Paul Pogba is Manchester United’s best outfield player, Romelu Lukaku is the club’s top scorer, David De Gea is considered so good that Real Madrid try to sign him every other season and Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains hugely popular toward the end of his career. Meanwhile, Nemanja Matic doesn’t make mistakes and Antonio Valencia has been the most pleasing surprise of the last two seasons.
However, it’s young forwards Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, aged 20 and 21 respectively, who really excite fans.
The duo started together in a Premier League game for the first time this season — and only the sixth time under Jose Mourinho overall — against Newcastle on Saturday. Both did well and were involved in goals, though the headlines were about all Pogba, Ibrahimovic and the impressive win.
United came from a goal down against attack-minded opponents, who were backed by a vocal away following. Mourinho’s players took some time to figure that out, as they did a four-man attack featuring Rashford on the right, though he didn’t always stay in position and drifted inside, plus Martial on the left and Juan Mata buzzing about behind Lukaku.
Given the poor form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who didn’t even make the matchday squad, the likelihood of Rashford and Martial starting together has increased, though Mourinho is still to be convinced.
“They both like to play in the same position and that is difficult,” said United’s manager. “They both prefer to play on the left than on the right. Both playing with another striker through the middle, we lose a point of contact with the midfield that we are used to with a player playing behind the striker. But we found with them a certain balance, and when they started finding one opening on the left and another mid-left between the striker and the winger, that was the moment in the first half when we started creating more.”
Mourinho doesn’t take risks like Sir Alex Ferguson or Sir Matt Busby, but he also needs more consistency from both players. His body language shows infuriation when Martial makes an error that puts his side at risk; for example, an elaborate flick conceded possession and led to a St Etienne attack earlier this year, but what if that flick had come off? Sometimes it’s worth the risk; Cristiano Ronaldo frustrated in his early years at United but he was nurtured by Ferguson and, in particular, his assistant Carlos Queiroz.
Rashford and Martial are being looked after by their boss and both like Mourinho. He’ll dispense tough love, he’ll drop them, protect them, fine them and push them to fulfil their immense potential when the temptation could be for a player to ease off, think he’s made it and listen to those saying that you’re already the best.
Mourinho is also aware of United’s history of promoting young players and exciting attackers. Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs were two highlights of the side that was crowned champions of England, after a 26-year wait, in 1993. Paul Ince told me that the pair were so fast on the left “I couldn’t get the ball to them quick enough”. Back then, Andrei Kanchelskis played on the right and combinations would be mixed up, just as they can be in the current United team.
In the 1970s, Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell were different wingers but equally adored by fans. Both were in their early 20s when they established themselves and became terrace heroes.
“People made comparisons and our personalities reflected the play,” said Coppell. “[Gordon] was exciting and more skillful; I was steadier. His highs were higher, his lows lower. My strength was that physically I was strong and quick. I could grind people down.”
Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were the lights that came out of the darkness of 2005, a poor year for United. Though barely out of their teenage years, their improvement and potential were immense. They’d realise both as stars in a side that won three successive league titles and the 2008 Champions League.
Rashford, who started out playing in goal as a child, sees himself as a centre forward. Perhaps he will be in two or three years’ time but, for now, he’s putting in the hard miles out wide, like Rooney and Ronaldo did. He can play on the right, but, as Mourinho suggested, prefers the left. Sir Alex Ferguson rates Rashford highly and enthuses over his talent when he speaks to players, who have left the club but want to know what is going on.
There’s a conviction within the club that Rashford and Martial are going to be world beaters but both have to fit into a team of 11 and be team players as well as providing outstanding moments of skill. Against Newcastle, Rashford’s selfless header set up Pogba’s goal and was his sixth assist of the season to go with seven goals.
Martial, who has seven goals and five assists himself, was watched by Barcelona earlier this season and it would be a shame for United if he was to become a star, then leave as Ronaldo did.
With a manager who rates them, plays them and pumps them with the confidence they need, both are in a good place in a good team. And, like Rooney and Ronaldo a dozen years ago, they’re talented enough to reach the top in a great team.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.