Anthony Martial was the future once and on this display he might be again.
All the signs were that Jose Mourinho was running out of patience with the footballer that Manchester United made the world’s expensive teenager. When Mourinho did talk about him it was to compare him unfavourably with Marcus Rashford. Asked at Stoke last month why he was not in the squad, the Manchester United manager said curtly: “Not selected”. Martial appeared to be going the same way as those other expensive purchases of Van Gaal-era United, Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao.
This display might give Mourinho considerable pause for thought. The 21-year-old played with the kind of pace, aggression and intelligence he showed shortly after arriving from Monaco for a fee of £36m.
He scored one of Manchester United’s goals, had a hand in the second and might have finished the match with a hat-trick. He went off, to be replaced by Rashford, to a standing ovation.
The scoreline was 2-0 but it might have been many more – and Watford should have had more than nil. Emboldened by their victory at Arsenal, Walter Mazzarri’s side were prepared to go head to head with a vastly more powerful team. David de Gea made one fine save from a Mauro Zarate free-kick in the second half and a rather more straightforward one from Zarate’s overhead kick before the interval.
Watford had only once won at Old Trafford, in a League Cup tie in 1979 under Graham Taylor’s management. His name was sung long and loud by those who had travelled from Hertfordshire and, although this was a defeat, Watford played in a manner Taylor would have approved.
Daryl Janmaat ought to at least have pulled a goal back for Watford when presented with a perfect opportunity by M’Baye Niang’s cross. Janmaat’s last goal had been a consolation in a 6-1 thrashing by Liverpool. A weak, full-back’s finish denied him even this.
Manchester United did not start the Premier League particularly well. It took them four attempt to register their first win when the competition began in 1992. This victory, however, made them the first club to reach the 2,000-point barrier in the Premier League and they ended the match in fifth place.
United ought to have scored long before Juan Mata put them ahead but they were denied by some committed defending and some fine goalkeeping from Huerelho Gomes, particularly when blocking a low, stooping header from Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Then, Henrikh Mkhitaryan fed Martial whose cross was met on the six-yard line by Mata. He turned as he shot so by the time the drive struck the net, his boot was off. He celebrated carrying the blue Nike in his hand. It was strange to think that this was only his sixth goal of the season. Mata’s contribution to Manchester United has been so central that you thought there must have been more.
Either side of the interval, Martial showed some of the quality that was to be the defining impression of a frozen afternoon. First, he took the ball and ran from deep in his own half straight at the retreating Watford defence. Just when it seemed we would be watching one of the goals of the season, Sebastian Prodl produced a fine tackle.
Immediately after the restart there was another run and this time a shot that skidded past Gomes’s post. His reward was not long delayed. It was a goal fabulously created by an Ibrahimovic flick. The Swede waited for the return but Martial aimed his shot at the near post and aimed beautifully.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Pogba, Herrera, Mata (Fellaini 72), Mkhitaryan (Lingard 89), Martial (Rashford 80), Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: Romero, Rooney, Carrick, Darmian.
Watford (4-4-1-1): Gomes; Cathcart (Success 83), Kaboul, Prodl, Britos (Janmaat ht); Zarate (Okaka 78), Capoue, Cleverley, Holebas; Niang; Deeney.
Subs not used: Arlauskis, Behrami, Doucoure.
Referee: R Madley