular football elsewhere but chose to work and listen in exchange for silverware far in excess of their natural talents. Young has been primed for that role ever since his underwhelming signing in 2011, making 19 Premier League starts in his first season and barely beating that total in any campaign since. His Indian summer is apt reward for unstinting service without ever throwing his toys out of the pram.
Lingard could spend his whole career at Manchester United without ever starting 20 Premier League games in a season; it has taken him 61 top-flight appearances to claim both a goal and an assist in the same game. He was wonderful against Watford – creating more chances (6) than any other United player in a game this season as well as scoring a remarkable goal – but there is every chance that he will be woeful if used at all against Arsenal on Saturday night. But one thing that can be guaranteed is that Lingard will, as ever, be incredibly grateful to be playing alongside supremely talented footballers like Paul Pogba; he is clearly punching above his weight and works incredibly hard just to stay on his feet.
Martial is the outlier of that trio as his talent does absolutely match Manchester United’s ambitions; his goal against Watford was his sixth in the Premier League this season despite it coming in only his sixth start. But the Frenchman’s real progress has been in terms of his attitude – he appears to have accepted that he must earn the manager’s trust and has publicly spoken in only a positive way despite being marginalised. Somehow, Mourinho has convinced a £40m-plus signing that he has to serve his time as a squad player; that is quite some trick.
“He’s hard with all of us and he is hard with me, there is no question,” Martial said earlier this month. “But I know that it’s for my benefit. But I also know that he really likes me as a person, so there’s no issue about the discipline being for the wrong reasons.”
Of course Mourinho likes him; the big-money signing has become the faithful servant grateful for any scraps of games. Just like almost every other fringe member of a Manchester United squad that looks increasingly like those managed by Sir Alex Ferguson – loyal, determined and, well, united.