Man United finally have something to cheer as Rashford, Martial and James dazzle vs. Brighton
MANCHESTER, England -- As far as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is concerned, this is more like it. In the summer, he envisioned a young, energetic front three of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James terrorising defences with blistering pace and against Brighton, the plan finally came together in an impressive 3-1 win.
Graham Potter's side arrived at Old Trafford hoping to set a new club record of three consecutive Premier League wins but by half-time, they were already in damage limitation mode. They walked off at the break 2-0 down but it could have easily been four. United were so much better in the first 45 minutes that the visitors made two changes at half-time.
James, playing on the right for Man United, was too quick. Rashford, on the other side, was too direct. Martial's movement was too good. It is days like Sunday that make is easier to see why Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were shipped off to Inter Milan. Solskjaer headed into the previous international break on the back of a dire defeat to Newcastle that started a debate about whether his team could really be relegation candidates. Fast-forward a month and the mood is very different.
"Our priority right now has to be getting more Premier League points on the board," wrote Solskjaer in his notes for the pre-match programme. Another three points on Sunday pushed United up to seventh in the table, making a return to the Champions League next season look nowhere near as fanciful as it once did.
Martial's return from injury has been key to this resurgence. United's record during the two months he was sidelined with a niggling thigh problem was two wins from nine games. Since returning to the squad for the draw with Liverpool, it stands at one defeat in seven.
Rashford, in particular, has enjoyed having him back. On 15 minutes, the Frenchman selflessly sprinted out wide to create space for Rashford, who was able to drive forward and shoot at Mathew Ryan. Two minutes later, Martial was involved in the first goal, laying the ball off to Andreas Pereira to score via a deflection off Dale Stephens.
The second goal came courtesy of James' pace -- he won a free-kick on the right after drawing a late challenge from Lewis Dunk, which was bundled into his own goal by Davy Propper -- before Martial and Rashford took centre stage again. Two minutes after Dunk halved the deficit for Brighton, Martial raced onto Fred's pass and cut the ball back for Rashford to score. It was his sixth goal in seven games since Martial's comeback.
During a chaotic 10-minute spell, Martial and James combined to make a golden chance for Rashford. Then it was Rashford crossing from the left for James to draw a good save from Ryan. Their partnership around the area has catalysed Man United at a vital time.
"Hopefully we will have even more options following the international break with the return of a few more players from injury," said Solskjaer before kickoff. "As the squad grows, we'll have more decisions to make as coaches about who plays and what approach to take."
There's no need to tinker with the front three when they are playing like this and United's chances of success this season depends on keeping Martial, Rashford and James on the pitch. Solskjaer has already admitted that he has been forced to play Rashford and James more than he would like. Martial, meanwhile, has been directly involved in 12 goals in his last 13 starts at Old Trafford and at the moment, United look like they cannot cope without him.
The Norwegian will look to bolster his squad in the January transfer window, but the noises coming out of Old Trafford are to not expect too much. Solskjaer insists he will try to resist the temptation to "take shortcuts" by adding players simply because they are available. He wants to give his young group every chance to get the experience they need. In fact, it's also more likely that the drive towards a young, hungry squad will continue next summer. Against Brighton, Solskjaer's team had an average age of 23 years and 350 days -- the youngest picked in the Premier League this season. Brandon Williams, just 19, impressed on his first league start and went off in the final minutes to a standing ovation.
Solskjaer has been keen to ask for patience this season but after two comprehensive home wins in the space of four days, he can at least point to something positive. For the first time in a long time, the post-match news conferences have not been dominated by questions about a lack of goals or the departures of Lukaku and Sanchez. Instead, Solskjaer has been allowed to talk in glowing terms about goals, chances and excitement.
Against Brighton, that had everything to do with Martial, Rashford and James. The trick now is to keep them fit and firing.